“Go” with Bruce Gilden to the Dark Side of Japan

Photo: JAPAN. Asakusa. 1998. Two members of the Yakuza, Japan’s mafia. The Yakuza’s 23 gangs are Japan’s top corporate earners. They model themselves on American gangster fashion from the 1950s. © Bruce Gilden.

Daido Moriyama, Kikiuji Kawada, and Eikoh Hosoe: these are just a few of the Japanese photographers born in the 1930s, mere children when the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on their country. Growing up in the shadows of war, these men took to photography to mediate this brave new world. Caught between the strong traditions of the past, the vestiges of trauma and carnage, and the push towards modernization that had begun under the Meiji period, each of these artists pictured Japan as it had never been seen before—a raw, radical place of free thought that comes from the avant garde.

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In 1974, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presented New Japanese Photography, the first major survey of work outside the island nation. Curated by John Szarkowski and Shoji Yamagishi, the exhibition presented 187 photographs made between 1940 and 1973 by 15 photographers that traced the evolution of Japanese life through the war to the then-present day.

JAPAN. Tokyo. Kaeda. Business man at lunchtime outside JR station. 1996.

JAPAN. Tokyo. Kaeda. Business man at lunchtime outside JR station. 1996. © Bruce Gilden.

Brooklyn-native Bruce Gilden went to see the show. The hours he spent as a child looking out of the second-story window of his home, watching the local toughs so their thing shaped his attraction to the characters he would come to photograph. In 1968, while studying sociology at Penn State, he saw Michelangelo Antonini’s film Blow-Up. The die was cast, so to speak.

Gilden bought himself a cheap Miranda camera and took a few evening classes at the School of Visual Arts, but for all intents and purposes, he learned photography through practice. By the time of the New Japanese Photography show, Gilden was well into his seminal Coney Island project, which captured the semi-sordid scene of the famous beach, boardwalk, and amusement park.

The Brooklyn local was impressed by what was happening on the other side of the world. “…it blew me away,” he revealed in an a written statement. “I thought that if they were making such good photographs in Japan, it had to be a good place for me to work. I kept this idea somewhere on my mind and it only took me twenty-one years to get there! Of course, when I arrived in Tokyo in 1994, the city looked totally different than the one I’d seen in the pictures.”

Bruce Gilden "GO" Artist Reception at Leica Store & Gallery Los Angeles, CA (April 6th, 2017)

Bruce Gilden “GO” Artist Reception at Leica Store & Gallery Los Angeles, CA (April 6th, 2017). © Philip Cuenco

But that only opened the door for an extraordinary new body of work. Between 1994 and 2000, Gilden photographed Japanese street life, digging past the perfected veneer of polite society and its ubiquitous “mask of uniformity”—and what he found there was intense.

Gilden photographs of day workers, homeless women and men, Bozozuku (young biker gangs), and Yakuza (gangsters) were originally published in the book Go (Trebuk, 2002), a lavish volume of bold black-and-white photographs wrapped in red linen covers. Although the book has long been out of print, works are currently on view in Bruce Gilden: Go at Leica Gallery, Los Angeles, now through May 5, 2017.

The photographs are classic Gilden, with his inimitable approach that falls somewhere between film noir and a Fellini film. There is a dark, surrealistic bent to his work that pushes the boundaries between art, waking life, and dreams. Surely this is real but it’s also entirely too much: too much truth, too much emotion, too much drama—and yet, it compels our curiosity and our desire to look, to gaze endlessly on people we would otherwise never know.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.