The Magnum photographer fondly recalls his time with a Miami-based woman named Leonilda, and shares this never-published photo with us
Photographer Bruce Gilden has spent most of his life looking for a different kind of beauty. A master of the lens for over four decades, it was in the late-60s when Brooklyn-born Gilden’s first major project took him to the peninsula of Coney Island. Turning his gaze to the more ‘eccentric’ sunbathers and beach-goers, the results were a jarring and refreshing take on beach bod culture – one that would begin his ascent as one of the world’s best street photographers.
A Magnum member since 1998, Gilden’s just-released book Face (published by Dewi Lewis) is a title full of tightly cropped, close-up portraits – from a woman in England’s West Bromwich in hair rollers to a pimple-faced teen in Iowa – his images are more than a fleeting moment between photographer and subject, they tell a whole story. From his home in New York, the photographer speaks to us about a particular image close to his heart, shot while preparing for the book.
“I’m chomping at the bit to show this photo, I love it. I think it’s something people might have difficulty with, certain people, and to me that makes it even more special, because there is beauty everywhere. Leonilda was at an assisted living facility in Miami, and she is the sweetest, nicest person you ever want to meet. Every morning when I would come she would ask me to buy her a Sprite or some kind of candy bar. I said I would but after the second time or something I said, ‘listen Leonilda, you have to tell me which one you want, I can only buy you one’. So I bought her one and she was happy – she had a Sprite after her breakfast.
She loved music, so she was always singing, and I asked her one day ‘do you really like music’? She said ‘I really love music’, and I said ‘did you ever go to a concert?’ And she said ‘no’, and I felt so bad, that if I ever go back and I have the time I will take her to a concert. And it would be something, me and her going to a concert together.
“I’m chomping at the bit to show this photo, I love it. I think it’s something people might have difficulty with, certain people, and to me that makes it even more special, because there is beauty everywhere” – Bruce Gilden
I saw her like that and I took the picture, I didn’t ask her to do anything. I shot it with a Leica S with a 70mm lens, digital camera. I have a series of photographs of her – four or five that I think are pretty good — and if I had the opportunity I would like to do a book on Leonilda, but I don’t know if she’s still there because I haven’t been back for two years. The forms are gorgeous, and the colour on her, it’s just lovely – but some people are going have trouble with it. I show it every time I lecture, I’ve just have never had the opportunity to use it.
People identify with those that are close to them, not everybody is curious to get out into the world and see people who are a little special. The thing is my parents were characters so it’s very easy for me. I used to say ‘I would love to sleep in that place at night’, because I’m comfortable there. The people there are real; what they feel is what they say. People I became friendly with there, I like them and it was a treat to see them. Of course not everybody is kind, not everybody is nice – it’s no different from a ‘regular’ society. I don’t claim to be humanitarian and I’m doing this because I do it well. I think anybody with a camera who says they are humanitarian maybe should drop their camera and help the people directly.
When I take pictures I’m photographing myself, I don’t care what anybody else thinks. I’m not thinking ‘oh, are they going think that’s tough?’ Somebody may be 400 pounds and I may not take a picture of them; somebody may have holes in their underwear and I may not take a picture of them. People who have trouble with these kinds of pictures should look into their own soul because different people find beauty in different places, and that’s what makes me an artist, or a photographer. I see things that either the average person doesn’t want to look at or doesn’t want to see. You can have a painter or a photographer that photographs walls and wow, who cares about walls for the most part? But maybe those are the most beautiful pictures? It is the same thing here. It’s a tough image, you know? I would hang it on my wall, it’s quite the story – I really love a story.”