Near the underpass on Flushing’s Main Street, I ask a man with a camera if he’s a photographer. He points to the older man beside him wearing what looks like a fisherman’s hat and vest, and says, “Magnum.”
A ten-minute conversation with Bruce Gilden ensues. He and his student had been leaning against a streetlamp across from a grocery store waiting for a shot. I’d spotted them earlier on my way to a café, and when I saw them again, on my way to another café, I felt compelled to interrupt their vigil. And the first silly thing I say to Bruce Gilden is “I love Magnum!”
“Why in the world would you like Magnum?” he asks.
“Well, I love their photographers.”
“But there are so many.”
“Right now some friends and I are obsessed with Alex Webb.”
“Alex,” says Gilden. “Yes—Alex is a good friend of mine.”
“He’ll be here in New York on Wednesday.” This is the second silly thing I say to Bruce Gilden.
“What do you mean ‘he’ll be here’? He lives in Brooklyn!”
He asks about what I do. When I tell him I write fiction but am currently writing up an interview I’d done with a Moroccan writer, he asks for the name and then the age, and nods. “My wife knows him,” he says. “She’s from Morocco.” Then he says, “I love to read, but I don’t read fiction anymore. The difference between photography and fiction for me is this: I understand photography’s history so intimately that I can tell right away if you’re imitating somebody or trying to expand your own horizons; with literature, it’s more straightforward—do I like it or not? I’ve noticed, though, that mystery writers are copying Henning Mankell these days.”
As Gilden is talking, his student, Jeff, steps in front of two young women with his camera and snaps a shot, Bruce Gilden–style. They scream and run off, laughing. I have to suppress my giddiness at what I’d just witnessed, and try to pay attention to Gilden. He’s saying something about nonfiction: he recommends Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, he isn’t so impressed with Peter Hessler, and can I please suggest a Jonathan Spence title.
“Bruce Gilden–style” means that you stick your camera and flash right in the subject’s face, fast, then step away just as quickly.
A year ago I’d watched a brief video of Gilden on YouTube, done by WNYC. Many of the video’s commenters found his method to be off-putting, and I remember thinking I could never be so bold to photograph somebody that way. If the person doesn’t spot me, I’m grateful, but if they do, then I acknowledge this invasion of privacy with a friendly smile and thank-you wave. Also, I tend to shoot from a good distance, though not because that’s my “method” but because I’m too shy to get closer.
Watching Jeff tackle Gilden’s style, though, was illuminating. Main Street is luxuriously four or five lanes wide, perfect for cars and buses, but the sidewalks are congested with hawking, haggling, leaflet-handing, grocery-shopping, snot-spitting Chinese. A man with a camera, to the passerby, is merely a tourist; everybody is too busy thinking about their destination or the next meal to care that their space had just been invaded. In Chinatowns—in cities in general, I guess, but in Chinatowns in particular—space is always being invaded anyway.
Gilden says, “I don’t have a website, I hate the Internet. But yeah, those YouTube videos of me are enough for now.”
He leaves the conversation for a moment to tell Jeff that this spot is gold, to keep on shooting. I watch Jeff with one eye, how he steps into the stream of people, and Gilden with the other.
“We’re in Flushing because Jeff likes to shoot Orientals,” Gilden explains. Jeff is Asian and from California. “Jeff laughs whenever I use the word ‘Oriental.’ I don’t mean anything by it. But if I were more tired, which I will be in a minute, I’d probably say something worse. I’m just like that. Anyway, he’d wanted to shoot the Memorial Day parade, and I said there aren’t any Orientals there, we should go to Flushing. So here we are.”
Here is a photograph of a little girl from the night before, also on Main Street. She’d been sitting on a tall stool in a bright pool of light—a perfect shot—but by the time I uncapped my lens she’d flitted away. When I got closer, I saw she was hiding behind this bit of wall, so I took aim.