Contrasty, minimal and surreal, Ralph Gibson's images don't conform to photographic norms, writes David Clark

Image above: ‘I thought of the woman speaking across time and distance,’ says Gibson. Image taken in Elba, 1980 ©Ralph Gibson

Ralph Gibson is generally regarded as one of the great fine-art photographers working today. He is celebrated for creating deceptively simple images that often have an unsettling, surreal and dreamlike quality.

He has been photographing for more than 50 years, yet his style has remained unusually consistent throughout this long period. His subjects are usually simple and apparently unimportant, but the way he chooses them, frames them and composes the image makes his work unique.

Gibson’s early photographs, taken while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in California, USA, were street-documentary pictures. However, even in those images his unusual style was clearly present, particularly in the pictures that focus on details or include strong shadows.

In those early shots, he has said, ‘I remember wanting to use the edge of the frame in such a way as to imply activity transpiring outside the frame.’ He further honed this approach in the following years and his images later took on an increasingly minimalist appearance as he moved towards his mature style.

In between dropping out of college in 1962 and the publication of his first major book, The Somnambulist, in 1970, Gibson worked with two photographers who had an important influence on his work. The first was the American photojournalist Dorothea Lange, who employed Gibson as a printer for two years. Then, in 1967, Gibson began assisting Robert Frank, most famous for his documentary photography book The Americans, on two of his movies.

Both these photographers impressed on Gibson the importance of finding one’s own individual style. He describes this quality as a visual signature.

‘A visual signature in photography,’ Gibson told me in an interview in 2007, ‘is something that enables the viewer to instantly know this is the work of a specific photographer. You cannot get anywhere in photography by imitating the work of the people you admire. Photographers whose work is instantly recognisable and who have a visual signature are not unduly proud of it.’

For Gibson, finding this ‘signature’ meant concentrating on everyday objects, such as a tablecloth, a shoe or a part of the human body. His aim was to ‘turn something totally insignificant into an object of importance’ and to ‘make my perception of anything the subject itself’.

From the 1970s onwards, Gibson has worked by gradually subtracting elements from the frame. ‘In a world of infinite myriad possible objects to photograph, I eliminate everything I don’t want in a frame until I’m finally left with what I do want,’ he continued. ‘I call this process subtractive.’


Image Above: ‘Priest Collar’, 1975. ‘This remains one of my most important images,’ says Gibson
©Ralph Gibson

This approach creates a sense of mystery and a tension between what we are shown and what is hidden from view. One notable example is Gibson’s 1975 photograph ‘Priest Collar’. This tightly cropped image only shows the priest’s black tunic, a bright flash of white collar and his chin. The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination.

One important part of Gibson’s style is the use of shadows to remove unnecessary detail. ‘I photograph primarily in bright sunlight and expose for the highlights, which is pretty easy to do,’ he says. ‘I eliminate a lot of unwanted material and activity into the shadow area. In so doing, I create a shape. Instead of being a variation on light, for me shadows themselves become cut forms, they become shapes.’

In the late 1960s, there was limited opportunity for fine-art photography to be published in high-quality books, so Gibson founded his own publishing company, Lustrum Press, in 1969. It subsequently published not only Gibson’s own books, but also those by other prominent American photographers, including Larry Clark and Mary Ellen Mark.

Gibson has continued to publish his work in book form and has now produced more than 40 titles. These books, which include Days at Sea (1975) and Refractions (2005) simply present a series of apparently unrelated images for readers to absorb. They might show anything from a gesturing hand, part of a face or a nude female torso, to a door handle or a section of architecture. They are contemplative images focusing on shapes, patterns, textures, shadows and light.

Now 75, Gibson continues to produce plenty of new work and experiment with photography and other media. In 2010, he was the cinematographer on American musician Lou Reed’s documentary film Red Shirley. In recent years, Gibson has also begun making live performances in which he plays his own musical compositions on guitar while his images are projected on a backdrop.

Gibson’s work, which is included in more than 150 museum collections worldwide, has all been shot on Leica equipment. The first camera he owned, which he bought when he was 22, was a Leica and he has continued using the manufacturer’s M-series cameras ever since.

Until recently, Gibson was resistant to digital imaging, preferring to use film and his expert traditional darkroom printing techniques. However, in 2013 Leica sent him a prototype of its M Monochrom digital black & white camera. Despite declaring that ‘digital photography will never compare to analogue’ the previous year, the camera convinced him otherwise.

It’s a measure of his status as a photographer that in February 2014, Leica produced a limited-edition M Monochrom, which was signed and endorsed by Gibson. Despite its $28,000 (around £16,000) price tag, all 35 models reportedly sold out in five minutes.

Image left: Portrait of Ralph Gibson taken for his book Mono by musician Lou Reed in Long Island, USA, 2013 © Lou Reed

 
Biography

  • 1939 Born on 16 January in Los Angeles, California, USA
  • 1956-60 Joins the US Navy at the age of 16 and studies photography
  • 1960-62 Attends the San Francisco Art Institute, but drops out of the course before completing it
  • 1961-62 Begins his professional career as an assistant to Dorothea Lange
  • 1967-68 Works as an assistant to photographer and film director Robert Frank on two films
  • 1969 Founds publishing company Lustrum Press. Its first publication is his book The Somnambulist (1970)
  • 1988 Awarded the Leica Medal of Excellence
  • 2007 Presented with a Lucie Award that honours the greatest achievements in photography
  • 2013 Commissioned to shoot advertising images for luxury Italian brand Bottega Veneta
  • 2014 Publishes Mono, featuring black & white digital images shot with a limited-edition M-series Leica

Books and Websites

Books: Gibson’s most recent books

are Nude, published by Taschen, and Mono (Lustrum Press, 2014). A career

retrospective, 50 Years, was published by Pointlight Gallery in 2013.

Some of his earlier books, including Days at Sea and Infanta are

available via online booksellers.

Websites: Gibson’s official website, www.ralphgibson.com,

includes an extensive archive of his work, plus his books, exhibitions

and fashion work. Several videos of Gibson talking about his work can be

found on www.youtube.com.

‘In recent years, Gibson has begun making live performances in which he plays his own musical compositions on guitar while his images are projected on a backdrop’