Contemporary art photographer Ralph Gibson speaks to Chandni Gajria about his inspiration and his quest to ‘be pure’.
The most intriguing thing about Ralph Gibson is his ability to create fiction and abstracts with the simplest of objects. Ralph is known for creating balanced compositions with strong curves, shapes and lines and has been photographing for more than 50 years. Interestingly, he also believes that being cultured enhances his personality, and consequently, his photography.
Born in Los Angeles in 1939, Ralph often accompanied his father to Hollywood movie sets where he had a few small acting stints. In the 1950s, Ralph was introduced to photography while studying for the US Navy. Soon, he moved to the San Francisco Art Institute and by the age of 22, he got hold of his first camera—a Leica.
Surrealism to Abstraction
Although Ralph was mentored by photojournalistic greats like Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, his work began to have profoundly surrealistic influences. “My mother came from Costa Rica and I was brought up as a Catholic. That, in my understanding, is enough to make one a surrealist. From all the ‘isms’ in art, I believe that surrealism is the only ‘ism’ which is also a philosophy.” However, as time passed, this early influence has now evolved into something that is perhaps more mature. “Now, I am more interested in abstract sounds and music.” One example of this interest is his Light Strings series which has unique perspectives of guitars—from vibrant colour images to stark black and whites.
Looking for Inspiration
Every photographer draws inspiration from somewhere. But, according to Ralph, the key is not to get too inspired. “The truth is I get most of my inspiration from studying other cultures. Also, I get most of my inspiration from music.” Ralph has been exploring the relationship between music and photography and music in cinema. “I have never lost my inspiration,” he states. Interestingly, during one of his shows of the Light Strings series, Ralph was playing the guitar as the photographs were exhibited.
On Creating a Visual Signature
To have an individualistic style is important for a photographer. It goes on to become a signature. Ralph explains, “When you look at a Henri-Cartier Bresson image, you do not have to look at the back of the photograph to know whom it belongs to. Instinctively, you know it is a Bresson. That is because all great photographers have a visual signature.” Speaking about his own visual signature, he elucidates, “I have investigated a lot of ideas—I love taking pictures of nothing, of ordinary objects, maybe even just the corner of a room. I love flattening and even reducing things. When I photograph flesh, I like to make it look like a stone. But, when I am photographing a stone, I like to make it look alive. I love re-contextualising the quality of my subjects.”
The Point of Departure
Be it a series on nudes or even a project on France—most of his work has been based on a simple piece of advice imparted to him by Dorothea Lange. “After assisting Dorothea for a year, she looked at my work and said, ‘I see the problem here. You have no point of departure.’” Gradually, Ralph came to understand that this point of departure meant looking for an unusual point of interest or perspective in an ordinary frame. To help achieve this point of departure, he says, “Take your camera everywhere with you, even when you go to the drugstore to buy a toothpaste. If you have your camera in tow, chances are that you might come across a striking frame. But, if you just stand at the corner of a street and wait for something to happen, you will never get a picture.”
A Debate on Black and White
On the popular debate of whether to shoot in black and white or colour, Ralph laughs and replies that he works in both of them. He further explains, “So-called ‘reality’ exists in three dimensions. It has a 100 percent scale and colour. If you reduce the scale, and then convert it into black and white, you will reduce it to two dimensions. This is what makes for stark, graphical images. Thus, there is more drama in black and white.” Ask him if he was ever confused while choosing between black and white and colour, and he says, “Initially, I did. Now, I do not.”
Evolving with Time
How has he changed as a person and to what extent has this change been reflected in his work? He replies amusedly, “I have been able to photograph most of the emotions that I have felt and wanted to express.” However, he feels that the satisfaction of creating good work does not last for too long and one has to keep searching for new avenues.
To Be Pure
Photography is a medium where one admires the work done by others. “In older cultures,” Ralph says, “it is the only way a culture can keep itself alive.” He particularly mentions France and India where art is now taught and has become more academic. However, a popular trend is to imitate or to do something that has already been explored. “If you go to France, you will find artists trying to reproduce the Mona Lisa, a famous painting. The American culture is only a few hundred years old and I have more opportunity as well as the desire to make my work look like it is mine.” However, Ralph advises new generations to ‘be pure’. It is great to admire the work of other people, but necessary to have one’s own distinctive style. “It amuses me when photographers announce that they have reproduced the work of great artists like Diane Arbus. I would rather be a mediocre photographer than an excellent imitator” Ralph brings forth so many concepts on life, music, art, as well as the photographic medium. Yet, one can find a distinctive style to his body of work. You can almost hear him smile when he says, “The best thing I have ever heard about my work is when someone said—that is unmistakably a Ralph Gibson photograph. That feels good.”
To see more of Ralph’s work log onto www.ralphgibson.com