A conversation with Ralph Gibson


On June 24, 2014 & posted in Art, Editor's picks, Exclusive, Print

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


– by Sabrina Y. Smith 


Ralph Gibson’s style is classic, but incorporates surrealist elements. He is traditional, yet daring. His photographs – and musical performances – titter on the edge of what is real and what is abstract. The viewer may not recognize all elements within the frame or the stage, nor perhaps fully grasp the underlying message, but there is always the presence of one object or sound, which appears familiar to the eye and ear – and offers a safety net for the audience in an otherwise unknown world. The feminine figure, recurring in Gibson’s work, is perhaps the element that offers this ease.

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


While the subject may differ and become of secondary importance, it can always be linked to the female form. For Gibson, women represent the ultimate creation: the form that is “absolute and perfect” – found in the curves of the guitar, in the lines of a building, or the shape of a mundane object. It is the ever-present force of Nature’s (and man’s) creations – which Gibson delightfully brings to light.

I enter Ralph Gibson’s spacious studio in Tribeca, with its high ceilings and busy desk, to find a timid assistant shuffling amongst the papers. A couple black and white photographs, and a few surrealist and figurative paintings adorn the space.

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


We settle onto the corner sofas; Gibson sits comfortably, his legs hanging over the leather armchair; art books lay by our side. He’s relaxed, tanned, at ease, and seems eager to get started – he’s not one for fluff, preferring a very straightforward approach instead.

He recently returned from Brazil, for an exhibition of his and Larry Clarke’s works at the Museum of Image and Sound. Gibson, having spent extensive time in France and Italy, has shifted his interest to Latin America, and particularly Brazil, in the past few years. When asked what his favorite destination is, he answers, “An artist goes where he or she is loved.”

Still, it is in this very studio, in fact sitting at his desk, that he feels most at home. He found his self when he moved to New York in 1967. “I was like somebody who came out of the closet: I wasn’t complete until I got here,” he reveals, despite his roots being in California where he grew up within the magic of Hollywood cinema.

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


Gibson’s father was an assistant director for Hitchcock, and spent his entire career at Warner Brothers. As a child Ralph worked on various sets as an extra, including Strangers on a Train. He met some of the most prestigious film stars, such as Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. In those very first years of his life, Gibson learned the incredible importance a single object can be given – with the acute concentration of a director, crew, focused lens, light play…

It was also his first glance into feminine beauty. Surrounded by some of the most glamorous and elegant actresses of the 1940’s, Gibson developed his evolving proclivity for the female form, which he coins as “absolute and perfect.” His love for the human landscape and the endless beauty of women is what still inspires some of his most mesmerizing and admired photographs.
It is from a woman, his mother, he explains that he received the gift of creativity. Even though his father was the one working in film, Gibson “went to the set with [his] mother’s eyes… She was the true creative one.” When I ask in which ways her creativity was manifested, he contemplatively answers: “Everything she touched turned to art: cooking, making something, sewing… She spoke beautiful French, and had this 19th century handwriting because she was raised by nuns in a convent.”

Gibson, whose family was Catholic, was brought up among “the mystic of the masses and everyone hovering around a little host.” There is no doubt these seemingly opposite poles – Hollywood and religion – have affected his work, as he admits himself: “I’ve always fluctuated between the sacred and the profane.”

And while his childhood may have hinted the path Gibson was to follow, it was his time in the U.S. Navy that proved most defining. A pure chance, he explains: it was an early spring morning, Ralph was a 17 year old recruit and had just had his head shaven. He had undergone a series of evaluation tests and his commanding officers concluded he was highly intelligent, and should be working at the airport control tower. While the position was prestigious and coveted, Ralph turned it down. Instead, they decided to send him to photography school. And thus the medium had chosen him.

“I’ve always had a strong sense of my destiny. I had an epiphany to be a photographer on my first cross-Atlantic trip, and never looked back since, I never doubted my relationship to the medium.”

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


Not coincidentally, it is also during this period that he started devoting more time to playing music. “When you’re at sea, you’re alone… truly alone.” Sharing few interests with the rest of the crew, he didn’t socialize much but rather kept to himself; spending numerous nights in the dark room – times that echo his loner nature, as a young chubby boy who spent most of his childhood making magic and music.
When I ask him about his first art memory, it is these sentiments he refers back to. He was a student at The San Francisco Art Institute at the time, paying four dollars a week at a hotel by the Bay. One morning, he woke up to the sight of the photograph he had developed the night before, of a hand holding a rose, displayed on the wall beside him, and realized then and there that he had captured within that image the very sentiments that embodied him as a young boy and that he’s carried ever since.

It is perhaps these extended periods of solitude that have gifted Gibson with the blessing of coming into full contact with the source of his emotions. The power of his photographs spring from this delicate capture of intimacy. Beyond his perfect mastery of technicality (frame, light, subject), the beauty of Gibson’s photographs lie in his ability to transcend the complexity of an emotion in an image. It is in the grasp of his most intimate self, and by extension life’s most complex feelings, that he enraptures his audience. He is not only presenting beauty to the eye but beyond it, awakens within us our own desires, fears, loves, memories. Gibson’s subject embodies his feeling, which we in turn assimilate.

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


The burning beauty parlor photograph thus becomes a shared cathartic experience between Gibson and the viewer. And while most may not know the story behind the photograph, we do understand the violent and destructive nature but also the cleansing qualities the image offers.

The photograph was taken in 1968, a few years after Gibson’s mother passed away in the fire of her recently acquired beauty salon. At no point had Gibson outwardly expressed nor fully grieved his mother’s death; until the day he was walking down Sixth Avenue in New York City and witnessed a beauty salon in flames. As he released the shutter and exposed the film, he was able to come to terms and accept his feeling of grief.

He was then 29, and had been living in New York City for a couple years. He was working out of the Magnum office – which had long been a dream of his. It is around that time that he met Robert Frank, who invited Gibson to assist him on his film Me and My Brother, and would become a large influence on Gibson.

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


The image of the burning beauty parlor, according to Gibson, was a major turning point: with that brief click, he decided to pursue photography as art and no longer in a commercial way. At a time when documentary image was regarded to be the highest form photography could aim towards; Gibson decided otherwise. He realized that, “If I stop to sell my soul I could possibly find my soul. At that moment, photography became a vehicle of my introspection.”

He was lucky to make a living, fortunate to be amongst the pioneers of art photography. “I didn’t want to shoot some person’s stupid idea, I thought my ideas were stupid enough. I wanted to take all the credit, and all the blame.” But the ride hasn’t always been so smooth sailing. Even though his recognition came when he was 30, he had no substantial income until his 40’s. “You get used to the fact that you are born the way you are; for a while you might be confused or searching, but you come to terms with it. I was an artist very early in life, I just didn’t know it. It’s not a good or bad thing to be an artist, it’s just a condition.”

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


Luckily he’s come to a point where people want him for what he does, without imposing their ideas on him. And Gibson wouldn’t have it any other way. When it comes to commissioned work, he will “only do things that are at the top of my profession, and I will only do things that are dignified” – la crème de la crème.

And years of experience and a highly developed sense of self, would call for such attitude. Perhaps the lessons he learnt from some of the most well regarded artists of his generation have helped Gibson along the way.

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


Gibson was only a student for a few months in San Francisco, when he was invited to become Dorothea Lange’s assistant. He remembers one day approaching her claiming that he wanted to be a surrealist photographer; to which she replied: “Well, you can only be yourself.” Years later, the lesson was reinforced when he was working alongside Robert Frank, who one day said: “I might fall flat on my face on this one, but I’m going to do something original.” Gibson quickly learnt that you do not emulate, but the goal is in fact to “tear your influences out by the roots.”

And while Gibson has been able to develop his own stylistic language, it is undeniable that the talents he’s surrounded himself with, have deeply impacted him – seeping into the stories he shares and the work he creates.

When asked about his relationship to black and white versus color, he recalls a time in Paris when he was shooting in color, and had a conversation with Cartier-Bresson: “Lorsqu’il s’agit de couleur je ne suis qu’un nain… Mais vous êtes même plus petit!” (When it’s a matter of color, I’m just a dwarf… But you are even smaller!). Gibson sees it in another light: when people ask him if he prefers black and white or color, he answers “all three.”

And when it’s a question of film and digital, the faithful film photographer has come to not only accepting but appreciating digital photography. From working with Dorothea Lange, he notes: “she didn’t understand the technical aspects of photography very well, but the force of her vision demanded the medium to obey.” The machine does not determine the result; Gibson is thus able to get his look digitally because of the way he sees. He further explains: “I can describe this guitar to you in English, or I could describe it to you in French. It’s the same object, just a different language. That’s my relationship to digital.”


In fact his approach to art is not limited to photography; music also plays an integral part to his creative process. Gibson has been a musician for as long as he’s been a photographer, if not longer. And it is clear, when watching him play his Klein guitar that it fills him with ecstatic satisfaction. The instrument responds to his expression in an effortless manner: his fingers dance fluidly on the steel cords as he lets himself be guided by the moment. “Melody is to music what reality is to photography,” he says. For Gibson it is about finding the same quality of abstraction in sound as he does in his photographs, and always pushing the limit of the “legible side of so-called reality” while “transcending [its structure].”

And he marries the two media organically in his ongoing-suite Music for Lens and Guitar performances, when he plays live music to his projected films. On and off stage, he continues to explore the visual component present in his music, and developing the musical component to his visuals.

His images can be read in a manner similar to reading musical notations, the placement of the notes on the staff: a visual assemblage of contrasting notes. The curvic form of the female translates to everyday objects: present in the shape of a guitar, a cityscape, etc… standing as central character in Gibson’s work. The woman becomes the reference point to all natural and imaginary creations. He admits: “the female form will always reflect any set of aesthetic I am currently investigating.”

And his exploration seems endless, his inspiration ever flowing: fifty-five years into his career he is still expanding. As Helmut Newton, a close friend of Gibson, once said to him: “Du bist ein Leben Künstler !” – [one who makes an Art out of life ] – and we couldn’t agree more.

© Ralph Gibson. Courtesy of Ralph Gibson


It is not without full dedication to his craft that this state is realized. Gibson decided long ago to only make choices in his life that would enhance his talent. He does not smoke nor drink and practices yoga every morning – maintaining a strong body and a sharp mind in order to continue producing his best work.

When asked what the purpose of art for him is, he explains: “It’s the only thing about myself I really trust. It’s ineluctable (…) all things are subject to external forces, but art doesn’t seem to change, it’s a constant, it’s a given, it’s the Magnetic True North.”




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