Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pick Your Poison- Gilden vs. Stanton

Photo: Bruce Gilden
Bruce Gilden is one of my 'guilty' pleasures- everyone deserves a few. Devoid of any ethics (he'll be the first to tell ya), he has no qualms depicting his fellow human beings as something approximating the humanoids of the classic Twilight Zone episode where grotesqueness was the norm, and conventional human beauty, abhorrent. Sometimes I wonder if he'd have photographed his own mother like that, or perhaps the question should be- would mom let him near her with a camera?

And in the corner directly opposite, we have the likes of Brandon Stanton of HONY fame and fortune. He takes very complimentary portraits, photos that his subjects would be proud and happy to show anyone- including their mothers.

Two very different approaches, two widely disparate aesthetics; one has a small, almost cult like following, the other, a practically unprecedented, massive, worldwide appeal. I've been a long time Gilden fan since I first remember him honing his craft on 5th Ave.in the early Eighties. So how would I justify his New York cast of characters, or perhaps more appropriately, caricaturizations- not to mention his abrupt, no apology, in your face brand of hit and run photography?

Photo: Brandon Stanton
I can't. All I do know is that I love his work- on a gut level, aesthetic level, hell- just about any damn level you can throw my way. As a New Yorker whose walked those very streets, it may be surprising to hear that it is not as easy as one may think to effectively portray in a simple photograph every which way those streets can wear you down, tear you down, each and every day, one little piece atta time until, until... you end up looking like something in a Gilden portrait. And even if ya don't, ya damn well feel it! That is, in fact, how Gilden succeeds- using his photography on a descriptive literary level, every bit as any novelist would in depicting the angst and depersonalization so prevalent in New York, or any large metropolitan area. 

Unlike a novelist, however, Gilden uses real, identifiable people in the portrayal of his often zombie like vision of urban dread. Does the end justify the means? I'm not a big fan of that credo, particularly since it is often the excuse that leads to even more egregious debacles. And so I call on my major trump card, the infamous, no holds barred and don't ask me to explain any further (because I damn well can't) Every Dog Has Its Day card. And in Gilden's case (like so many others too numerous to mention)- the end does justify the means. His New York is the New York I so often felt coursing through my veins as I walked those very streets- and my hat off to him for capturing it in such a remarkably mesmerizing way, for art and posterity. As Gilden most accurately points out, traditional New York archetypes are fast disappearing- everyone everywhere is starting to look more and more the same.

Brandon Stanton lives in a different reality, and a different New York. Perhaps because he's not a native, perhaps because he's an optimist- I don't know. His legions of fans state that the stories that he elicits from his subjects are the real strength of his work.* In all fairness, they are- I just don't have the stomach to get past his feel good portraits. PS- How can you tell the really weird people in New York? Easy- they walk around... smiling.

Perhaps one day Mr. Stanton will compile his individual stories into a compelling film documentary where we get to know a few of his subjects on a personal level beyond mere anecdotes, perhaps that is, in fact, where his work is eventually leading him. I would be interested in seeing that. Right now, there is nothing in his photography (at least) that I find visually compelling- as opposed to the plethora of stories my imagination immediately conjures upon viewing a single Gilden image.

Bruce Gilden's latest tightly cropped portraits are devoid of any background relevant to subject or locale. Are they exploitative? Don't know how you could claim otherwise. What's the ethical justification for their raison d'ĂȘtre? Hell, I'm still gobsmacked just looking at 'em...

* I've said this before, one of the best photo exhibits I've ever seen was a series of small, nondescript B&W snapshots of 'Bowery bums' (taken in the '70s). Beside each portrait, typed on standard 3X5 index cards was the story of how each individual ended up there- Truly Powerful Stuff...

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