A good photographer understands light, but a great photographer masters light. Ralph Gibson is a great photographer. His images are composed of cleverly captured contrasts, shapes, and forms that reveal subtle nuances about his subject matter that goes beyond what our eye can see. Indeed, a Gibson photograph takes us on a unique journey by allowing us to experience a moment of reality discovered through his surrealist lens. His images are an enchanting combination of sensual and enigmatic notes that offer both familiar and unfamiliar themes that fully capture our imagination.
Gibson’s photography career started when he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1956; there he worked as a Photographers Mate until 1960. He then continued his photography studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. His professional career began when he became an assistant to the late, great photojournalist, Dorothea Lange, from 1961 to 1962. In 1967, he went to work for the documentary filmmaker and photographer, Robert Frank, for one year before focusing his talent on his own career. That decision proved to be auspicious. He published his first book in 1970, The Somnambulist. It solidified his position as an esteemed art photographer.
Gibson has garnered nearly all the awards and recognitions a photographer and artist can have bestowed on one, including being appointed the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France; a Decorated Chevalier of the Legion of Honor; and receiving a Guild Hall Academy of the Arts Lifetime Award; and a Lucie Award for Lifetime Achievement in Fine Art.
My loyal readers know that I am a photographer, but I always interview my subjects for AS IF magazine and present these interviews in their native Q & A format. However, for this particular interview, I have removed my questions and share only Gibson’s answers. The flow he uses wherein he thinks and speaks present ideas that do not need any questions. The following text (in his own words) discusses Gibson’s early roots as a photographer, the importance of finding one’s visual signature as a photographer, how recognition aids creativity, why he avoids commercial work, and why he abandoned film to go digital.
Ralph Gibson portrait by Tatijana Shoan
―On What Makes A Great Photograph
A great photograph fulfills a photographers’ individual set of needs or requirements, and quite often exceeds them. A great photograph is always better than the photographer who took it because the medium always intervenes, that’s why it’s called a medium. The medium is something through which you could do something that you couldn’t otherwise do.
An iconic photograph, by definition, is an image that has entered into the history of the medium and is frequently reproduced. Well, I have a few of those, however, at the time I made them I didn’t necessarily think that was going to be the case. The so called, collective unconscious, out there determines, the photographer doesn’t.
―On Point of Departure
I was working for photographer Dorothea Lange when I was just 21 because I was so technically advanced with the camera and in the darkroom due to my years as a photographer in the navy. Dorothea had an incredible eye as history has documented, but wasn’t technical at all; it was the force of her will that compelled the medium to obey her intention however underexposed the image might have been. After a year of working for her she said, Ralph, you can show me your work now. I showed her one of my pictures and she said, I see your problem here Ralph, you have no point of departure. Then she told the anecdote, if you’re going to the drug store to buy toothpaste you have a fixed destination, you’re motivated. Then, you might intersect a great event because your life is directed. Whereas, if you just drift around the street like so many photographers do—you see them in Soho all weekend—you’ll never get anything good.
Don’t get too inspired by other photographers’ work because it is not good to emulate; you don’t want to copy the people that you admire. A lot of great photographers are curious to know about what I am doing, but also how I do it. Let’s take a great photographer like Sebastião Salgado. Salgado’s formula is to find a location and wait. He’ll wait for days at a location for a shot. If you look at the photographers you admire, they all have invented his or her own way of working. Their successes are all predicated on a unique and individual set of moods. I knew Diane Arbus pretty well, and I knew what she was doing. She would say to me, I hate being a member of the Jewish upper-class of New York. She was from a prominent and important family, yet she said freaks were the natural aristocrats! Now that’s a hell of a point of departure! You can copy her all you want, but you are not going to feel the same way she does about the subject. I am measuring my perceptions based on my life’s experiences, so how could somebody else use that? Experiences can’t be appropriated because they are predicated on a specific set of ingredients. Mine have taken 80 years to compile.
―On Visual Signature
The eye has so many nerve endings, it has more nerve endings than your fingertips or your sex organ. However, the optic nerve behind the eyeball cannot process everything the eye can see. My eye was seeing what my mind was not noticing. It wasn’t until 10 years after taking that fateful photo in San Francisco in ‘61 did I see my visual signature being repeated. A decade after the San Francisco photo was taken I took the image of the man walking down the street with a stick that was positioned parallel to the white lines on the pavement. When I took that picture, I knew I had taken this image before. I published it in my second book entitled, Déjà vu. When I was working on my first book, The Somnambulist, I started spending a lot of time looking at my pictures. By the time I got to Déjà vu, I was an established photographer, I had recognition and a lot of energy. The book making process forced me to look at my pictures far more than I would have otherwise, and I was learning things about them. That’s when I realized these parallel lines were a continued theme throughout the work.
In western civilization all narrative came to us by way of a horizontal frame—cinema, television, laptops—and now the smart phone took us vertically. 99% of my pictures are vertical because I was not interested in conventional narrative concerns.