October 12, 2018



Bruce Gilden went to Japan at the end of the nineties bringing with him his recognizable style: black and white (at that time), sometimes really up close, and flash; as well as his interest for the alternative, the different. Gilden is a close-up artist. He is in the action, with his subjects. The portrait he makes of them is not always flattering but always depicting a certain truth, the hidden side of things.

At that time Japan is still recovering from his Asset Price Bubble Collapse (1991-1992). We’re still in the Lost Decade. The stigma from the economy collapse is still tangible. Gilden by putting his eyes on the underground and the uncovered – the Japanese mafia, the homeless, the sex (photographing a porn actress), the Right-wing nationalists, the drunks – tries to convey a sense of uneasiness, discomfort.

His choice of black and white, for a form of documentary photography, puts a certain weight on things and creates an awkward atmosphere on this post bubble Japan, echoing to the so-called grey economy. He brings the attention on things Japan wants to keep for itself, and not to be broadcasted to the outside.

This photo of a yakuza taking a break, during the Sanja Matsuri, in the streets of Asakusa, for example: the man is caught unguarded, on the phone, jewelry of a bad taste brightened by the flash, beer cans visible in the frame. The picture emphasis the context: this festival is like a big party from the eighty’s, at the time of the Japanese Economic Miracle.

He photographs an ex-member of the Japanese mafia his cigarette being lit up by another man, both in American gangster fashion from the 1950’s. He doesn’t want to make things look lovely or attractive, but he puts an amused eye on them, making them look like caricatures; while the smoke of the cigarette flies over his face and probably burns his eyes, the man offers a constricted grin, almost suffering, like the economy.

Japanese gangsters, Yakuza, are for him the absolute dark side of Japan, and photographing them helps him to depict the crash of the Bubble, showing them drunk, or in ridiculous situations – ​a Japanese mafia member, head in a butterfly net, held by a little girl.

Another time, he’s taking a picture of a man lying on the road, a large recent scar with heavy stitches, disfiguring the face, from the top of his head to the bottom of his eyes, even on his nose. It is like a metaphor of Japan, hurt in its economy, and trying to recover. He depicts the untold culture like the sex industry, with his series « double life », where a former prostitute became a novelist; after spending years selling her body to strangers, now she’s selling her story to strangers.

The black and white Gilden is anchored in a timeless manner of showing things, to highlight the monotone and repetitive circles of life, bringing some more drama to the scenes, like in an Orson Wells' movie. His black and white work is much more universal compared to his recent frontal color portraits.

From his trip to Japan, Gilden brought back images that show a country still struggling to wake up after the crash of its economy, with all of its contradictions, and from the angle of the alternative worlds or industries.

Bruce Gilden: Go