In December 2019, Bruce Gilden frequented one of Palermo’s most typical markets, Ballarò, for about a week. Attracted by the genuine rough faces of its vendors and buyers he spent hours strolling its narrow streets.
One Sunday in Palermo, Italy, the photographer Bruce Gilden wandered through the historic Ballarò Mercato, but his attention wasn’t on the rows of colorful fruits and vegetables: instead, his focus was on the passerby, the shoppers strolling through. Flash by flash, Gilden began to photograph the myriad people he encountered there, all black-and-white closeup shots that are sometimes so close that it puts the viewer right there in the market with him, as if they themselves had looked up while perusing the fruit stands and locked eyes with the picture’s subject.
This series of images culminated in a limited edition book called Palermo Gilden, the first in a two-part book project that will return later this year when Gilden himself returns to Palermo, this time to photograph the beach. Though the city may be new to him, this isn’t new territory for Gilden. Gilden, who has been a Magnum photographer since 2002, first rose to prominence as a street photographer in New York with his candid close-ups taken with a distinctive, blinding flash, resulting in a silvery patina on all of his images. And with harsh contrasts between light and dark, there’s no hiding: every pore, wrinkle, or even smudged eyeliner is illuminated.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s organized chaos,” says Gilden of what he photographs. Indeed, many of his images have a frenetic energy to them, with people swarming around or caught mid-conversation. But rather than sitting on a street corner and waiting for the right tableau to appear, he shoots on instinct. “Cartier-Bresson had the decisive moment; I have the indecisive moment,” he says.
The difference between Palermo Gilden and his New York photographs, for which he’s well-known, is not a difference of style but mainly of location. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in Haiti, Tokyo, or Siberia, I do a similar style photograph,” Bruce Gilden says. “Each place is different, so you have to adjust yourself to the speed of the place and the people, but my style is basically the same. If I’m comfortable, I take the picture. If I’m not comfortable, I don’t take the picture.”
Gilden’s Palermo images capture the quintessential Italian outdoor market, which is as much a social scene as a commercial one. Residents gather, come with family, converse with the vendors, say hello to neighbors. As such, Gilden didn’t feel out-of-place: rather, he felt a kinship with the people there that allowed him to take their portraits. “They’re sort of like me: they wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they’re quite emotional,” he says. In one photo, an elderly woman, led by her daughter, has a heart-shaped locket fastened to the collar of her shirt with a safety pin, the images of two men pasted inside.
It’s these markers—the heart-shaped locket, the cross earrings, the mothers and daughters walking arm in arm—that make this series distinctive from Gilden’s other street photography. Through these portraits, Gilden captures the nature of everyday Italian culture (a culture that is predominantly and proudly Catholic, and with signifiers of it all over). Even photos of the market itself, like swordfish stacked on an old cart, or a pigs head hanging on a hook with one eye staring directly at the lens, are worlds apart from the upper crust markets in Gilden’s native New York, where everything is sanitized and dressed up.
As for how he manages to capture all of these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, Bruce Gilden attributes his speed to his younger years doing sports. “I was a pretty good athlete, so that’s why I chose to work the way I do photographically,” he says. “I think quite fast; you learn when you play sports, you don’t have time to think, you just act and react. That’s how I work in the street.” There’s a dynamic quality to the photos that are a testament to this athletic nature; there’s no stasis here. Instead, the figures loom so large that they almost come out of the frame.
Ultimately, to be successful as a street photographer, it’s imperative to have a trained eye, one that typically comes from age. “What I have is 55 years’ experience. When you’re older and you’ve been doing something a long time, you don’t experiment as much, and especially in street photography you have to make some concessions to age. You can’t bend as low, or you’re not as fast, but you make up for that by having the experience: knowing where to be, how to deal with people, and you adjust,” says Gilden. “I’m still able to do it, thank god. Most people don’t at my age. But once you can’t do something, you have to stop, or change direction and do it a little differently. That’s the lesson you learn.”
While Bruce Gilden has continued to hone his craft, he still looks for ways to shoot more creatively, do something different. “You can’t do the same thing forever, you lose the bite,” he says. He’s also interested in photographing cities around the world where the cultures are more markedly different than the distinctions between Europe and the United States. And in recent years, he’s begun shooting in color, and doing staged portraits in addition to his street captures. Despite these new additions or locations, the nature of street photography itself always ends up being novel. Whether he’s in New York, Palermo, Hong Kong or Haiti, “there’s always something new around the corner.”
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
Bruce Gilden, Palermo Gilden
Published by 89 Books