20 Minutes With: Photographer Ralph Gibson

By Emily Farache April 25, 2022

Bob Tursack

In 2005, acclaimed American photographer Ralph Gibson, known for his fine art books and prints, published Refractions, a small but influential 49-page work that has since been in and out of print. The ideas within his “Notes on the Aesthetics of Photography” were an important contribution to the practical and intellectual reflections for understanding both the theory behind photography and its practical aspect. 

Gibson’s follow-up compendium, Refractions 2, published by his Lustrum Press this spring, features illustrations, paintings, and woodcuts in addition to his own iconic photography. “The reason I publish under Lustrum is the same as my attitude towards the frame,” Gibson says. “I want all the credit, all the blame, complete and total autonomy.”

Noted for the use of impenetrable blacks, vertical framing, and evocative, almost subconscious abstractions—often of the quotidian or the mundane—Gibson began his career in the Army at age 16, where he was trained in the service’s photography school. In the 1960s Gibson was an assistant to Dorthea Lang, and, later, Robert Frank.  

As an independent photographer, Gibson, 83, has published over 40 monographs, and his photographs are included in over 150 museum collections. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2018 he was appointed a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France for his significant contribution to the arts.

PENTA: What concerns does Refractions 2 address? 

Ralph Gibson: I discovered that all the great themes such as landscape, portraiture, nude, architecture, etcetera., had been announced in the first couple years after the discovery of the medium, we very quickly had a discovery of a medium that had its most intriguing component basically lodged in its relationship to time. I have it broken down into three major steps, which is the discovery of the watch, the discovery of photography, and discovery of the internet.

My book is 350 pages of my thoughts about portraiture, architecture, book-making, laws of perspective, uses of different focal length lenses and how they inform things, the nature of digital communication in our time, which is another huge issue, and how digital compresses everything it does, everything it touches. I’m interested in how the digital sensor on a camera tends to compress space in some fashion or another.

Like iPhone photography? 

All of a sudden the software that makes everybody in the world a photographer also makes everybody’s photographs look exactly the same. My iPhone shots aren’t any better than yours and yours aren’t any better than the person next to you. There’s a homogeneity that comes with this. 

I want to know how this technology, which we will consider to be a formal construct, impacts what I’m able to say in my photographs, which is the art that’s discussed in terms of form and content. Let’s say the form is digital imagery. How does this speak differently than analog film, silver gelatin? There is a difference, and it has to do with the fact that the image is somewhat compressed, in terms of its perspective. The laws of perspective were invented in the Renaissance. Prior to that time, painting was entirely two dimensional. That particular illusion of space, from the picture plane back, as we’ve grown accustomed to it in film, is foreshortened on the digital sensor.

The very nature of digital photography is an illusion? 

Yes, the illusion of pictorial space. RAW opens up to a much bigger file, and then you compress it to JPEG, and back and forth. That’s one form of compression that leads to what we’ll call foreshortening. If you put a pair of powerful binoculars to your eyes and look out at the landscape, you see how things are compressed, how foreshortened they are optically. 

I’m talking about an optical compression that takes place. If you have a figure standing there and you draw a charcoal outline of the figure without any shadows or curves, it looks like a silhouette. But then you introduce shadows and contours—that’s called modeling—making the figure appear to be dimensional. That modeling is lessened in the digital space. It’s an inherent linguistic semiotic. There’s a difference, and I’m interested in that specific difference.

You’re also interested in deep shadows.

That was based on a different idea, which is, I always wanted to be responsible for everything in the photograph. I wanted to see every component, every ingredient, every aspect of what’s inside my frame and in my print. 

One of the ways that I could minimize what was in the picture was to let my shadows go completely black. I like the way contrast shapes the object. You have a dark shadow around something, and it tends to heighten the edges, making the edges more clearly delineated. If I’m sitting in my studio and I decide to do a still life, I’m going to move close to an object. Then, I’m going to subtract until my frame is full with just what I want to have inside the picture plane. For me photography is subtractive, and my deep shadows function as a way of making that subtraction.

Why does vertical framing feel so different?

If you look at the wall across from you with two eyes open, you’re basically in your mind’s eye evoking a horizontal composition because you have two eyes horizontally placed on your face. If you look at cinema or television, this horizontal frame has become the proportion of the visual narrative. It’s only recently with the iPhone that there’s been any diversion from that. There’s an awful lot of horizontal screens and devices available in the world today. That’s linked to the lineation of narrative, it’s a horizontal notion. 

What draws you towards the vertical?

I’m a formalist. I’m just interested in the way things look. Close one eye, and all of a sudden you’re looking at a vertical composition. I’ve discovered that there’s a visual tension available in the vertical framing for me that I don’t achieve in a horizontal composition as often. I like the fact that I can heighten the intensity of the subject, and my awareness and perception of it, when I compose and configure and conform any object in the world into a vertical frame. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

My thoughts to the above;

I had the pleasure to discover Gibson very early on back in the 1970s. His trilogy, The Somnambulist, Days at Sea, Deja Vu, self published by Lustrum Press, was an inspiration at the time. Not just to me, but many, many others. I also had been to two small lectures given by him on his work, both times back in the late 1970s. One was at the Floating Foundation of Photography and the other at the Midtown Y, both in NYC. Gibson spoke at length about his background, influences, and showed a lot of his early work from California. He was an assistant to Dorothea Lange. Her images were the first photo book I ever bought. That is how I discovered Gibson. Both lectures were very informative. In the lecture I attended of his at the Midtown Y, Gibson at one point started to cry. He explained he felt he never became the photographer he wanted to be. He didn’t elaborate any further and no one asked. It was a bizarre moment.

I lost interest in Gibson when he started to do the color covers for Avenue Magazine. I felt he sold out for a steady paycheck. From that point on, I really had no interest in what Gibson did anymore. I felt he became irrelevant. His views on photography shows he has no understanding that the medium has moved forward. It appears he didn’t. I guess it is nice to have a special edition Leica named for you even though you do not care much about digital photography.

Sure, I look back fondly when developing film, darkroom work was the norm. For me the reality is more a romantic memory then the actuality of doing it. Digital imaging has made photography different in craft, but no less of an art. As vision goes, it becomes even more relevant today. In the digital “homogeneity”, as Gibson calls it, vision is the great divider. Camera phones become what Kodak envisioned more than a century ago, “You push the button, we do the rest.” Vision is what separates the good from the chaff. No matter how you get there, vision is what photography is about.

Published by Keith Goldstein

Photographer, husband, dad, and passionate cyclist. Lives and works in New York City.

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