For the past six decades, Ralph Gibson has created a multi-faceted body of work, between surreal images, erotic and mysterious ones, and various narrative photographs. He began his professional career as an assistant to Dorothea Lange (from 1961 to 1962), who famously photographed the American Great Depression, and went on to work with Robert Frank on two films between 1967 and 1968. Ralph Gibson has also maintained a lifelong fascination with books and book-making. In 1969 Gibson moved to New York, where he created Lustrum Press in order to exert control over the reproduction of his work. Since the appearance in 1970 of one his most famous photo book, The Somnambulist, his work has been steadily impelled towards the printed page. Lustrum Press also published Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971), documentary photographs illustrating Clark’s young friends’ drug use, and a premise to his celebrated movie Kids (1995).
Here, Ralph Gibson shares his vision on photography and the epoch we live in.
If you look back at your career, what do you see?
I don’t look back. I have a great nostalgia for the future. I mean, maybe for somebody your age looking back would be more interesting. But for me, to look back is a mistake. I’d be losing time doing that.
Why was Lustrum Press so important in the 1970s?
Well, because if you look at the kind of books people were doing in the seventies, they were not the kind of books I was doing.
What was the difference?
Content. The photo book, the conventional photo book was very generic. It was very predictable. It was things like landscape and classical photography, but it wasn’t… I mean what happened was The Americans, by Robert Frank, indicated what a book could be. After that, the books got a lot more interesting, and I happened to be early in that movement.
You worked with Larry Clark or Mary Ellen Mark. What did you have in common with them?
Well, Larry, Mary Ellen, and I all hit New York at the same time within months of one another, and we very quickly became friends and very involved and knew each other all our lives. We respected one another’s work. It was very different, but we knew that we were working from the inside out. You see, there was the kind of photographer who mastered craft and shared his mastery of craft with other photographers who mastered craft. But then, if you understood certain things about the medium, it reflected in the work. You could see that in the work. An insider is somebody who photographs from the inside out, he’s not an observer. He’s a participant making it personal.
Are you still in touch with Larry Clark?
I talked to Larry last week.
What did you talk about?
Well, he always has projects he wants to do. He’s 99% filmmaker now. So for these many projects, he has to have a lot of things out there to see if he can get financing. Also, I’m godfather to his son and my wife is godmother to his daughter. So we’re almost family. We’re very close that way. He’s been in France for the past three months, working…
How was it in New York at the time?
New York was a very interesting place to be as a young photographer in the late sixties. It was just booming with potential. You could really do something with your life in New York in that period if you had a lot of ambition and talents. I was living in the Chelsea hotel. I owed nine months rent. Two of my three Leica’s were in a pawn shop, but I was working on a book called The Somnambulist. And I was starting to get a little satisfaction for my work and the rest then the book was a success and here I am.
How was it be around the Beat Generation?
I was there. You have to understand, in 1960, what else was going on? There was the Beat Generation. There was contraception, birth control, cohabitation, rock ‘n’ roll. There was a lot of things changing, and it really had to do with the real end of World War II. The American Dream was starting to really get its thing. From 1950 to 2000, everybody in America went up socially, financially… and we thought we could exploit that to the rest of the world, which was still a jungle. But what really happened was that you used to be taught two things in America. One is that you can be anything. You could be president. Two that you had to be a success at 30.
Were you involved with Magnum photographers?
I stopped going to the Magnum office. The great film producer, Samuel Goldwyn said: “If you have a message, send a telegram”. And I discovered I was a man without a message. It’s not good or bad, but my work was turning surreal. It was more introspective.
So, you had no interest in photojournalism?
I’ve always wanted my photographs to be about the experience of seeing anything semiology. Now this is not what the world needs. I have no social impact whatsoever, simply trying to knock myself out. But there’s not a lot around for young photo journalists who are really pushing the envelope. There are a lot of risks involved and people should notice it. Once Mary Ellen mark said to me: “Taking the picture is not so hard. The access is very difficult.”
Your most famous work is indeed often qualified as surrealist. Does it still apply to it?
Not really anymore. I consumed all my interest in surrealism a long time ago. Now I’m more phenomenological and semiotic.
What did you learn from being an assistant to Dorothea Lange?
Dorothy Lange was the first great photographer I was privileged to meet. And the first thing I learned from her was that she didn’t understand technique very much. She had a lot she wanted to say, and it seemed that the medium itself obeyed the force of her will… this little old lady. That’s one of the qualities that is going to be harder for young photographers who are specifically products of the digital age: to get a visual signature.
And Robert Frank?
And then Robert Frank’s book, the Americans came out and my generation was galvanized by the content. It was like somebody hit you in the face.
I started believing that there was something I didn’t know about photography. How do you get content into a photograph? It’s very easy to release the shutter, but to get a picture that you can look at for a long time, to get a picture that enters into the history of the medium, is something different. So I went to New York and then I met Robert Frank, and started working with him, on his films. One day he said: “I might fall flat on my face on this film, me and my brother, but at least I’m doing something original”.
What do you teach to your assistants?
Well, mostly about the history of art and its relationship to their composition, things like that.
How often do you photograph today?
Oh, every day. That’s why I love digital. Because I would need 10 assistants to handle all the stuff I’m doing now, really and truly, yeah.
Tell us about your latest work. It’s about shapes, forms, the geometry of our world in general…
In terms of new photography, I’ve been working a lot with the long lens. I have a series called the “Vertical Horizon”. I’m interested in how digital compresses things. So with that in mind, I use long lenses. Compression is the nature of anything digital. It could be finance, cinema, music, anything you want gets compressed digitally. So if I decided to work with that, I’m compressing the light with a long lens and the sensor reacts… You can look at a digital image and look at the same image on film and you’ll see different contouring and different characteristics. So I’m examining those characteristics as a language in and of itself.
It’s colorwork, which is unusual for you…
Mostly color. But you see color is a great challenge, but in digital you can control it whereas before you couldn’t.
You have an intimate relationship with France. You also have a gallery in France, Thierry Bigaignon…
Yes, a smart guy. There’s a word in French, you know that word “exigent”?
He’s got a beautiful edge to his gallery, the things he shows. Very creative work.
Why do you have this relationship with France?
I grew up in California, which is like growing up in the middle of the desert. There was no culture, and France is nothing but culture.
That sums it up.
Yes, it really does, and I have a tremendous appetite for culture. See in a seriously advanced culture, anything I’m looking at will reflect my current set of ideas. Whatever I’m examining, if it could be architecture, the figure, political concern, anything that I’m thinking about, trends in literature, aesthetics of any kind I can find, and I constantly study aesthetics. I can find whatever I’m interested in reflecting a particular culture. To a lesser degree, Italia.
Do you go often to France?
We’re going to Marseille tomorrow.
Yes. Marseille has a real sense of place.
It reminds me of Brooklyn a bit.
Yes, it’s very edgy, raw, industrial. That’s a very good observation. Marseille is basically Brooklyn in France.
The thing about France is that it’s what we call France, le France, is not going to be there very long… 50 years, maybe 100 years. The world is changing. The great cultures of Europe are in a state of being assimilated by immigration and they’ll soon have a lot of babies and you’ll have a different feeling. It’s a very interesting consideration right now, what’s going on in France.
Americanized, you mean?
What does France teach you?
One time when coming to France in the 1970S on Air France, I was reading the newspaper, Herald Tribute. It said the French love to talk about sex, hate to talk about money. The Americans love to talk about money, but…
What can we expect more from you in the coming years?
Well, I have some very big books coming. I have, at the printer now is a book called refractions number two, and it’s my thoughts and aesthetics on photography. If photography is a language, then different people are going to say different things, just like the novel. I was privileged to know many great French intellectuals, and it’s still a boutique. I know that it’s going through an identity crisis now, but it’s no different than the identity crisis of every place in the world. But I still enjoy the concept of being a 19th-century gentleman reflecting on my abstract ideas and to the extent that I can see them in my photographs, that’s how it works.
Interview by Jonas Cuénin
Jonas Cuénin is the editorial director of Blind and the former editor-in-chief of the magazines L’Oeil de la Photographie and Camera.