Ralph Gibson is one of contemporary photography’s major heroes. His reputation, although falling short of rockstar status, comes as close to is as any photographer is likely to get. Gibson’s seductive visual metaphors have charmed photo-philes since the early seventies when he published his trilogy of books The Somnambulist, Déjà-vu and Days at Sea. He was in Paris recently for the opening of a show of his new work, “In Situ”, at the Agathe Gaillard Gallery and gave the following interview:
Paris Voice: Your work usually has some point of departure. What is it these days?
Ralph Gibson: The most interesting thing about being me at this moment is simply that after thirty years of staring at the world through my rangefinder, I realize more and more that I have not only just begun, but I am more subject to the forces that caused me to be a photographer in the first place.
I have created nothing, but I have been created, and the idea of a point of departure is really about subjecting oneself to a higher voice. I am not going to get metaphysical, but I am definitely a man who plays homage to his muse.
And in pursuit of my own little myth I find myself following this voice. And it continues to lead me. In the history of photography we have many masterpieces in terms of black and white books. You have Bresson’s Decisive Moment, Frank’s The Americans…many masterpieces. But there is nothing to this caliber in color. Well, I think I’ll waltz with my muse and hope that I might be able to produce something on this order in color.
Paris Voice: The muse can be a capricious lady, has she ever left you?
Ralph Gibson: Never! I have never lost my inspiration. In thirty years the only constant in life has been my relationship to the medium. First you study photography, then you practice photography, then you serve photography, and finally one becomes photography.
Paris Voice: What do you mean, “become photography”?
Ralph Gibson: It’s the point, which perhaps I haven’t reached, but now know of, where there is no separation between one’s life, one’s work and the results of what one does. I’m talking about a total integration. It doesn’t have anything to do with enlightenment. It is something that can only be explained by practicing it.
Paris Voice: Religious faith is sometimes described that way!
Ralph Gibson: I understand these concepts…I am only talking about my relationship to my work. It’s not a question of faith. Faith is the substance of things unseen. Religion is another discourse. Photography is physical fact.
Paris Voice: In your book Tropism your surprised me by saying photography is by its nature surreal; that’s at odds with at least half the tradition of photography.
Ralph Gibson: I am not sure to what extent the tradition of photography – whether modernist or post-modernist – is beholden to any concepts of the surreal. However, I can speak about my own relationship to reality and to photography. Because art as a pursuit, as a concept, as an ideal constantly elevates one above the pragmatic, one is inclined to discuss art in heightened terminologies. For me it is just what I do all day long. It’s neither good nor bad. But when you spend 24 hours a day contemplating the nature of things and how they are photographed and what they subsequently mean, one starts to act in a different matter.
Paris Voice: Or think in a different manner?
Ralph Gibson: Reality takes on a different look. One of the reasons I love to come to Paris is because the decorative arts are so refined that I am always walking through one proscenium into another frame.
Paris Voice: Do you shoot differently in Paris than in the States?
Ralph Gibson: I shoot the same pictures wherever I go. But I will say this, I shoot color in Paris better than anywhere else.
Pairs Voice: I noticed that you don’t have any color photos at Agathe Gaillard’s gallery.
Ralph Gibson: This show In Situ – things in their place – is my most refrigerated and cerebral series of pictures. I wanted an ice-cold point-blank kind of feeling.
Let’s begin with a traditional notion of snapshot. We take a picture of grandma standing in front of the house. Everybody does this and loves this. So, we have solved one problem, which is to depict grandma in front of the house only to create a much larger one. We have depicted grandma in front of the house – now what? Well, the minute you have made a photograph you are in trouble because you can’t just read it. You have to assimilate its meaning. The reason photography in France is currently moving so well is because of the ability of the French to assimilate philosophical meaning into their everyday life.
The audience for photography, especially in Paris, goes outside the traditional photographic audience. In America I am very well-known by photographers; in Paris, perhaps I am also well-known by people who are not photographers. In France photography is a form of thought, which is embraced by a large body of the population. In America, photography is something embraced by people who love photography.
Paris Voice: Are there any other differences between the French and U.S. photo scenes?
Ralph Gibson: I think that the pendulum is shifting. American photography has been foremost and predominant. But the next generation in photography will not be American. It’s already indicated to be European, and primarily French. The next wave is coming from here.
Paris Voice: Do you say that because of the painterly tendency in photography these days?
Ralph Gibson: Painterly is only an interesting word if it means an attempt at greater content.
Paris Voice: I meant it literally. Photographers who use paint and manipulate their images seem quite appreciated in some American gallery circles now.
Ralph Gibson: I don’t think the manipulated image is anything more or less than that. A manipulated image doesn’t pose a riddle. The conundrum of so-called straight photography will always be much more intense that the manipulated image. Painting will always have incredible depth because of itself. But photography combined with painting is not. There are a few great people like Witkin, but his work is more about the construction of the tableau. For all his smirtzing around and fooling with the surface, he doesn’t necessarily have to do that. His work would be terribly strong without it.
Paris Voice: Let’s go back to what you were saying about the next wave of photographers coming from Europe.
Ralph Gibson: What has always made photography interesting is the way it makes us think. The way we think about it and subsequently then the way we think. Well, to think visually is a kind of nonlinear way of being, and if you look at what’s going on theoretically in the writings and works of what people are trying for in Europe, it’s clearly the next thing…Now there is a generation after my generation starting to come of age, influenced by the discoveries of my generation, plus video, satellites, walking on the moon, computers and such.
Paris Voice: Who do you think is especially interesting here?
Ralph Gibson: You have several important workers: Eve Guillot, Gilles Mora and Lewis Baltz, who is an American living in Europe. There are also writers like Denis Roche. The only issue remaining in photography is how to open up new territory. We are not going to perform variations on other photographers’ themes any longer.
Paris Voice: There’s been a lot of that in France during the last ten years.
Ralph Gibson: Because there is an academy in France, art is going to be taught in and experienced along classical lines. But in a medium as young as photography it is ridiculous to have that position.
Paris Voice: What were you saying about focus at the Gallery on opening night?
Ralph Gibson: The idea is to break the focus. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three steps required to write a great novel, unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” Jean-Luc Godard said, “Every film must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that sequence.” Well, I like the idea of a photograph having a foreground, a middleground and background, but not necessarily arranged in that manner.
Paris Voice: But up to now that’s basically what you have done. Things have been in their place.
Ralph Gibson: No, when I did the “Black Series” I brought the picture plan forward to the surface of the print. Visual devices and visual theories are only interesting in terms of how much content they will release or harbor. It’s the act of perception that informs the photographer as well as the spectator. If and when I see something clearly that’s the end of the problem. Then the conundrum begins. But if something is not well seen, it’s not going to be well-portrayed, and it doesn’t matter where you put the foreground, etc. If you don’t see it right, it’s no contest, you have nothing. If you see something well, see something clearly, if an act of perception actually reveals something to the eye, the mind immediately struggles to catch up. The question then is, does the eye reveal something or is something revealed to the eye?
Paris Voice: In the show at Agathe’s do you have a favorite image?
Ralph Gibson: Yes, the one of the menu on the cover of my new book. One of the reasons I love that photo so much and use it on the cover is because I have always used typography or typographic forms in my books and projects. I continue to flirt with typography and signs.
Paris Voice: Have you experimented with text and images together?
Ralph Gibson: I have been trying. Text is harder for me than images. I am articulate when I speak, but when I sit at the word processor it comes slowly…linearity has never been my strong suit.
Paris Voice: The last time we were talking you were mentioning the importance of a visual signature…
Ralph Gibson: A visual signature is something that is won only after the most severe inner battles. It is very easy to copy the works of those we admire.
Photography is a medium in which the ideas of others are easily borrowed, but to hack off a piece of the territory that is one’s own, a visual area which constantly refers to one’s own enterprise, doesn’t often happen. But there is no doubt, when we look at a Diane Arbus, or an imitation of Arbus, we know what we are seeing. I would rather be a mediocre pioneer than an excellent imitator.