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Here my shortlist for the 9 BEST PHOTOBOOKS of 2013

  1. Foreclosures by Bruce Gilden, publisher: Browns Editions, London.
  2. The Canaries, self-published by Thilde Jensen.
  3. The Pigs, self-published zine by Carlos Spottorno.
  4. The Holy Bible by Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg, publisher: MACK.
  5. AOI [COD.19.I.I.43] – AZ7 [S/COD.23](2013), self-published by Rossangela Renno.
  6. Ping Pong by Alec Soth, Geoff Dyer and Pico Iyer, publisher: LBM.
  7. Birds of the West Indies by Taryn Simon, publisher: Hantje Catz.
  8. Black Kingdom by Brian Griffin, publisher: Dewi Lewis.
  9. The Sochi Project. An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, publisher: Aperture.
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USA. Fort Myers, Fla. October 2008. Foreclosed house. 

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

To begin, what does it mean exactly, the legal term ‘foreclosure’?

Bruce Gilden (BG):

I looked up the meaning of ‘foreclosure’, so you will have a better definition than if I just explain it. It’s the legal procedure of taking a mortgage property, because people haven’t kept up their payments.

MT:

Why and when did you start this project on foreclosures in the US?

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BG:

It was 2008 and Magnum, unbelievably, got some money to do a project what America would be like in 2008. We did the book ‘Crisis in America’, years ago in Kennedy’s time. Obama coming to the presidency could be similar to the period of Kennedy. It hasn’t turned up as such, and I don’t like Obama at all. I think he is full of shit! You can put that on the record too! I can give various examples. In relation to foreclosures, the example would be keeping Bernanke and [Eider] on, who are the ones who were partially responsible for the big crisis here. So

So I was going to do a project in Miami, on Jews, Cubans and Haitians, because they have a lot of populations in Miami, and I was going to throw in rednecks. But then I figured I’m gonna be there for about ten days, two weeks, I would just continue my street photography, because I’m not gonna make tons of calls and drive and wait for people…I don’t have the patience.

USA. Fort Myers, Fla. October 2008. Foreclosed house.

So, my wife [Sophie Gilden] came up with the idea of foreclosures? We had a lady working for us at Magnum, and assist the ten, or eight photographers in the group project.  She found a few people who were in the real estate business and we chose Fort Myers, because when my wife researched the hardest hit communities in the United States by foreclosures Fort Myers and Cape Coral. came up.

USA. Florida. October 2008.

I went to Cape Coral but  it wasn’t for me. It was all rich houses that were not attractive visually. So back to Fort Myers, when I arrived, it was raining… I called up all these people that I had on a list and everybody that was supposed to help me…decided not to help me…so I figured that I just had  to start to drive around. My assistant and I drove in one area, like a closed off area from the centre of Fort Myers, which is not very large and pretty empty. They seemed to be doing a lot of renovations, a little more upscale in a way, but nobody was there…so we went across the bridge and went into an area that looked pretty interesting, but in fact.,as we were I driving around, I stopped a guy, who was walking a dog. He said you should meet my friend George. He’s like the community major of this neighbourhood. So we met George and he took us to different places. He drove us to Cape Coral, we went to the church, went to other places, and that is how it started. I was struck by the stories of the people, bacause I knew nothing since when I do a project I never read anything before.

When I worked in Haiti I didn’t read anything either, untilll I went. After I go somewhere, and I am interested, then I start to read, beause I like the initial impressions. And in this case, I realized this was legalized thievery. What was going on in the US? Now I have read about 20 books on the subject by mainstream writers from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc., etc. And they all said the same thing. It’s legalized thievery. You don’t have to be in drug business, you can be legal and make more money.

MT:

How was it to visit and document, as noted in an introductory text in a press release for the publisher: ‘the hardest hit communities: Fort Myers Florida, Detroit Michigan, Fresno California and Las Vegas Nevada?’

BG:

At that time we did a lot of audio with the people we met. Look up Magnum in Motion, there are four pieces on the four different areas where I worked on foreclosures.

MT:

So you made recordings of the talks you had with local residents?

BG:

Yeah… with people who were in foreclosure. As I went along I started to know more and more about the topic. There is a lot of interesting tape that wasn’t used where you realize the ignorance of some of the people. In the books that I read it explains how the majority of people in foreclosure can’t even understand their contracts! I think it was Allan Greenspan, he is one of the most responsible figures, who said on a MSNBC show (a great two hours show) that  he had Harvard educated lawyers who work for him that can’t even understand the contracts…That’s how specific and vague they are. And these people who are getting bonuses… How do you get a bonus on something when the deal was signed, but it didn’t come to fruition? You know, they were selling houses to people, I read in a book, for 700.000 USD. But those same people were making 15.000 USD a year. Then they would flip the paper, got all their money and the person who got the contract is the one left holding an empty bag. In 2009 I went to Detroit, 2010 to Fresno, 2011 to Las vegas and Reno.

MT:

So how much time did you spent in each state?

BG:

Two weeks. There was a lot of driving around, because I’m the only one that can see what I want to photograph. It took being a bulldog…

MT:

How do you work on site? You drive around…

BG:

I drive around, yeah.

MT:

You don’t have a list with street names, house numbers corresponding with foreclosures?

USA. Detroit, Michigan. March 2009. House.

BG:

No, No… and then sometimes, like in Detroit, you have to go from one end of the city to the other, Okay? Or I ask people where an interesting area could be. In all the places I scoured everywhere. That’s just tenaciousness… Sometimes I had to come back to the same place again, because the sun was not at the right place at the right time. It’s not always efficient. You just have to do it.

MT:

How did you start the book project Foreclosures (2013)? Over the years you have worked with several publishers. How did you come to work with Browns Editions in London?

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BG:

Browns Editions is  a small publishing company and Jonathan Ellery, the guy who runs it, is a friend of mine. He designed my Coney Island book and the last New York book. He really wanted to do Foreclosures. He felt it was an important work. We decided together to do the book. We think similarly, it is effortless between us. He is tough. I’m tough.

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MT:

Regarding the book, it has the looks and size of a magazine-like The Manipulator or Rolling Stone. The soft cover, pitch black, with an American flag – stripped of its colours – embossed in the front cover is a strong political statement in itself.

The inside cover is black, the first four pages are pitch black, and then on page 5 the title is shown in white capitals on a sea of blackness. On the next black full spread just your name appears in white capitals in the lower quarter of the right page. Followed by another full spread in black, introducing in the upper quarter of the right page the first state: ‘Fort Myers/Florida’ with a star and a year: 2008. I don’t think I have ever seen so much black (ink) in a photobook. What does black mean to you? What does it represent in your book Foreclosures?

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BG:

It was his idea to do the book in black. He also suggested the American flag on the front, in black. All the stuff in black obviously goes along with my vision. Because this is dark. This is how we both look at foreclosures: it’s terrible and dark. It’s a bad situation. What Wall Street, the banks and the financing companies did to the people is really disgusting. It is a black mark at the end of the day. Whether you do a book, a magazine or pictures on the wall, it is a visual statement. Black goes well with the project.

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MT:

What follows are striking full-page black and white images, without text. Just houses, duplexes as you call them, advertised as ‘500 down’, and windows covered with plywood sheets, gardens full of weeds, growing knee high. And then signs reading ‘No Trespassing’; front doors locked with iron bars; fluffy leather sofas left out on a veranda; rows of empty US mail boxes. Not a soul in sight. All of these images seem so unlike you: there are no people.

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BG:

We both decided to keep the people out. If you look at the Magnum in Motion pieces, there are pictures of people. For the book, we just felt that the flow would go bad. The book is seamless; the flow is so nice, like a river, or lake… If we had put the people in, it would have spoiled the design. We thought about putting in some quotes from people… but we figured, just let it flow…like this. The editing of the pictures is mine, and we both agreed about the sections, the different states. The postcards…? That might have been his idea… Each magazine has a postcard. Which one do you have? You have the cloth edition, the book in a bag? The first 100 have a little bag with the same flag embossed on it. So the magazine fits in a little pouch. That’s the one you should get!

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MT:

it’s really looking more like a magazine, don’t you agree…

BG:

A guy working at Magnum tld me that, I almost killed him…! Yeah…but it’s a quality book. Jonathan is smart. The reason he put it in soft cover because it is easier to have the pages turn with the horizontal pictures. There is a flow across the pages, without interruption. With a hard cover, it would be stiffer. Tightly bound.

MT:

What struck you most in Fort Myers, Florida?

BG:

That’s where I started. The first day you just take pictures… You go on, two, three, four days. That was, let’s say learning experience. Let me pull up the magazine… I did a lot of work in this community, because I liked the structures there. We went to this trailer with the weeds in front, which is sort of…How to describe it best…? It seemed like a white trash community. A little scary…There was some properties that were okay. A lot had what the trailer had. And there is a picture of a leather couch outside, in Fort Myers. It looks like a person, where all the air came out! Or like a Claes Oldenburg soft drum set. Even though my work is very visual, it is a comment on society. All my pictures are symbolic. On this double spread you have a white house with awnings, which are all bent. Everything is bordered up. There is one picture with weeds in front. That’s a community that has tons of houses, especially built during the boom. Florida was one of the boom areas. They kept on building and building and building and then when everything collapsed no one moved into these communities. The neighbourhood had tons of people working on construction. The whole industry fell like a deck of cards.  It was a domino effect: one fell, and then everything else collapsed. It is not built on a secure foundation. That’s Florida.

USA. Detroit, Michigan. March 2009. Houses.

MT:

Then you move to Detroit. What happens there? It looks even worse in Detroit.

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BG:

I think I arrived on a Saturday, so Sunday we had a guy in real estate taking us around. He was a cousin of a lady that was an intern at Magnum.  It was raining. It was perfect for just looking at Detroit. I couldn’t believe this was a major US city in America in 2009. To me it was like Berlin after the war, or somewhere in the Middle East. You know, a disaster. We were driving around, the first day, and a car stopped us. You know two guys in a big SUV in a black neighbourhood. So that means drugs. So they stop us, and I tell them what I am doing. They said: “you should go over to Robinwood Street.” So I asked why  and they said: “just go look, you won’t believe it.” I couldn’t believe it. I am good with numbers and I counted the houses on the street. There were seventy houses and sixty-three were empty. The houses were deteriorated, there was garbage all over the floor. Occasionally we saw a prostitute. You also see people go in the back of the houses to shoot chunk gun. A couple of pictures show that big mess. One of them is that photograph of a burned building, that I took at night with flash. There are no streets lights. I used to call my wife and say to call this number if she didn’t hear from me…! It was scary!

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The problem in an area like this one in Detroit, when you’re taking a flash picture of a building is that they must have a lot of people doing crack around so  If they see a flash going off, you can get shot because they don’t know what the hell it is. Luckely when I was going around with my assistant they thought we were cops, because why the hell would you be walking around here! Another time, in December, we drove in another area of Detorit, called Grosse Pointe. it is one of the richest areas in America, and it is right next to the ghetto. You just go across a six-lane road and you’re in the ghetto.

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MT:

Here in Europe, in the daily newspaper NRC I read realtors buy houses in Detroit, renovate them a little bit and sell them for a fortune…

BG:

Yeah, they also have artists, or artist type people moving in the houses:. There are one or two blocks that are beautiful, but by and large it is a mess. I have several pictures with car tires in front of the houses. Don’t forget Detroit is the auto capital of America. When you go to Las Vegas, or Fresno, the houses aren’t destroyed. But here, they are not only destroyed, there is so much garbage, on the streets, around the houses, I wouldn’t leave my kid alone in Detroit.

USA. Las Vegas, Nevada. November, 2011.

MT:

A year later you’re in Fresno, California. The West coast. Unfinished brand new mansions, still under construction, auctioned off; a garage shielded with plywood and rows of tiles on the roof; palm trees and banana plants in the front yard. Empty swimming pools. Hand-painted billboard on the front door: ‘for rent’. Do these images mean to suggest that even the rich can’t make it?

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BG:

There, as you said, they have only developments. People were building, building and building. Some of them never finished building, because they ran out of money. Others, 70, 80, 90% of the houses are empty. It’s mainly upper and middle class type of houses. You see, people got money from banks to build no houses! I mean, someone is making money here. I get so annoyed! So the government bailed out all the banks on this crisis here. They gave them billions of dollars on a low interest rate. And they turned around and lent that money to someone else and made billions of dollars. And just last year  my bank Chase Manhattan made about 20 billion dollars in one quarter…  It’s an outrageous amount.

MT:

Outrageous it is. Mafia!

BG:

Yes, it is a mafia! I agree a 100%. But don’t forget the problem here. A lot of people bought houses and went into the real estate business. Let’s say they bought a house for 40.000 USD. Then the house went up to 300.000 USD: an inflated incorrect value. And then when it collapsed, everybody lost everything. People were buying houses and flipping them. One lady in Las Vegas told me that the guy, who was sweeping up the floor at the hotel where she worked, had owned five houses, at the time, and then he lost everything!

USA. Clovis, California. October, 2010. Swimming pool at a foreclosed house.

In Fresno I was struck by all the development there. I mean that picture of a pritty rich house, like a mansion, with the swimming pool and the slide. This is also a large problem there. Some rich people couldn’t afford to keep up their payments and if they don’t drain the pool, you have huge mosquito invasion and some transmit the West Nile disease

MT:

What is that?

BG:

People can dye from being bitten by mosquitos that are infected with West Nile virus. So, when I was in that house, I felt terrible. And if the California cops came and saw me…they would have gone nuts because I was not supposed to be on the property. So, I took my pictures and I got out.

USA. Fernley, Nevada. November, 2011.

MT:

The last chapter on Las Vegas Nevada opens with a huge open piece of desert that is for sale. Then on the next spread is a harsh white brick wall lit up by your flashlight. Tell me about the next photograph: a crumbling frumpy sofa, with an old doormat in front of it, you found in a yard. And the ranch style real estate office. What struck you most in Nevada?

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BG:

Yeah…then we went to Las Vegas. All the areas were four of the hardest hit areas in America and that’s why we picked them. I was struck by the sign here, the ‘by owner.’ All you see is the land. I guess there is a real statement in that. One day this land will have crappy houses on it… In America there is a tradition of photographing signs and landscapes. Then we go to the picture of that white brick house. That is not flash it is sunlight. It’s a commercial building, and I just like the form of that. And then the picture of the couch… I love that. It’s Reno. And I didn’t have to move anything, that’s how it was. And that was with flash. This community had a lot of foreclosures.

MT:

A surreal picture, indeed. What struck you more there, in Nevada?

USA. Reno, Nevada. November, 2011.

BG:

What struck me in Nevada, was that a lot of places were for rent, or the one in Reno with the flowers. They try to keep up the houses in these new developments. Just outside Reno they were mowing the lawn of somebody whose house was being foreclosed and empty. They do that because they don’t want people coming in and robbing it. That’s a big thing in Detroit in these brick houses called Housing Urban Development like middleclass communities. Guys come in and steal the piping. They take out anything. Anything that’s in there, so it has to be put in again!

Las Vegas, of course is a different case. One guy who took me around is a Mexican-American and his father worked in the hotel business there. He told me that this is the only time, during all the recessions, that Las Vegas ever got affected negatively. This was always a place, that no matter how bad everything was, it never got affected. it shows how bad this was with all these people losing there jobs. See the picture with the statue in it? If you go behind the house, the guy had a Buckminster Fuller Dome behind the façade. And the other thing that struck me was this real estate sign here overgrown with weeds. All of this is what is happening in America with real estate.

MT:

Nature is taking over?

BG:

Yes. And the ‘for rent’ sign, that little light above the building, reminds me of martians coming in a ship! It’s quite barren.

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MT:

That is the one and only real estate office building in the book, that ranch style office in Nevada. Showing the other party involved, the people that work in that branch, not the victims.

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BG:

What you find is how this has been allowed to go on. And it hasn’t really changed because the laws haven’t been changed. None of these people have been going to jail.

MT:

Where did you find those postcards, the ‘gadgets’ that go with the first edition of 500 copies? In my copy, there is a color postcard from a chemical laboratory in the Edison Museum, Fort Myers, Florida. The gesture of including one of four found American postcards for each of the four states featured in the book is a cute variation on the theme of making a standard edition photobook a bit exclusive. Is it meant that way?

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BG:

Jonathan [Ellery] found the postcards. I like it. When I was a kid my parents would take me to Florida and I still remember in the back of my mind the hotel we were going to stay at was on a postcard. You know, the postcard is always more attractive then the hotel room!  It is the same thing with this… It is almost romantic. And then you have the reality…so it is like a contrast. Besides, like you say, it brings a little ornament to the book, but there is more to it. You have the romantic look of the building, the view, or the Edison Museum, like you said, and then you also have the reality. Which is quit different from the postcard. As for Edison, Thomas Edison he had a house in Fort Myers and used to live there.

MT:

So you were not involved in that postcard selection so much?

BG:

Well, yes and no. They send me certain cards, and I said yes and no. We picked some cards. For the bags [the first hundred books in a pouch]. I picked 50 out of a hundred.

I have a copy of the book here, which is not the bag version that has two sided postcards. It got pictures on both sides. Does your postcard have handwriting?

MT:

No. It is just plain.

Unknown

BG:

Like: ‘Dear Clair, The weather is great…’

MT:

So the postcards are from Jonathan’s personal collection?

BG:

No, no, they called up a site. My wife helped a little bit since she was in America and could give them the information.

MT:

So from each state you have different postcards?

BG:

Yeah…

MT:

And the postcard is inserted in the book corresponding with the chapter from the same state.

BG:

Right. I insisted the postcards had to ‘come from the floor’: at least the state, if not the city.

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MT:

One more question on the financing. In the back of your book you thank people who have contributed through Kickstarter to support the Las Vegas-Reno project. To what extent has documentation of Foreclosures in the other three states been financed through crowd funding?

BG:

That is the only one. The first one is funded by Magnum. The two others, Detroit and Fresno… I think for Fresno I had some funding from Bloomberg, the businessweek magazine and the Magnum Foundation and then Detroit, I paid a lot for myself.

MT:

So per state you had different ways of financing.

BG:

Right. And I don’t know if I would take that Kicjstarter route again. Because you become an easy target for people. They take shots at you without even having the facts right. They don’t know me and sometimes make negative comments.

MT:

I call your book, the best photobook of 2013.

BG:

It holds up pretty good and it is a comment on America.

MT:

What are you working on now?

BG:

Now I’m doing digital colour faces and they are powerful. I received a Guggenheim fellowship this year. That was an honour for me. This is the one grant that I wanted. I think, I deserved it because I’ve worked hard.  I try, and it comes from my heart. Recently I have been working at state fairs and at some assisting facilities. You can see some of the work at my website Bruce Gilden.com. Those are not the finalized ones. What I mean by that is that the prints are 40x50inches, really large. With the Leica S, it is so sharp; you can see the lines in the eyeball. I may do a book. I have several options. We’ll see.

MT:

Where do you find your portraits?

BG:

I have been working on a project that started with Magnum, but which is now independent from Magnum, called ‘Postcards From America’. I have worked for this project in Rochester, Miami, and Milwaukee. Recently I went to the state fair in Mississippi, which was a buzz. I also worked In Massachusetts and it wasn’t so great but Milwaukee was a home run! I did super work in ten days. Next summer I”l go to Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio state fairs, combining them with the assisting living facilities project. I was just in Midlands in England photographing  mainly faces of people. It is a project called ‘Left Behind.’

MT:

Left behind…in what sense?

BG:

I am not going to answer that too much…It reflects on how I feel about people and identify with them.  I look at myself as an underdog…I like the underdog… I relate to that. And they relate to me. They let me in if I look into their eyes, even if it is for three minutes…