Thursday, 12 May 2016

'Black Country' by Bruce Gilden

A few months ago a friend directed me to these recent portraits (example above) by American street photographer, Bruce Gilden. They are actually taken on the mean Black Country streets of West Bromwich, where I was born and grew up, and Wolverhampton as part of an ongoing commission Gilden is doing with Sandwell community arts organisation, Multistory. My friend actually said they reminded him of my own portrait paintings of the people of West Bromwich and Sandwell that I worked on between 2006-2008, also as a commission managed by Multistory (see my website ‘Seek My Face’ page for more details of this). 

I was blown away by the impact of these ravaged and sometimes frightening faces and how Gilden had framed and taken these photos, and although flattered by my friend’s comparison, I just wish had had even come close to creating something so powerful. They seemed to speak to me very personally about my experiences about growing up in the Black Country and the types of forgotten and broken faces you encounter in a region blighted by poverty and hardship from the heavy manual work people used to do, and the mass unemployment that followed in the Eighties that has marked the area ever since. The poverty that has lead, as can be seen in some of these faces, to addiction to alcohol and drugs.  
But I also think these portraits are not unique to this particular corner of the world: you could find faces like this in any of the post-industrial towns and cities of the UK, or in the world as Gilden’s website contains very many similarly harsh portraits of people, particularly in his native America (see image below).
I was pleased therefore, to receive a link from Emma Chetcuti the Director at Multistory the other day to a short film they had made of Gilden at work, with his assistant, on the streets of West Bromwich. I was fascinated to hear of his experiences of the town, as an outsider all the way from New York, and his motivations for focussing on the more extreme faces he encountered. Indeed, he spoke of his empathy for ‘the broken’, and the underdog, a character trait that seems embedded in the Black Country psyche in my experience, which I think helps us understand the deeper, psychological drive of the artist, and remember that photography is no less subjective than painting or anything else. Are these photographs portraits of the artist? They seem part of a bigger picture to me. 
 I shared the film with my friend, Andrew Tift, the well-known portrait painter based in Walsall, who has made portrait paintings of his own of working class people from the Black Country, such as this magnificent drawing, ‘Ken’ (below) but he was less than impressed, finding them exploitative and near to, in his own words, ‘taking the piss’. This is also a view shared in this Guardian review of Gilden’s book, ‘Face’ here:
I can totally understand Andrew’s feelings, and there are some questionable moments in the film, but I’m inclined to think of them as more complex, offering a deeper and uncomfortable look into the eyes of our shared humanity.  My Dad, when I shared them with him, also thought it was a narrow view of the area, but before long was recounting stories of many of the characters, many desperate and broken too by poverty and addiction, he had worked with in the factories around West Brom, Tipton etc, and before long was making a deeper connection himself with these extraordinary portraits.  Watch the video and see what you think yourself:

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