When Ralph Gibson’s first major work “The Somnambulist” was published in 1970, it marked a monumental moment in the evolution of photography. At a time when the medium was essentially defined by its ability to document reality in the form of photojournalism, Gibson was one of the first exponents of a new approach. Inspired by artists, writers and musicians of the day, “The Somnambulist” represented a seismic shift in the visual language of photography.
Born on 16 January 1939 in Los Angeles, the son of an assistant director at Warner Bros., Gibson recalls the impact of Life Magazine during his early childhood. Flicking through its pages, he learnt to read a black and white photo. Pre-Internet and before the advent of modern media, visual literacy was in its infancy. Looking back over the last 80 years, Gibson notes that today’s visual language was not always there. Like any other language it had to be learned.
Gibson’s own education was far from plain sailing. He dropped out of high school aged 16 and started working as an apprentice mechanic. Six months later he enrolled in the U.S. Navy. Here he began training as a photographer’s mate in Pensacola, Florida, where he benefited from the high-quality, technical expertise of his instructors. Nevertheless he managed to fail the course. “I had failed my family, high school, and now photography school”.
A letter to the captain of the base succeeded in him being readmitted and he then passed at the second attempt. In 1957 he was assigned to the U.S.S. Tanner – a hydrographic survey ship. Conditions on board were cramped and inhospitable, and the new recruit sought solace in the ship’s darkroom. Surrounded by endless supplies of film and equipment he fostered his autodidactic tendencies, “learning how to learn”.
It was on board the U.S.S. Tanner that Gibson’s fate to become a photographer was sealed. Manning the “dog watch” in the early hours of the morning, tied to a life-line in the midst of a horrendous storm, he found himself howling to the heavens, “I’m going to be a photographer”. From that point on he never looked back. “Above that raging storm was my lucky star. A vocation is an absolute, a gift from the gods (…) The worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to be the best.”
After 3 years, 6 months, 27 days and 10 hours enlisted in the U.S. Navy, Gibson walked down the gangplank in New York and into the flamboyant 10th Street art scene. Inspired by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and jazz musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Gibson began the search for a new, more abstract form of expression through photography. He had learnt the technical skills required but lacked experience and, above all, a clearly defined creative voice.
His early style was graphic in composition and displayed strong contrast in black and white, yet he was greatly occupied with the search for meaningful content. In 1961 the head of the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, where Gibson was then enrolled, loaned him a Leica M2 with a 35mm lens. It was the beginning of a relationship with Leica cameras that would endure for the next 60 years, and immeasurably aid in the forging of his visual style. In his recent autobiography “Self-Exposure” (2018), Gibson states that, “My Leica and I are interdependent.”
In 1961 he became assistant to Dorothea Lange. Only after a year working for the documentary photographer was he allowed to show her his own photos, to which she commented that his images lacked a “point of departure”. This admonition helped Gibson realize that every photo had to have a relevance to a larger, specific whole. It was a turning point that would greatly influence his work on “The Somnambulist”.
“Every image has to be part of an on-going project. Otherwise you don’t have a body of work you just have a box of photographs.”
During the early 60s Gibson began working as a photojournalist, honing his camera handling on the street and managing to get by from job to job. However he was yearning for the rich culture of New York and in 1966 he left again for the East coast.
Having done a favor for Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson, Gibson was repaid with a week’s rent at the Chelsea Hotel. It was here he came into contact with a number of artists, who would go on to become masters of their fields. The initial week-long stay turned into a 3-year residency.
Having achieved probationary membership at Magnum, it was during the 60s that Gibson’s desire to become a photojournalist or commercial photographer died. By this point he had fully internalized the theory and practice of photography. His camera handling skills, enhanced by the dexterity that came from playing guitar and practicing his magic tricks in front of the mirror as a child, were very well-honed. Nonetheless he had no desire to shoot photos for magazines and newspapers. He was devoutly opposed to the idea of people seeing a picture and turning the page, seeing a picture, turning the page. He wanted to create images with staying power and not simply “transient ephemera”, to use his terminology.
“The easiest thing to do in the world is to be a photographer. You just have to push the button. The hardest thing as a photographer is to make an image which you can look at for a long time.”
However, by this time he owed 9 months rent and had pawned 3 of his Leicas. It was a difficult period and, by his own admission, Gibson struggled to understand his work at first. In search of a “point of departure” he began hanging up his photos in the tiny kitchenette of room 923 at the Chelsea hotel. “I knew I was trying to express something but I didn’t know it until I saw it in front of me”
It was a crucial step towards creating the book “The Somnambulist”. For the first time he was looking at his photographs for an extended period. “Day after day, understanding everything that was in those images.” He also honed his understanding of image proportions, graphic design and sequencing, driven by the desire to get the images to say what he wanted them to. Principles, which Gibson continues to explore and develop in his bookmaking workshops today.
“If you want to find out about your own photographs find a comfy chair and look at your best shot for 3 hours, without taking your eyes off it. It’s a bitch but afterwards you will know a lot more about who you are as a photographer.”
Wanting to free himself from all creative constraints he quit Magnum, founded Lustrum Press and in 1970 published “The Somnambulist”. The book was a great success and at the age of 30 Gibson had achieved the recognition and personal satisfaction he was craving.
Wanting to give something back to the medium, he went on to publish the photography of friends (“Tulsa” by Larry Clark in 1971 and “The Lines of My Hand” by Robert Frank in 1972), as well as more of his own work (“Déjà vu” in 1972 and “Days at Sea” in 1974). His subjective, abstract approach was coupled with a recontextualization of the images in their layout and sequencing, redefining the act of communicating meaning through images. As such, a new visual language was born – A language that spoke of the world of dreams, memories and the workings of the subconscious mind.
Throughout the decades that followed, Gibson went on to travel the world, befriending many of the masters of photography such as Cartier-Bresson, Kertész and Lartigue. He also continued to work prolifically, further developing and expanding his own visual language.
“Travel engages more of the senses than any activity or phenomenon: light, smell, taste, language. It is the most sensual thing one can do (…) The shapes and the colors of a place become its visual syntax, recontextualized by the act of photography.”
Unwilling or incapable of achieving satisfaction through the achievements of his past and driven by a thirst for knowledge, Gibson has always strived for new, innovative forms of photography and visual communication. Exploring in great depth the nuances of various focal lengths, embracing color photography and more recently digital, he says that “the photographs that interest me the most are my next ones.”
To mark his 80th birthday, the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles is opening an exhibition entitled “Digital Color” on 17 January 2019. It is further testament to Gibson’s longevity and his enduring search to reveal the unseen. The following image from the exhibition was taken by Gibson at the age of 79. The digital sensor of his camera reveals a red line in the negative space of the leg’s shadow – A phenomenon that pleases Gibson immensely. “A medium is someone who looks into a crystal ball and sees something which others can’t. Photography is a medium. I can see more as a photographer than I can with my naked eye.”
When discussing digital media and its effect on photography, Gibson makes a poignant distinction. “Digital media has meant photography has become a different phenomena (…) a communication form rather than an art form”. Yet he appreciates the empowering nature of various online platforms and speaks enthusiastically about the YouTube tutorials he likes to watch during the evening. He remarks that life is moving faster than ever before and he’s certainly enjoying the ride. “Most men my age are either retired or dead or both.”
One constant throughout the last 60 years of his extraordinary career has been Leica. Describing the unique feel of a Leica M in the hand, Gibson opines, “Leica invented ergonomics before the word was invented!” He realized early on that the Leica could do everything he could possibly ask of it and committed himself, without getting caught up in the search for endless pieces of equipment.
This commitment to Leica is only matched by Gibson’s devotion to photography itself. From that moment, harnessed to the deck of the U.S.S Tanner, when he vowed to become a photographer, he has followed an unwavering path in the pursuit of a rare goal. Referring to a note he once made in his journal, he explains that there are, in theory, three phases in the life of any great photographer. Firstly one learns photography, secondly one serves photography and the very few may one day “become” photography. He speaks of his dear friend Kertész as having achieved such status and one can only wonder whether the same will one day be said about the photographer Ralph Gibson.
You can see an extensive archive of Ralph Gibson’s photography on his website.
Follow this link to find out more about his current exhibition “Digital Color” at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles.