Bruce Gilden – Cherry Blossom

Review by Rudy Vega •

Japan is a country of four distinct seasons. Hot, humid and rainy summers followed by mild pleasant autumn complete with fall colors. Then winter sets in for four months of frigid cold snowy weather. But with the arrival of spring comes renewal as symbolized by the cherry blossoms or Sakura as they are known in Japan. It’s an annual rite of Spring ushering weeks of celebration or Hanami – cherry blossom viewing. To visit Tokyo during the last week of March or the first couple of weeks of April is to witness a mass celebration which seemingly all of Tokyo partakes in. Every park or public space where there are cherry blossom trees will be a place to lay out blue tarps and host small and large gatherings. The beer and sake will flow freely, while bentos and sushi provide all the nourishment needed. It is truly a spectacle to behold, and there are plenty of cameras around to capture the fleeting beauty of the blossoms. 

There are many photobooks displaying the lovely blossoms but while Bruce Gilden’s photo book is titled Cherry Blossom, this is not one of them. Instead, it is a collection of 67 black and white photographs documenting his time spent during two trips to Japan and covering Tokyo and Osaka and points in between. 

The first image in the book is curiously enough an image looking into the window of a crowded train. Composed squarely in the middle of the frame is a man’s hand, palm facing outward and pressed up against the glass in the universal gesture to stop. In no uncertain terms the hand in question is communicating to Gilden not to take the picture. The hand at first glance appears disembodied as the face of the man lies obscured by various reflections. To the right of the hand is the face of a young woman caught pensively gazing nowhere in particular. Just to the lower left area of the hand is another hand clutching an object (a book perhaps). The photograph is a wonderful example of how Gilden works to capture an image which at first look seems pretty straight forward. But spend any amount of time with it and one discovers a complex relationship between the juxtapositions of elements within. In some ways the image speaks to the relationship Guilden has with his subjects.

He photographs people he finds interesting and as he puts it, he finds subjects one would miss if they were not right in front of you. Working in a very straightforward manner, Gilden’s photographs can be described as very much “in your face”. Interestingly enough his images don’t appear to antagonize his subjects, even though he has at one point characterized photographing the streets of New York as attacking the streets. 

The pictures in Cherry Blossom compel one to apply a narrative reading-constructing a story therein. And while Gilden’s photographs have a shoot from the hip sensibility to them, they in fact exhibit a disciplined adherence to composition. He organizes the visual elements within the viewfinder of his Leica camera to guide the viewer’s eye around the frame. Gilden’s images thereby have the unmistakable look of intentionality to them. And although some photographs may have the look of serendipity attached to their circumstance, his captures suggest a readiness honed by years of photographing on the streets, creating a level of intuition needed to be successful at street photography. 

To view the photographs of Gilden’s Cherry Blossom is to view what other photobooks of Japanese street photography leave out, and therefore complete. Photographing the Yakuza for example, he can reveal a hierarchical structure in place, that has underlings lighting a cigarette of a higher up. His subjects often have the look of characters, whether displaying their body art or strutting around in their pin striped suits. it’s as if his subjects were meant to be photographed – and if that’s the case, then it’s Gilden who was meant to be the photographer. 

Sitting alone eating fried chicken, wearing traditional dress-a kimono-is a woman looking off camera with an open can of beer at her side. It is the only picture in the collection that comes close to depicting cherry blossoms or Hanami. But instead of appearing to be partaking in a celebration among friends, Gilden’s photograph has her by herself. Again, here the composition is just right – leaving it open-ended enough to invite the viewer to construct a story around the image. Another image has a man wearing a top hat, vest and a bow tie while holding up a doll on his shoulder. This image recalls the work of Diane Arbus, while other photographs allude to William Klein works. It is clear Gilden recognizes the work of other street photographers of note, but after scrutinizing the images in Cherry Blossom, one arrives at acknowledging, these are all Bruce Gilden.

Cherry Blossom will no doubt join the long rich tradition of street photography excellence. It is a compelling look at a slice of Japanese society that some would rather not be shown. But in Bruce Gilden’s hand, he constructs the right combination of attraction/repulsion energy. It’s a recipe respecting life on the street, whether in New York, Tokyo or points in between.

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Rudy Vega is a Contributing Editor and resides in Irvine, Ca. He is a fine art photographer and writer. 

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Cherry Blossom, by Bruce Gilden

Photographer and editor: Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos: born in Brooklyn, New York, and resides in Beacon, New York.

Publisher: Thames and Hudson Inc., New York, New York, copyright 2021

Essays: Sophie Darmaillacq-Gilden

Text: English

Hardcover book, off-set printing, 144 pages, 67 photographs, 27.5x 19 cm printed in Germany, ISBN-9780500545553

Photobook designers: Bruce Gilden

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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