Ralph Gibson



"A Nonlinear Way of Being":
The Photographs of Ralph Gibson

by A. D. Coleman



"To think visually is a . . . nonlinear way of being."
— Ralph Gibson, in an interview with Bob Bishop, November 1988
    The generation of American photographers that came of age professionally as the 1970s opened emerged in a creative environment for all the arts that had undergone a decade of transformative liberation during their adolescence and early adulthood. Literature, film, music, dance, the other visual arts, had all exploded in various ways during the Sixties in the States (and, indeed, throughout much of the west). Old forms and styles had become transformed or been transcended. The range of content and subject matter in all media had broadened enormously. Taboos had been violated consistently and willfully. In effect, the rules — however artists and their audiences had understood them in any given medium — had somehow gotten suspended, discarded, rewritten, and were seen as subject to further revision as necessary.
Arriving in New York from his native California at the beginning of the 1970s, photographer Ralph Gibson quickly became a force with which to reckon. Gibson had a four-fold influence on the field that helped to shape that decade, and the next, and still reverberates today.
First and foremost, there was the impact of his images themselves, distinctive in their graphic clarity, with high contrast and visible grain (the consequence of his exposure, development, and printing strategies), amplified by their concentration on telling, resonant, and often ambiguous detail. Gibson's gift for isolating small, charged gestures and fragments — a priest's collar, the corner of a sheet of paper lifted from a tablecloth by a breeze — had even then a quality of the obsessive, a hallucinatory intensity, conveying a sense of the distilled essence of something extremely important and accessible to the eyes but beyond words, visual equivalents of what novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett called "the unnameable."
To achieve this, Gibson created his own idiosyncratic synthesis of what he gleaned from his predecessors, which he refers to as a "visual signature." In addition to drawing on aspects of the work of the two photographers with whom he'd apprenticed himself, Dorothea Lange in California and Robert Frank in New York, Gibson absorbed elements apparently derived from such disparate sources as Bill Brandt (England), Herbert List (Germany), Henri Cartier-Bresson (France). From a very different standpoint, Gibson adopted war photographer Robert Capa's dictum, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Digesting all that and adding more, he emerged with his own readily recognizable voice.
The resulting imagery had a consistent tension that maintained an unusual balance between the intellectual (if we consider a deliberately heightened intensity of perceptual awareness as a feat of the intelligence) and the sensual, with a steady undercurrent of the erotic. Immediately identifiable, his crisp, taut frames implied stories and emotional states individually, an effect augmented by his insistence on presenting them in carefully sequenced suites in both publication and exhibition form. (Gibson once spoke of using the opportunity to organize his own exhibitions as a way of creating "a band of energy running along the walls.")
    Second, there was his understanding of the potent relationship between thoughtfully sequenced photographic images and the printed book as both a vehicle for imagery and an integral form in itself. Gibson began to produce books of his own work, beginning with the black & white trilogy The Somnambulist (1970), Déjà-Vu (1973), and Days at Sea (1975). In them he adroitly balanced the autonomy and power of individual images with the synergy generated by the juxtaposition of two images on facing pages, effectively working with the diptych as a basic building block and then using those pairings to construct deliberately unspecific, implied, yet sustained narrative constructions.
Though his own interests did not include the documentary or even the sociological to any extent, Gibson clearly found inspiration in the germinal book projects of the two photographers he'd chosen as mentors — Lange's An American Exodus (1939, in collaboration with Paul Schuster Taylor) and Frank's The Americans (1959). Though quite different from each other, each of these two works radically expanded the parameters of the conventional photography monograph while challenging the received definition of documentary photography in their own day.
These volumes, along with Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment (1952) and Wright Morris's The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948), provided Gibson with building blocks for a new vision of photography presented in extended form on the printed page. He's also indicated that what he terms W. Eugene Smith's "elliptical" style of picture editing in his essays — intuitive and poetic associations rather than literal and journalistic juxtapositions — also affected his own approach to that process. (Gibson didn't at that time know some of the more experimental Japanese photography books of the 1950s and '60s, such as those by Daidoh Moriyama and Eikoh Hosoe, that subsequently influenced his thinking about the photo book as a form.) Gibson's books came out at the historic moment of the "artist's book" movement in the west, and helped to touch off a flood of bookworks by photographers — often, like so many artist's books, self-published — that expanded the definition of the photography book well beyond what commercial publishers of the time made available.
The experience of publishing and distributing his own monographs successfully led Gibson to his third area of influence on his field: collaboration with other photographers he respected on the publication of their books under the imprint he'd established, Lustrum Press. These books, with layout, design, text, and printing all done to the specifications of the photographers, included important first monographs by Larry Clark (Tulsa), Neal Slavin (Portugal), Mary Ellen Mark (Open Passport), and Danny Seymour (A Loud Song), as well as Robert Frank's second major book, The Lines of My Hand, and other memorable titles. As integral statements, they demonstrated that the photo book could serve as the vehicle for highly individualized and widely varied ways of seeing. As a series, they embodied alternative and provocative answers to the question of how a photo book could be assembled. And, as a publishing venture, they proved that a market existed for photo books that treated the medium as a form of poetry and a mode of thought, with high production values and smaller press runs than commercial publishers generally considered.
    Fourth, and finally, Gibson's impact as a teacher should not get overlooked. Though never connected formally or long-term with any academic institution, Gibson taught widely through the 1970s and '80s on the then-thriving international photo-workshop circuit — primarily across the U.S., in Canada, and throughout Europe. Hundreds of photographers passed through those short, intensive courses. As a result, Gibson influenced several generations of emerging photographers, not just with his image style but with his ideas about the making of photography books, and also with the example he set of a photographer surviving and eventually thriving by producing his own work to his own standards and making it available to his audiences in forms over which he exercised complete control.

    The photo-workshop circuit has diminished considerably over the past two decades; in any case, Gibson largely left it behind some time ago. And while he occasionally lends his design and layout skills to projects by friends and colleagues, he no longer publishes works by others under his own imprint. (Indeed, Lustrum Press now exists in name only, not as an active publishing line.)
    Instead, Gibson concentrates almost exclusively on his own work: the steady production of new images, and the evolution of exhibitions and books (usually conceived jointly) in which to incorporate them.
    As a photographer, Gibson makes new negatives regularly — sometimes on the street, sometimes in the studio, sometimes in private circumstances. He works, as he always, exclusively with Leica 35mm. rangefinder cameras. He has not so much changed his "visual signature" over the decades as he has refined it; the continuity between the early work of the 1970s and the most recent resolved prints is evident in any juxtaposition. The move into color constitutes the most noticeable expansion of his vocabulary; he now carries cameras loaded with both types of film, choosing b&w or color as the spirit — and the visual occasion — moves him.
Gibson still develops all his own film himself, personally, and his prints are all made in the darkroom. As that implies, he hasn't gone digital, and seems unlikely to do so. "Digital photography seems to excel in all those areas that I'm not interested in," he said in 2001. "I'm interested in the alchemy of light on film and chemistry and silver. When I'm taking a photograph I imagine the light rays passing through my lens and penetrating the emulsion of my film. And when I’m developing my film I imagine the emulsion swelling and softening and the little particles of silver tarnishing."
Digital imaging has come into play in Gibson's workflow, however, through the usefulness of Photoshop and other such programs in the design and layout of his own books (and those on which he collaborates), of which we've seen a steady stream — more than 40 titles under his own name to date. Gibson has always been project-oriented, not so much in his making of exposures as in his organization of the resulting single images into complex, coherent wholes. That activity, in combination with his own stringent self-editing of his output, has yielded one of the most tightly redacted and precisely orchestrated bodies of work in the medium's history.
Long ago, Gibson wrote, "The years of struggle are over. Now begin the years of struggle." His cumulative oeuvre, and his continuing productivity, bear witness to the perpetual truth of that attitude.

© Copyright 2010 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld@nearbycafe.com