Brighton Beach, a place like no other

Story highlights

  • Bruce Gilden spent four days photographing people at New York's Brighton Beach
  • The neighborhood is packed with colorful, energetic characters

(CNN)Bruce Gilden was tired. He's 68, and he had just returned to New York from an assignment in South Africa. Next up were England, Hong Kong, Tokyo.

Some assignments, some locations, are better than others.
In a surprisingly warm stretch of October, the photographer shot an assignment in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood not terribly far from his apartment in Manhattan. He liked that. He could spend four days there but go home at night to see his wife and pet his cats. He knows the place well, too. He grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and spent years shooting around Coney Island.
    This stretch of Brooklyn has changed since then, as all things do, but it's still special, still a beloved place to dip a toe in the Atlantic. It maintained its individuality, Gilden says. It's not like where he lives -- the same rent-stabilized apartment in SoHo where he has stayed for decades. It changed around him into people who all seem to dress and act the same.
    "Here, a guy gets a job on Wall Street, where's the struggle?" Gilden said. "I'm not interested, visually."
    Photographer Bruce Gilden
    But Brighton Beach is something else. His wife loves to go there to swim, or buy tchotchkes and fancy mustard. If he had to pick a location for a fashion shoot, it'd be there.
    The neighborhood was pretty Russian all those years ago. Now, he says, it's all Russian. Jewish and Ukrainian, too, but really Russian. He can't read the signs. You ask the time, and folks will show you their watch rather than say the words. Last October, he brought a translator along because so few people speak English -- or at least, he says, they pretend they don't.
    He wandered the streets below the elevated train with a small Leica camera, and he snapped photos when he spotted a character. It's not too crowded, and most people were very nice. Some wanted to take his head off. After years of shooting gangsters, revelers and whoever happens to be out and about, it all unfolds so quickly that almost nobody makes a fuss, he says.

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    "I have very good bedside manner from all the years on the streets," Gilden said. "It's like playing sports. You don't have time to think. You act and react.
    "I shoot what's interesting. All I'm about is visual."
    And Brighton Beach is a sight. For decades, Gilden shot in black and white. For the last two years, he says, he sees in color. Brighton Beach has it all -- wild prints on shirts and dresses, fluorescent bathing suits that don't exactly fit, garish makeup that's been lovingly applied the same way for 50 years.
    "I shoot who I am," Gilden said. "And I shoot what interests me, even when people hire me. I'll get the job done, but I have a lot of energy in my pictures. With those people, there's a lot of energy. They're shopping, shopping, shopping. They go with their carts, and their red lipstick and their bright clothes."
    Brighton Beach? Sure, it's close to home. But, Gilden says, "it's an assignment that I liked."