Ralph Gibson is one of the most celebrated American photographers, having achieved worldwide recognition in his career for more than four decades.
Although he is often classified as an “artistic photographer”, in his exquisite works there is nothing obscure or elitist. Ralph focuses on fragments and details and this process revolves 631more on perception than on the narration of a great story, a personality or an event. His bold and graphic style is instantly recognizable. He approaches his subjects with extreme seriousness, fuelled by the passion of a lifetime for philosophy, art history and artistic criticism. As a result, he is a constant source of inspiration for other photographers and artists in general. Illustrious in individual expression, Gibson urges photographers to develop a personal style following their own instincts; as he did when he moved to New York, leaving behind commercial photography to find himself as a photographer, as other artists who made the Big Apple a place from which to achieve the American dream did.
On this interview, Ralph retraces his long journey for us by talking about his creative processes, some memories and newest projects. [Official Website]
You briefly referred to documentary photography as ‘documentary truth’. This was discussed in a video about your early involvement in documentary and street photography. However, when I view certain pieces of yours (specifically in relation to your performance work) I am reminded of the Spanish film director ‘Victor Erice’ and his film ‘Dream of Light’. The film is important because it deals with this symbiotic relationship between painting and film. Do you believe that your performance pieces reflect this fluid relationship between photography and music, culminating into one final piece?
The short answer is yes, I believe so. I have been a musician for longer that I have been a photographer. I learned guitar at 13 and photography at 17. I play every day, but at a certain point when I was in art school, I realized I had to commit to one or the other. I chose photography but I continued to play through my entire life, switching between styles.
I studied music theory and harmony for 10 years. I compose music for the guitar and perform these compositions in concerts with my videos projected in the background. You can see examples of these on my website under th Performance link. Following that, I noticed that the context of the music is very important, even more so if it accompanies images. There are photographs whose inspiration came from melody.
There’s a relationship with tonalities that interest me. The concept of harmony or “of something that is harmonic” refers to the order of things and how they flow in accordance with their surroundings; It implies a sense of peace and beauty, of balance in a reality that is often chaotic. That musical concept is also applied in photography, and this is how you can also see the symbiotic relationship between painting and film that you mentioned.
I use the guitar and music to extend photography. I want it be part of my art. A symbiosis between the two forms; sight and sound.
Your earlier work seemed to deal with elements of documentary photography, street photography and even photojournalism. However, as your various bodies of work begin to move on, and you start to explore notions of the human body I am confronted with photographs that seem to bridge this idea of surrealism and cinema. Even going back as far as your 1972 series ‘Déjà vu’, was it your intention (from then on) to begin to explore compositions and subjects that fit under this umbrella of cinema and film?
Photography has a relationship to reality as it started in a documentary way. You see, when I was younger, I was (very briefly) a documentary photographer. Most of my early photographs, which were taking during my time as a student in the San Francisco Art Institute in California, were street-documentary pictures.
Then, I came to New York and magazines were immersed in “photographic truth”. That was the rule back then and one had to ask things like “who’s paying for the pictures?” when taking photographs.
During that time, I worked with Robert Frank and not long after, I established myself as an independent photographer. As I forged myself as a photographer, I was becoming more and more aware that I wanted to photograph things as I saw them, so I started working on “Somnambulist” which explored my surrealist tastes.
So yes, exploring this dynamic was among my intentions.
Continuing from my previous question on this subject. Your most recent collections “The vertical horizon” and “Amsterdam” emphasise the abstraction which some of your images in previous collection had, even further. Focusing on specific objects, markings and elements of the human body ever closer. Are you currently still interested in abstraction?
Yes, I’m still interested. Since 1960 I have wanted to move closer to the subject [of abstraction]. I embrace the abstract in photography because I’m not interested in the full-figure. I want to abstract forms. I did a series called ‘Quadrants’ in 1975. Every picture was made at one-meter distance to the subject and, when talking about this, a question comes to my mind: if close to the subject is a formal concern, what are you trying to photograph?
I ask that because, part of abstracting an item comes from “going macro” on it. Getting close in order to achieve a compartmentalizing of the subject. You get close and personal with the details of a person, place or thing by shortening your distance.
With these images, are you attempting to highlight something personal and to convey a certain story or message or are you solely interested in the relationship between materials, objects?
Art is discussed in terms of form and content. The real content of my work is ‘how I look at things’. In a strong photograph what you are seeing is not necessarily in the photograph.
There’s also the issue of subjects and context. If I show you a beautiful nude of a beautiful woman and said “this woman is as beautiful as…” you’d see it a certain way. If I take that same picture but used a different title such as “still no cure for breast cancer” your perspective would definitely change.
Honestly, I just wanted to make photographs you could look at for a long period of time. Longevity is the hardest thing to build into a photograph; and I wanted my photographs to last, to have a great depth in content. Definitely, a non-ephemerous work.
One body of work which I find fascinating and that I feel is a culmination of many of your interests in photography and music is the ‘Light Strings’ collection. Initially when looking at these images the first thing which they seem to resonate with is Picassos cubist work. A specific image of a shadow of a hand that seems to grace a red or orange guitar emphasizes this poetic narrative. Could you expand on how this body of work came to be and maybe your thought process behind capturing specific guitars?
I have always done photographic projects of things that interest me.
I’ve been friends with Andy Summers since 1983. We always wanted to collaborate on a project and we thought of this one. When I started working with Andy, my mind thought of Picasso. I thought that his relationship with the guitar was not only because of his magnificent form, but also because of its feminine form.
He was a Spaniard, and the Spanish have a relationship with the guitar unlike any other culture. He was referring to Spanish culture when he worked with guitars. He was able to do something with the shape, just like he did with all his other works.
We both paid attention to the form of the guitar and the relation it has with the human body, much like Picasso did; the way it imitates the human curves, to create a poetic study of the guitar and its anatomy.
Just as a final question to conclude this interview, is it possible to know a little snippet of what you’re currently working on. If it’s within the realm of music, film, short performances etc?
Yes. I am making a big book about Israel. I was invited to do a commission in the Holy, sacred land. I’m making very abstract pictures of the oldest country in the world.
Asides from that, I completed a 400-page layout of all my work taken from 1971 to the day. It’s a long project. There’s also a series called The Vertical Horizon and it’s almost finished. You will see some of those pictures on my website. I already have 4 shows booked for this year and two books. 2020 will be a productive year.
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Francesco Scalici is currently finalizing his MA course in photography at the University of Lincoln. His work mainly focuses on documentary photography and photojournalism. However, his current project titled ‘Between borders’ attempts to discuss the contraband of narcotics and other substances present between the Spanish and Gibraltarian borders. Although his subject matter is to primarily focus on people and the urban landscape, Francesco has recently attempted to expand his photographic practice by turning his attention to landscape photography, and creating bodies of work that attempt to conceptualise the notion of a story, object or person within the landscapes that he is photographing.