Ralph Gibson, Perfect Harmony — Blind Magazine

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Les Deux Musées, a café opposite the Musée d’Orsay: Ralph Gibson sits at a table, a Leica hanging from his shoulder like a natural extension of his body. His eye lingers on a poster pasted on the side of a kiosk: “Behind you, there is a photo of a hotel, it is the Chelsea hotel in New York. I lived there for three years from 1967 to 1969, and that’s where I met Leonard Cohen. We became very good friends, (Gibson accompanied him on the guitar on the album New skin for the old ceremony,1974), everyone was at this hotel!

Arriving at the now-iconic artists’ haunt, with $200 to his name and three Leicas, two of which he had pawned, Gibson became Robert Frankthe assistant of. He had already followed Dorothee Lange, in the early 1960s and as a child, had hung around the film sets of Alfred Hitchcock, who employed his father as an assistant. Some would say he went to the right school.

Born in 1939, Gibson completed the US Navy photography program before taking a stint at Magnum and honing his bright blue eye in the company of the masters. “They welcomed me into their world because I was younger and not a competitor as a photographer,” he recalls.

“They gave me three important pieces of advice: André Kertész told me that a photographer must learn to photograph everything; Henri Cartier-Bresson said: ‘Ralph, you think too much’; and Robert Frank advised, ‘If you think photography is too complicated, then you should try fucking.’ Gibson has the chatterbox, wit and attitude of a self-made man.

Since his remarkable Somnambulist was released in 1970, published by its own publishing house, Chandelier PressGibson has consistently written through images, reinventing the narrative of photography through more than thirty books. Refractions 2 delivers a melody of text and imagery, Gibson’s thoughts on the medium, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and some insight into his decades in the service of imaging.

Dorothea Lange, 1938 © Ralph Gibson
Untitled from The Somnambulist, 1970 © Ralph Gibson
Untitled from The Somnambulist, 1970 © Ralph Gibson
Untitled from The Somnambulist, 1970 © Ralph Gibson
Untitled from The Somnambulist, 1970 © Ralph Gibson

Demanding

Steeped in French culture, Gibson loves words as much as photography, and his books have shaped a new way of showcasing fine art photography through a literary impulse and a science of layout (go directly to double page at pp. 160–61 in. Refractions 2).

“In recent years, I have started to write more seriously about my aesthetic. Everything you can understand, you express in words; and if you can’t, you haven’t really understood. Nicolas Boileau said something along the same lines: “What is well conceived can be clearly stated, and the words will come easily.”

The book form is an intimate way of reading the image. It represents a higher level of intellectualization of photography that this adopted New Yorker dissociates from the social experience of the exhibition: “in a book, we see how photographs can make us think”.

The first words of Refractions 2 are like a manifesto. Photography is a vocation, a service, a spiritual quest. “First you study photography, then you serve photography, then you finally become a photographer. When Kertész died, part of photography left with him. He has been photography.”

Becoming a photographer, he tells us, is the result of immersion in art history, learning from peers, and constant humility. “I’m still in training,” he likes to repeat like a credo in his French with American accents.

France is special for him. Land of culture and aesthetics. However, he takes a critical look at it, announcing the inevitable decline of the great European cultures. Gibson comes to ring the bells. France has an obligation, a responsibility towards photography. “It is the cradle of photography. It is the only country where photography is considered on an equal footing with literature.

Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters then named Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honor in 2018, Ralph Gibson, who left school at sixteen and whose favorite word in the language of Molière is “demanding” (demanding) – recalls significant encounters with French intellectuals. Among them, “Madame Marguerite”, as he affectionately nicknamed Marguerite Duras, who wrote the preface to his book French History.

The writer appears in Refractions 2, a cigarette in hand, his face obscured by his rectangular glasses. “All of her writing had a huge impact on my perceptions and having her as a friend was an unparalleled honor.” Noting that “[he] was very lucky to have met all these people”, the photographer raised his arm to the sky in a sign of greeting.

Madame Marguerite, 1974 © Ralph Gibson
Madame Marguerite, 1974 © Ralph Gibson
Untitled from the Literary Salon, 1971-2021 © Ralph Gibson
Untitled from the Literary Salon, 1971-2021 © Ralph Gibson

“I keep my eyes open”

Gibson’s work bears the trace of these encounters, of his fascination for the work of Matisse, Duchamp, Pollock, Degas, and for literature, notably the New Roman, the poetry of Mallarmé, the proportions of ancient Greece and the movie theater. “I was definitely influenced by Hitchcock’s use of the ‘insert’, or close-up of a detail. To this day, I continue to get closer and closer to the subject.

Divided into thematic chapters, Refractions 2 traces the dreamlike universe of Gibson, bathed in symbolism. These black and white photographs plunge into a deep black with imperial contrasts. Gibson’s eye captures the lines that find the right balance, the curves that envelop the frame and the material that exceeds it.

Gibson also worked with color, a medium often overlooked in discussions of his work. He got there through digital photography. “After fifty-five years of working with cinema, I wanted to speak another language,” he said in French. “Today, working with digital cameras is much easier for me, but what remains most important is my eye, not the medium.”

Gibson stood up abruptly. “You see this single nail sticking out of the wall on its own, without an image, it has a very curious shadow.” Instantaneous. “It is the presence of the absence.” He sat down again. “I always keep my eyes open. The best way for me to find pictures is to leave the camera at home,” he joked. “Then I see pictures everywhere. It really is the best way.

That’s not how he put it Refractions 2but the book is really intended for future generations of photographers, a passing of the torch, a legacy of someone who knew the greats and who also became a remarkable photographer.

Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train, 1951 © Ralph Gibson
Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train, 1951 © Ralph Gibson
Ingmar Bergman Persona, 1967 © Ralph Gibson
Ingmar Bergman Persona, 1967 © Ralph Gibson

Music and photography, the quest for a third language

Ralph Gibson is also a music lover. His surname of course evokes the famous luthier. He likes the guitar, music in general, classical music in particular. His friends include many rock legends. His quest now is to merge musical notation and photography.

He talks about his Leica M 35mm and his transition to digital photography and his 135mm f/3.4 Apo-Telyt like a musician would talk about a 1715 Stradivarius. “Writing with light requires a delicate instrument”, says- he manipulating his camera with the red dot logo.

He speaks of photography as a musical score, where “melody is to music what reality is to photography”. He describes his studio, often illuminated by the red glow of his darkroom, and resonating with the cantatas of JS Bach. We remember Henri Cartier-Bresson’s comment when listening to a suite for solo cello by Bach: “it’s music to dance to just before you die”.

Gibson composes, plays guitar in front of his photos and performs with friends. He remembers with emotion a “memorable” concert given a few months ago with Laurie Anderson, “one of the greatest American artists”. Gibson’s old friend Andy Summers paid tribute to him during his photographic exhibition at the Polka Galerie in Paris. The Police guitarist had met Gibson in 1983: their friendship is a perfect match between the strings of the guitar and the flap.

The photographer is looking for an unexplored language, something like a new tower of Babel: “I try to unravel the whole relationship, the enigma between music and photography. I want to bring the two languages ​​together to create a third language,” he explains, noting that he is working on a particular musical composition.

Gibson continues to explore photography, not really caring about retrospectives, he tells us. he had just opened Dark Trilogy (until March 31, 2023) at the GoEun Museum of Photography in Busan, South Korea. “I realized that as an artist, I was a grain of sand in the Sahara of culture. Picasso is a speck, Michelangelo is a speck… All I really care about is my next photo. I have so many things in my head that I try to convert into photography. That’s what I focus on. Because I would like to know what is inside me. What’s in there, he said, pointing to his heart.

As Cartier-Bresson writes in Imagination from nature“to photograph is to keep the head, the eye and the heart in the line of sight”.

Untitled from Days at Sea, 1974 © Ralph Gibson
Untitled from Days at Sea, 1974 © Ralph Gibson
Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916 © Ralph Gibson
Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916 © Ralph Gibson

Refractions 2Ralph Gibson, Lustrum Press, 240 pages, $48.

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