Sunday, September 6, 2015

Bruce Almighty!

Photo: Bruce Gilden
Photo: Bruce Gilden
Been a fan of Bruce Gilden's for quite some time, but even I was somewhat taken aback by some of his most recent offerings via his color Face portraits. They almost seem a cartoonish caricature of his earlier work. Has he finally crossed the fine line he's always tread between borderline art-shock and what the hell, pull the plug freak out? And just where is that ever moving, fine line located? Where was it drawn in modern music: the "race music" appropriated by Elvis, the Beatles' long hair, the polysexual costume excess of glamrock, or the NSFW lyrics of Hip Hop?

Face draws you in like a bad car accident ("like ruin porn, fascinating for five minutes," said one commenter); has Gilden now fully embraced shock value for its own sake- or are we the ones doing the dehumanizing by further reducing these images, and therefore the people they portray, to the likes of a car accident? 

This ain't a critique on the images themselves, which I admittedly am somewhat ambivalent about. And isn't that one of the hallmarks of great art, that which divides, shocks and more importantly- makes us think?  This is not so much about "Gilden, right or wrong," but about the reactions he so willingly (and knowingly) creates. Indeed, the comments to this article are well worth more than the original piece itself... all 476 of them!

Unfortunately, many of the commenters believe that Gilden turned his subjects into freakish ghouls and freaks via Photoshop, when in fact, the distortion they speak of came mostly through the use of a short lens used up close and personal with direct flash. Some are not only mistaken about how he achieved his results, but even go unto producing a bit of revisionist photo history to back up their claims. More than one comment tells us of how Arbus not only covered this ground previously, but also did it in a more openly emphatic manner that both humanized and endeared her subjects to us all. One commenter actually stated that at least "Arbus photographed them as they wanted to be posed." Really? I suppose none of that particular crowd ever read how she was roundly criticized for objectifying and dehumanizing her subjects!

And while many, if not most found his portraiture "obscene" or "robbed of humanity," others found it quite beautiful indeed- "can't help but notice how beautiful the eyes of his subjects are." More than one found them a most welcomed relief from the "orange blobs with teeth" that so many celebrity portraits look like today. Kim Kardashian's visage frequently came up as the modern day icon of a photographically manipulated freak.

Some seemed completely oblivious to the obvious lens distortion, swearing that these are what these people actually look like, and I have to wonder if at least some of those espousing Mr. Gilden's refreshingly warts and all look are also happy that while it's good we have people that look like that, they are also quite relieved to not be one of them.

Some savvy commenters noticed that while Sean O'Hagan's article stated that Mr. Gilden had obtained releases for his subject's photos, he failed to state if they were obtained before or after they actually saw the results. That wouldn't have particularly spoken as to their relevancy as works of art, but perhaps more to the integrity of the photographer himself. Either way, Gilden definitely doesn't give a flyin'. Question is, are his images strictly predatory and abusive- and if so, are we being superficial for liking them, or just as superficial for dismissing them offhand... One of the second hallmarks of great art is how much it reveals about ourselves.

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