“A good photograph, like a good painting, speaks with a loud voice and demands time and attention if it is to be fully perceived. An art lover is perfectly willing to hang a painting on a wall for years on end, but ask him to study a single photograph for ten unbroken minutes and he’ll think it’s a waste of time. Staying power is difficult to build into a photograph. Mostly, it takes content. A good photograph can penetrate the subconscious – but only if it is allowed to speak for however much time it needs to get there.” - Ralph Gibson
I have to admit, my initial decision to choose Ralph Gibson as one of my 'B&W Photographic Heroes', was a hasty one. I quickly decided I was drawn to his work by only seeing a hand-full of his images. However, as I have been exploring his work and learning more about his style, personality and character, I recognize it was quite an intuitive decision after all! In reading some of his philosophies on photography and creating art, I found myself agreeing with many of his insights and ideas. Somehow, I relate.
On the technical side of Ralph Gibsons' work, for most of his career he has worked exclusively with Leica. Specifically, the 35mm rangefinder camera. He states “The rangefinder enables one to see what’s outside of the frame as well as what’s inside of the frame. With a rangefinder you see something, you make the exposure and you continue to look at what you’re seeing. The rangefinder is ideally matched to the perceptive act, the personal act of perception.”
When Ralph is out shooting, he typically carries two Leica bodies and three fixed lenses. One body will have color negative film and the other black and white. He almost exclusively uses Rodinal chemisty and Kodak TriX black and white film. On occasion he will use Fuji 400 or Neopan 1600. For colour film, he will typically use Fuji Superia 100. As far as metering goes, he uses his TTL meter in the most general sense, typically center-weighted. When he is shooting black and white, he will rarely pay any attention to it at all! Aside from the time spent in the studio, he will also rarely use a tripod.
Ralph is well know for his skill in the dark room and has great respect for his materials. To this day, he develops all his own film. He states, “I base the fact that I develop my film personally means that there’s going to be certain irregularities in my agitation. And I have discovered that, in these irregularities there is some creative input. I don’t want my film to be developed too well, too cleanly, too smoothly. I don’t want that slick look. I’ve had a life long relationship with grain.” I think this approach is a big part of what makes his images and style unique.
With his traditional and formal style of approaching photography, I find it commendable he remains dedicated and true to his craft in this digital age. However, Ralph Gibson is no stranger to the computer and digital darkroom. He is well versed in both Photoshop techniques and Quark which he primarily uses for his photo book layouts and prepping for exhibition Iris prints. With his long-time relationship with Leica, often they will send him new equipment to experiment with. He feels digital photography is all about resolution, as though it’s going to provide us with a picture that harbors more content, more emotional power. He agrees it’s very good for a certain kind of graphic thing in colour but he doesn’t necessarily do that kind of photography. He feels that digital just doesn’t look the way photography looks, it looks like digital. Digital photography is another kind of information and excels in areas that he is really not interested in. I love how he states, “I’m interested in the alchemy of light on film and chemistry and silver. When I’m taking a photograph I imagine the light rays passing through my lens and penetrating the emulsion of my film. And when I’m developing my film I imagine the emulsion swelling and softening and the little particles of silver tarnishing.” He not only pre-visualizes the image, he pre-visualizes the process. He communicates with his materials.
Compositionally, Ralph Gibson’s work is simple, tight and typically formally designed. As I stated in a previous essay introducing Gibson, he is a master of dramatic understatement. His high-contrast pictures - usually focusing on one geometric element (the corner of a room or set of stairs) or a single human gesture (the curve of a hand) - form a kind of dream-narrative when gathered together. Or, as Gibson puts it, "I embrace the abstract in photography and exist on a few bits of order extracted from the chaos of reality". Gibson’s minimalist black and white compositions have influenced a generation of photographers. By isolating the essential elements of a scene, his pictures show a style that is unique and immediately recognizable. His images often incorporate fragments with erotic and mysterious undertones, building narrative meaning through contextualization and surreal juxtaposition.
Gibson knows an image when he sees it but he rarely knows what his next photograph will be unless of course, he is working on a specific project. He mostly crops in-camera, meaning he will move in closer and take things away until he gets everything out of the frame except what he wants. Therefore his process is considered subtractive rather than additive. Part of this subtraction has to do with casting things into the deep shadows to eliminate a lot of unwanted detail and activity. In doing so, he creates a shape. Instead of just being a variation on light, for him shadows become cut forms. He’ll typically take a picture of anything in an attempt to compose it within the proportions of the ‘golden’ means (the 24x36mm proportion) just to see if he can compose it perfectly. I love how he strongly uses design elements like line, shape and texture to create his images. He can very successfully transform a seemingly simple and humble object into a subject of importance.
I chose the above three images to illustrate his style. I love all of these images for similar compositional reasons. They are simple, beautiful and striking. They have impact and are memorable.
In almost all of his images, there are strong lines and angles, especially at about 45 degrees! This really strengthens the image. The deep shadows and perfectly exposed highlights add depth and weight that support other graphic elements within the image. He composes in an abstract way that adds mystery and surrealism. I find it very interesting in many of his images, there is a person's hand included and placed precisely in the compositions. Does it have a specific or implied deeper meaning, or is it simply a design element? I am curious and wish to research this further! He captures what the eye does not normally see and I feel that is what photographic art is all about!