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Ralph Gibson: The French Connection

A new book from Ralph Gibson, “Salon Littéraire,” offers a half-century of the legendary photographer’s stunning (and surprising) images of France.

The great Ralph Gibson has a new book out which, for me, is always an event. Ralph, now 85, has been a photo pioneer for decades. In his youth, he assisted Dorothea Lange, and had the eye, insight, and talent to publish early books by Robert Frank and Larry Clark. 

© Ralph Gibson
© Ralph Gibson

Gibson makes beautiful, unexpected photographs that, often, carry a hint (or more) of the surreal. They are pictures that make you think, that make you look harder. But Gibson does something else: He creates books that are not just a collection of images, but a brilliantly curated excursion in which photos whisper to each other across the spread, and across the pages.  

His latest, Salon Littéraire, is an absolutely stunning love song to France, which Gibson has visited regularly for 50 years. (In 2018, the president of France awarded him the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.) But it’s not the love song you might expect. This is not the France of the Eiffel Tower or couples flirting by the Seine. It’s the France of small gestures. Of details, of textures, of juxtapositions, of shadows and typography, that few take note of and only someone like Ralph (with his Leica) is able to capture. The drum-tight images of a button-down shirt demand as much attention as a waiter’s hand somehow holding a dozen glasses or a boat gliding on glistening blue waters. It’s an intimate book that hums with life.  

© Ralph Gibson
© Ralph Gibson
© Ralph Gibson
© Ralph Gibson

When I asked Gibson how Salon Littéraire came to be, he told me this: “It’s the result of a lifetime of love for a country and its culture. I was fortunate to be part of the first generation to have inexpensive air travel, and starting with the success of The Somnambulist [his groundbreaking 1970 book], I used every dollar for travel.” Gibson recalled that back then he was eager to explore the culture of Europe, and, he said, “In France, I realized I would find what I was looking for and wanted to put into my photographs. I sought out the intellectual edge as it combined with the sophisticated decorative arts.” And you see that, you feel that, throughout the book. Gibson remains fascinated by France (“I read in French daily”), but, he told me, and I found this intriguing, “I’ve always wanted to look with the eyes of an American, unrestricted and unbiased. I will remain the perpetual tourist, a citizen of the world.”

© Ralph Gibson

Salon Littéraire is big and beautiful and heavy (13 x 19 inches, weighing six pounds, with 400 images) and expertly printed by Brilliant Graphics, where you can order the book.

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