Les Deux Musées, a café across the street from the Musée d’Orsay: Ralph Gibson is sitting at a table, with a Leica hanging off his shoulder like a natural extension of his body. His eye lingers on a poster pasted on the side of a kiosk: “Behind you, there’s a picture of a hotel, that’s the Hotel Chelsea in New York. I lived there for three years from 1967 to 1969, and it was there that I met Leonard Cohen. We became very good friends, (Gibson would accompany him on the guitar on the album New Skin for Old Ceremony,1974), Everyone was at that hotel!”
Arriving at, now-iconic, artists’ haunt, with $200 to his name and three Leicas, two of which he’d pawned, Gibson became Robert Frank’s assistant. He had already followed Dorothea Lange’s precepts in the early 1960s and as a child, had hung around the film sets of Alfred Hitchcock, who employed his father as an assistant. Some would say, he attended the right school.
Born in 1939, Gibson went through the US Navy photography program before doing a stint at Magnum and honing his bright blue eye in the company the masters. “They welcomed me into their world because I was younger and wasn’t competition as a photographer,” he recalls.
“They gave me three important pieces of advice: André Kertész told me that a photographer should learn to photograph everything; Henri Cartier-Bresson said, ‘Ralph, you think too much’; and Robert Frank advised, ‘If you think photography is too complicated, then you should try fucking.’” Gibson has the gift of gab, the wit, and the attitude of a self-made man.
Since his remarkable Somnambulist came out in 1970, released by his own publishing house, Lustrum Press, Gibson has not stopped writing through images, reinventing the narrative of photography across more than thirty books. Refractions 2 delivers a melody of texts and images, Gibson’s reflections on the medium, the lessons he has learned along the way, and some insights on his decades in the service of the image.
Steeped in French culture, Gibson cherishes words as much as he does photography, and his books have shaped a new way of showcasing art photography through a literary impulse and a science of layout (go straight to the double-page spread at pp. 160–61 in Refractions 2).
“In recent years, I have begun to write more seriously about my aesthetic. Anything you can understand you express in words; and if you can’t, you haven’t really understood.” Nicolas Boileau said something to the same effect: “What is well conceived can be clearly stated, and the words will come easily.”
The book form is an intimate way of reading the image. It represents a higher level of intellectualization of photography which this New Yorker by adoption dissociates from the social experience of the exhibition: “in a book, we can see how photographs can make us think.”
The opening words of Refractions 2 are like a manifesto. Photography is a calling, a service, a spiritual quest. “First you study photography, then you serve photography, and then you eventually become photography. When Kertész died, some part of photography went with him. He was photography.”
Becoming a photographer, he tells us, is the result of soaking up art history, learning from one’s peers, and constant humility. “I am always in training,” he likes to repeat like a credo in his American-inflected French.
France is special to him. Land of culture and aesthetics. Yet he takes a critical look at it, announcing the inevitable decline of the great European cultures. Gibson comes to ring the bells. France has an obligation, a responsibility toward photography. “It is the birthplace of photography. It is the only country where photography is considered on par with literature.”
Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and then appointed Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Légion d’honneur in 2018, Ralph Gibson—who left school at sixteen and whose favorite word in the language of Molière is “exigeant” (demanding)—recalls defining encounters with French intellectuals. They include “Madame Marguerite,” as he affectionately calls Marguerite Duras, who penned the preface to his book The History of France.
The writer is featured in Refractions 2, a cigarette in her hand, her face overshadowed by her rectangular glasses. “Her entire body of writing had made an enormous impact on my perceptions and to have her as a friend was an honor unlike any other.” Noting that “[he] was very lucky to have met all these people,” the photographer raised his arm to the sky in salute.
“I keep my eyes open”
Gibson’s work bears the traces of these encounters, of his fascination with the work of Matisse, Duchamp, Pollock, Degas, and with literature, especially the Nouveau Roman, Mallarmé’s poetry, the proportions of ancient Greece, and cinema. “Without doubt, I was influenced by Hitchcock’s use of the “insert,” or close-up of a detail. To this day I continue to move in closer and closer to the subject.”
Divided into thematic chapters, Refractions 2 retraces Gibson’s dreamlike universe, bathed in symbolism. These black-and-white photographs plunge into deep black with its imperial contrasts. Gibson’s eye captures lines that strike just the right balance, curves that envelop the frame, and matter that exceeds it.
Gibson has also worked with color—a medium often omitted in discussions of his work. He got into it through digital photography. “After fifty-five years of working with film, I wanted to speak another language,” he said in French. “Today, working with digital cameras is much easier for me, but what remains most important is my eye, not the medium.”
Gibson abruptly stood up. “You see this single nail sticking out from the wall all by itself, with no picture, it has a very curious shadow.” Snap. “It’s the presence of absence.” He sat back down. “I always keep my eyes open. The best way for me to find photographs is to leave the camera at home,” he quipped. “Then I see photographs everywhere. That’s really the best way.”
That’s not how he put it in Refractions 2, but the book is really meant for future generations of photographers, a passing of the torch, a legacy from one who has known the greats and who has also become a remarkable photographer.
Music and photography, the quest for a third language
Ralph Gibson is also a music lover. His last name of course evokes the famous instrument maker. He loves the guitar, music in general, classical music in particular. His friends include many legends of rock. His quest now is to merge musical notation and photography.
He talks about his 35mm Leica M and about his transition to digital photography and his 135mm f/3.4 Apo-Telyt the way a musician might talk about a 1715 Stradivarius. “Writing with light requires a delicate instrument,” he says while handling his camera with the red dot logo.
He talks about photography as a musical score, where “melody is to music as reality is to photography.” He describes his studio, often illuminated by the red glow of his darkroom, and resounding with J.S. Bach’s cantatas. One is reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s comment upon hearing a suite for solo cello by Bach: “it’s music to dance to just before you die.”
Gibson composes, plays the guitar in front of his photos, and performs with friends. He remembers with emotion a “memorable” concert given a few months ago with Laurie Anderson, “one of the greatest American artists.” Gibson’s old friend Andy Summers paid a tribute to him during his photography exhibition at the Polka Galerie in Paris. The Police guitarist had met Gibson in 1983: their friendship is a perfect accord between guitar strings and the shutter.
The photographer is searching for an unexplored language, something like a new Tower of Babel: “I try to puzzle out the whole relationship, the enigma between music and photography. I want to bring the two languages together to create a third language,” he explains, noting that he is working on a particular musical composition.
Gibson continues to explore photography, without really caring about retrospectives, he tells us. He’d just opened Black Trilogy (through March 31, 2023) at the GoEun Museum of Photography in Busan, South Korea. “I realized that, as an artist, I was a grain of sand in the Sahara of culture. Picasso is a grain, Michelangelo is a grain… All I’m really interested in is my next picture. I have so many things in my head that I’m trying to convert into photography. That’s what I’m focusing on. Because I’d like to know what’s inside me. What’s in here,” he said, pointing to his heart.
As Cartier-Bresson wrote in L’Imaginaire d’après nature, “to photograph is to keep the head, the eye, and the heart in the line of sight.”
Refractions 2, Ralph Gibson, Lustrum Press, 240 pages, 48$.