Celebrated photographer Ralph Gibson on making his new book—both its magical images and its spreads that are always greater than the sum of their parts.
If you ever get the chance to talk to Ralph Gibson—the legendary photographer behind a shelf’s-worth of books and a staggering number of iconic images—you must jump at it. Let me tell you why: With apologies to my girlfriend (who I find endlessly fascinating) and to my kids (whose calls home from college I live for), the single-most entertaining, far-ranging, fast-moving pinball-game of a conversation I’ve had this year was the 79 minutes and 46 seconds I spent with Gibson talking about six spreads from his new book.
A small taste:
On his friend Helmut Newton: “I was talking to Helmut about his commercial photography, and I said to him, ‘Helmut, what do you tell yourself when you get up in the morning?’ He says, ‘Ralphie, I get up in the morning and I say to myself, 'I'll show those fuckers.'"
On playing guitar and making photo books: “If you take a guitar and you hit three notes—C, E, and G—while those strings are vibrating, additional tonalities are released. These overtones cannot be directly struck. They're physical phenomena of different vibrations mixing together. For the longest time, I've applied this principle to my two-page spreads—that the total equals more than the sum of its parts.”
On how to photograph anything: “If you know how to photograph architecture, and if you know how to photograph the human figure, the nude, what you've learned from those two subjects can teach you how to photograph anything.”
Gibson, now 81, recently published a sharp-eyed, deeply resonant book called Sacred Land, 216 pages of visually poetic observations about Israel. By peering into the tiny cracks of Israeli culture—its peeling paint, architectural details, objects left on the ground, the markings on its tanks—Gibson uncovers clues to the country’s collective unconscious. The kind of clues that most of us walk right past.
But Sacred Land isn’t so much a book of pictures as a book of spreads, which is one of Gibson’s signatures as an artist. He assembles them like exquisite puzzles; only when the pieces click together, do we see a deeper meaning, do we begin to understand how Gibson perceives the world around him. As he wrote in his brilliant 2018 autobiography-with-pictures, Self-Exposure, “Seeing [the photographs] as they relate to one another in that particular space of the page, their true content is revealed.” And so it is here; you can almost hear the images whispering to each other.
To make Sacred Land, Gibson traveled to Israel three times (“only 19 shooting days!”), but there’s no sense of rush or “we’ll get it next time” in these pages: Gibson stops to investigate the stripes on a piece of candy even as he’s hopping a helicopter to King Herod’s hilltop fortress. (The book was commissioned, produced, and planned with Mossad-style efficiency by Gibson’s friend, the global investment manager and philanthropist Martin Cohen.) “I've been to a lot of countries. I've been around. But I've never been as completely overwhelmed as I was in Israel,” says Gibson, who then shifts into a higher gear: “The past, the present, the future. The shapes, the color, the context, the people, the history, the meaning, the art, the beauty. It just completely subsumed my entire being.”
Though not meant as an instructional, for the student of photography, Sacred Land is a master class in finding pictures and displaying them. Here, Gibson, a Guggenheim Fellow and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France, shares his insights about making his images as well as his magic, whispering spreads.
What at first glance might seem like an oddball non sequitur—a display of the damage inflicted by armor-piercing-shells paired with a smoothed-by-millennia piece of marble—becomes, on Gibson’s carefully constructed spread, more like a cultural peephole. “When I travel to different places in different lands, I look for their system of signs,” says Gibson. “They repeat themselves and I follow that to the culture.” Yes, the textures of these objects are completely different, and yes, one was forged in a split-second of violence while the other was carefully carved over months, and yet their shapes are nearly identical. “I’m seeing this because I’m in Israel. You would not walk down West Broadway and create a similar juxtaposition. This was a vivid artifact of the entire country.”
Yesterday and Today
One night, Gibson spotted this young woman zipping through the dark streets on her motorbike. He instantly recalled an image he’d made—of a religious icon—on a previous trip to Israel. “I saw the woman turn left and I realized that I was seeing the negative correspondence of the icon image. The woman’s helmet had the same texture as the icon’s metal,” he explains. “The dark skin of her face was a positive shape, lighter than the silhouette. That was what made the picture happen.”
It was the kind of moment Gibson had learned to recognize. That’s because when he was assisting the great photographer Dorothea Lange in 1961, he received a lesson that he relies on to this day: Know your point of departure. That is, before going to shoot, have a sense, however vague, of what you’re trying to find. “It's not a confining thing,” he explains. “It's liberating, because having something in mind leads to pictures” and could lead you to something even more interesting than what you were looking for. “This has been the backbone of my career,” he says. “It brings the eye and emotions into clearer focus. I don't touch my Leica without knowing my point of departure.” For Sacred Land, Gibson’s point of departure was that Israel is both the oldest and the youngest country, a real-time intersection that plays out on this spread. “Old and new—that's what Israel is,” he says. “Israel is that icon and Israel is that brown-skinned girl on the motorbike.”
Seeing Design Integrity
At the edge of the desert and overlooking the Dead Sea, Masada is a 2,000 year-old fortress that sits atop a rock plateau—and one of Israel’s must-see tourist sites. Gibson arrived by helicopter. “I knew I wanted the shape of Masada. I wanted that shadow on the edge,” says Gibson. “Aerial photography is doable if you know how to direct the pilot in his vocabulary. I had learned aerial photography in the Navy, so I got the picture.” After landing, Gibson ventured into chamber of King Herod, who defended the fortress for months against invading Roman soldiers. He walked in and noticed that archeologists had done a partial restoration of the wall decoration. “I immediately recognized the shape of what remained. How could it not be so? There is a design integrity that runs through all shapes created about the same time,” Gibson explains. “Like a Porsche looks like a Porsche inside as well as outside, and then you look under the hood, and the engine sort of looks like a Porsche too.”
Show of Hands
Even the most casual scan of Gibson’s images reveals that the human hand has been a leitmotif over his celebrated 60-year career: the unforgettable image of a young Mark Ellen Mark reaching longingly toward the camera; a baby’s hand poking out of a bassinet; the hand emerging mysteriously from beyond a door that haunts the cover of his breakthrough 1970 book, The Somnambulist. “Hands continually resurface and restructure my photographs,” he says. But there’s more going on here than the reflection of these two hands: Gibson is exploring how black-and-white and color images talk to each other across a spread. “Let's consider that reality exists in 100 percent scale, three dimensions, and color,” he explains. “In this case, we're taking a full-size woman and we're reducing her in scale, we're reducing her to two dimensions, and we're taking away the color so we're reducing her in color. Because it’s black and white, it's now three steps abstracted from reality,” Gibson says. “I have a different dialogue with myself for every spread.”
“I'm a photographer who sees in shapes. That's what I’ve learned from my eyes,” Gibson says. “If I hold up my hand and spread my fingers and ask someone, ‘What do you see?’ They'll say ‘five fingers.’ I say, ‘Well, what about the space between the fingers?’” Of course, he’s also a photographer who started off doing documentary street work, and both threads run through this spread. When Gibson visited a Bedouin camp, he spotted the tent poles and “wanted very much to create a composition with those diagonal verticals. I had the camera to my eye and I saw the girl walking that way. These things happen very quickly, but I was photographing rhythm and I simply walked her into that space.” Sometime later, while visiting Masada, the hilltop fortress, he spotted the bird: “I saw the point of his tail and the space between his beak open, and I recognized that shape as having some meaning.”
Addition By Subtraction
Israel is, of course, known as the Jewish state, but it’s actually home to more than a dozen religions, so it’s fitting that one of the book’s most subtle, most resonant spreads focuses on a monk’s rope cincture. Gibson, who was raised Catholic and was always fascinated by its symbolism, masterfully constructs the spread so that the monk’s belt—which symbolizes his vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience—echoes the band of light falling faintly on the Dead Sea, while his softly rounded collar speaks to the shape of the mountains in the background. “I fill the frame a certain way,” Gibson explains. “My work is very subtractive. I'm taking out of the frame what I don't want.” We’re left with graphic elements so strong they almost vibrate.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of Life magazine; on Instagram, he’s @billshapiro
Ralph Gibson, Sacred Land
Published by Lustrum Press
9.25 X 12.25 inches
Available from Artbook.com here.