Bruce Gilden

Although I have not experienced Close’s work at first hand, I had a similar unsettling experience when I saw the close up colour portraits by Bruce Gilden at the exhibition Eyes Wide Open!. These are, according to a critic in The Guardian: “unforgiving portraits of people who have been battered and bruised by life itself: by being poor, disenfranchised and, in some instances, by a retreat into alcoholism or addiction.”

Since Gilden photographs really close up and uses flash, the resulting portraits (which are printed larger than life) are hyperreal in their intensity of colour and emphasis of every pimple, wrinkle and flake of cheap mascara. We are forced to confront and observe that which we’d normally cower or shrink from, or politely avert our eyes – the odd thing is, we tend to keep looking at them: it is as if our eyes are drawn to them by some magnetic force. The ‘gap between intention and effect’ is revealed in gloriously saturated colours, unlike Arbus’s monochrome prints, and the result is an overwhelming visual experience: “I feel uncomfortable as a viewer – not because of the poverty or abuse etched on to the landscapes of these faces, but because their perceived ugliness is paraded as a kind of latter-day freak show.”

Has Gilden humanised his subjects or callously made a mockery of them (or at least opened them up to mockery by the viewing public)? These people have obviously been made victims in their lives, and could Gilden be accused of further victimisation or a prolonging of that suffering (the cruelty that is the moment preserved, the person suffers each time the photograph is viewed, the suffering lives on beyond the life of the sufferer – as Barthes wrote: “…an essence (of a wound), what cannot be transformed but only repeated under the instances of insistence (of the insistent gaze)” (1980, p 49). These subjects’ personal catastrophes are fixed and repeated ad infinitum.

Need to look in more depth at Gilden, he has a very interesting
website.

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