From Flesh to Stone: The Photography of Ralph Gibson

Congratulations to Ralph Gibson who recently received France’s highly esteemed medal of distinction, the Knight of the Legion of Honour at the Galerie Thierry Bigaignon on June 11th. To commemorate the occasion, BORDER CROSSINGS has uploaded the 2002 interview with Gibson conducted by Robert Enright.

Ralph Gibson’s acclaimed “Black Trilogy” with text by Gilles Mora has recently been reissued by University of Texas Press. It contains iconic works such as “The Somnambulist” (1970), “Déjà-Vu” (1973), and “Days at Sea” (1974).

In November his autobiography, Self-Exposure, will be published in advance of his 80th birthday.




In Days at Sea, the third book in his Black Trilogy, Ralph Gibson included a photograph of a man’s leg draped across a graffiti-covered bollard in Corsica. It is no normal leg. The black pants are fashioned from cloth rich enough for the pinstripes to remain visible in spite of the fabrics darkness. By the time your eyes get to the knee, the fabric is an impenetrable black, of the kind you sec in Manet’s toreadors, or in Motherwell’s Spanish Elegies. The black is incisive enough to cut a line through the water that forms the background of the photograph. Put another way, it is so resolutely articulated that it could be collaged onto the paper’s surface. The water has the texture of a mezzotint. Below the cuff is a while silk sock, hot with optic intensity, a quality set off by the gleam of the slip-on the man wears on his foot. In truth, the man is a pimp, although that doesn’t matter. What matters is the impeccable drama and clarity of the image, its fusion of textures and tonalities. It is classic Gibson, an improbable visual intercourse between the casual and the composed.

For over 40 years Ralph Gibson has been taking the kinds of photographs you can’t get out of your mind. Their permanence has to do with his unerring sense of composition. As he says in the following interview, he is not interested in taking abstract photographs, but “in photographing the abstract in things.” That ongoing fascination with formal values has produced images that have astonishing staying power, like the cover images from Tropism, 1987, and Days at Sea, 1974. In the former, a woman sunbathing on a beach lifts her arm to shade her eyes, which are already covered by a white towel. The resulting tonal areas-the various greys of arm, sea and sky, and the play of the dense black on her face against the radiant white of the towel—create a composition that shifts our visual thinking from a tangible world into an abstract space of flawless organization. Early in his career, Gibson began emphasizing the underlying forms of the things he was photographing, and he has gone further than any photographer of his generation to make indelible that structural understanding.

He is also unequalled in the erotics of seeing. His photograph of a woman seen from behind, clad only in a nightshirt that trails behind her as if an amorous wind were blowing through the room, and delicately stroking herself with a feather, is justifiably one of the most famous erotic images in contemporary photography. Its visual charge has to do with a particular combination of intimacy and discretion. Like the best of Gibson’s erotic work, it operates out of a firm appreciation of where to be and how much to reveal from that privileged position. In The Black Kiss, 1972-76, he brought together a collection of images in which men and women engage in sexual acts that run the gamut from meditative intimacy to penetrating physicality. No stops are unplayed, no orifices unexplored. But even within this explicit arena, Gibson orchestrates the way tongue touches flesh and cloth nuzzles hair to take images that are less about gazing upon than about being there. His is a tactile eye and he often lets his fingers do the looking. The area where Gibson has been able to make the fullest advantage of the combination of instinct and persistence that has characterized his photographic practice is in the book. From the publication of The Somnambulist in 1970, right through to Light Strings, his metaphysical meditation on the guitar (which will be published by the Smithsonian ), Gibson has recognized the power of the book as a vehicle for controlled communication. He was raised on the picture essays in Life magazine and was profoundly influenced by Henri Cartier·Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and, particularly, Robert Frank’s The Americans. These seminal books, as well as the catalytic effect the publication of The Somnambulist had on his own career, led him to change his sense of how photography could be used. He began to view the single photograph not as a discrete and isolated image but as a construct of seeing, part of a visual architecture where nothing was incidental and where, conversely, all things competed for significance. His perception was scrupulous; in Gibson’s pairing the space that shows between the divided trunk of a tree is echoed in the delicate scar below the nostril on a man’s face, the former canopied by a diffusion of leaves, the latter topped by an overexposed nose. Both read as scars on different surfaces and both recognize the complex truth of Leonard Cohen’s lyric observation that “there is a crack in everything, thats how the light gets in.” This diptych is a subtle meditation on damage, its trace and recovery. In a paradoxical way, the two static images relate a precise and moving story.

Gibson has been able to use this pairing to play all his chords on the table. He combines a Chinese vase, partially hidden by a chairback in a Madrid hotel lobby, with the rounded heel of a women’s foot curling suggestively back toward her own crotch. The effect is to do visually what Keats accomplished poetically in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: it freezes, maybe even immortalizes, desire. No things remain unsusceptible to his linkages and the transformations he takes them through. A pair of images taken in the Archeological Museum in Napoli (one is a statue whose right hand meticulously defines a small space; the second, a broken tablet with Greek lettering) draws the viewers attention to the precision necessary if we are actually to look at something. The crack in the tablet and the pinched space are negative and positive reflections of one another; taken together, they ask us to regard the world as a place that demands an uncompromisingly acute way of seeing. Similarly, the headboard of an elegantly made bed is combined with a photograph of the neck of a standup bass taken at Lake Como, and then the same musical instrument is re-combined with the shod foot of a guest and the clawed foot of a table at a dinner party on Park Avenue. Or a flippant surrealism is engaged when a pair of crossed baguettes in a store window mimics the legs of a male swimmer on a frothy beach. The photos add up to the miracle of the loaves and the tushes.

Gibson wears the influence of the photographers he has looked at, unabashedly, on his sleeves. In this regard, his character is generous and almost guileless. Photography has been his life, he knows volumes about it and there is, in his passion for learning, the unflinchable intensity of the autodidact. But in his diptychs he has concentrated on something new and sustained. More than Edward Weston and Minor White, he has used photography as a field of visual research, in which he has paid an almost obsessive attention to the semiologies of form and shape that emerge from the cultures that have attracted him. Looking at the photographs he has taken over the last 40 years, and paging through the over 30 books in which they have been given form, is an intense and exhilarating experience. Gibson obliges you to look until you really see that the visible world is designed, and whether you view that design as found or made, it remains a compelling discovery. Ralph Gibson was born with large, omnivorous eyes. His gift to the art of photography has been to exploit them.

Ralph Gibson was interviewed by Robert Enright in his New York studio on February 14, 2002.

BORDER CROSSINGS: What did your father do, exactly?

RALPH GIBSON: My father was first-generation movie industry, which means that he came out in the ‘20’s when the industry was just starting up. He was a charter member of the Screen Directors Guild, which I believe was the first guild. He did a lot of things, he was a sidekick to guys like Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks and he spent the bulk of his career as an assistant director. He assisted Hitchcock for 12 years and wound up a First Assistant Director as opposed to owning a studio, which many of his generation did. But he had an exciting career punctuated by devastating layoffs because the industry was conformed in that way.

BC: You worked as a child actor in Hitchcock Films. What’s your recollection of that period?

RG: It was very exciting. I started around 10 or 11. I liked it because I got out of school and my parents gave me all the money, which was considerable, even though I didn’t work very much. It was very glamorous to be on the set and I enjoyed meeting all the actors —people like Rita Hayworth and Orson Wells. By the time I was 14, my family life had disintegrated due to alcoholism, but prior to that it was idyllic.

BC: Was it an early ambition to be an actor?

RG: I had very large eyes as a boy and so I would get silent bits or close-ups at the orphanage. They would focus on my eyes. I had a big part in the Eddie Cantor Story—about six or seven pages of dialogue, which I totally memorized—and I remember it paid several hundred dollars. It was a big thing and it might have engendered a career. But one day my father came home with this roll of about a hundred feet of film from the cutting floor, and it was probably the greatest disappointment in my life to that time. I found it devastating and I turned from the industry with a vehemence that I have yet to modify. Last weekend I went back to Los Angeles for the first time in over 15 years, and I visited my childhood home for the first time in maybe 45 years. It turns out that the huge eucalyptus trees and the houses were on a very little street, the trees had died and the houses looked very small. It’s the first time in my life I’ve had a memory diminished by reality.

BC: You were very young when you left home.

RG: Basically my dad remarried and he wanted me out. It was draconian but now I understand his sentiments. She was Doris Day’s stand-in, this ditsy blonde. So when I was about 16, I had my choice of military school or the navy. I signed up with the navy and then I drifted around and worked as a mechanic, did teenage things and slept on the beach until the day I turned 17 and went off to boot camp.

BC: Was the navy the best choice of the two at the time?

RG: Well, military school was thought to be for the punishment of incorrigible adolescents. I was so meek and tender and I’d seen all these guys have nervous breakdowns from going to Black Fox Military Academy. So I went into the navy and had my nervous breakdown there instead. You have to understand that my family life had failed and I had dropped out of high school in the l0th grade. The navy sent me to photo school and I flunked out. By the time I was 18, I had reached the nadir of my self-esteem. So I wrote begging to get back into the school. I had to clean the barrack latrines for six weeks but by the time I graduated from photo school for the second time, I had realized my vocation.

BC: Were you Ralph on the to Damascus? Was it an epiphany for you?

RG: I liked photography, I studied hard and I did well at it. My first assignment was going to Turkey on a ship in the North Atlantic. We were crossing in the winter and we ran into this hellish storm with hail and thunder and lightning and rain, and I had to get up at three in the morning to take a depth-sounding of the ocean bottom. I was just miserable, I was lashed to this rail so I wouldn’t get washed overboard, and I looked at the heavens and I shouted into the sky in my mousy voice , “Some day I’m going to be a photographer.” I knew that was my way out and that conviction has endured. I’ve come to learn in my 63rd year that having a vocation is like being born very rich. For the remaining three years I studied everything I could get my hands on and I advanced very quickly. Before I was 20, I was in charge of the ship’s photo-lab with 15 guys. I was a young Photographer’s Mate Second Class and they wanted me to go to officer’s school and become a reconnaissance pilot and photograph low-level stuff. But Vietnam was just gearing up and they were shooting reconnaissance planes down with pistols, so I got out of the navy in 1960.

BC: Were you interested in the technical side of things because it was a way of advancing, or did you have a natural disposition towards it?

RG: All my friends back in Los Angeles were in college and were studying Sartre when I came home on leave and I discovered a thirst for knowledge. I’m more that way now, more scholarly, but then I just needed an education. So I studied photography and came out of the navy technically very advanced. I was going to be a fashion photographer in L.A. and a friend of mine said there’s a party up at the San Francisco Art Institute this weekend. It was a great party, so, instead of going to fashion photography school, I decided to go to school there. Also, during my navy years, I’d been hanging out on Tenth Street and I’d seen Kline and de Kooning, the Beat Poets, and the early days of jazz at the Five Spot. I was very drawn towards the art of the late ’50s and early ’60s. The first painting I understood was Abstract Expressionism. It’s what was discussed. There was a magazine called It Is during that period, which was just impenetrable. But at the time people like Ornette Coleman were doing the same gestural thing in music. What we didn’t know was how much knowledge it was based on. You really had to know how to paint before you could break it loose like that.

BC: Would you say the same thing about photography before you could break loose?

RG: There was a Chief Petty Officer who said, Gibson, you have to learn everything so you can forget what you don’t need. My darkroom is stripped: there is nothing there except an enlarger and two or three bottles of chemicals. I went to an school briefly and it was very exciting. But one day I was taking a photograph on Market Street with my Leica and it occurred to me that there’s an existing number of clicks between where I was and what I hope to become and the straight line was to keep clicking, So I dropped out of school. I didn’t have any money anyway— was totally impoverished— and so I lasted for a semester and a half in an school. But I stayed on the scene for a couple of years and about that time I became an assistant to Dorothea Lange, which was interesting in that she turned everything upside down. I quickly divined she had no technical grasp of photography. She didn’t know as much as somebody who’ d take their films to a one-hour photoman but she’ d made the camera obey by the sheer visceral force of her will to communicate.

BC: Was she a formidable human being?

RG: She was at the end of her life, I was at the beginning of mine. I would hitchhike over to Berkeley at nine in the morning and we’d print all day, one negative on many different brands of paper. In the course of the day, she might faint and my instructions were to get her hot milk and pour it down her throat until she came back to life. She was really ancient and she had stomach cancer. Then she’d go off to the opera with Adlai Stevenson and I’d drag my 21-year-old ass home and go to bed exhausted. I was just wrung out by her work, but it was her work that truly kept her alive. She clung to it like a life preserver.

BC: Did you know what you were in for before you signed on?

RG: See that stack of magazines? Any time I want to know something, I buy a magazine. So I had all the photography magazines at the time and she was extremely prominent. She had hit her pinnacle in the ’40s and ’50s, she had done great essays for Life magazine. Her Dust Bowl essays really changed legislation because in those days the documentary image was thought to hold the highest artistic integrity in the medium of photography. Robert Frank had just launched The Americans, which galvanized and flattened my whole generation of photographers. Nothing else was valid. We would look at a beautiful Siskind for print tone, but the actual content wasn’t formally tough enough. And Robert had lived on Tenth Street during this period and was doing the same thing in photography that Kline was doing with a brushstroke. It enabled him to access a subject matter that photography hadn’t previously visited.

BC: Was The Americans so influential that it left no space for anyone else to work?

RG: You could say that Robert pretty well closed the street. People like Friedlander continued to drift in that direction and people are still using the street as a vernacular issue. But they’ve never had that peptic acid that imbued Robert’s work with such vitriol.

BC: I’m interested in the difference between what The Americans was then and how we read it now. Today it seems a profoundly personal statement and not just a description of where America was at the time. It’s a document of where Robert was in America. I’m getting at the issue of photography as a trace of the autobiographical.

RG: I read it now as post-McCarthy, but he made it during the McCarthy era. You’ve got this tough Swiss-Jewish immigrant working at the height of McCarthyism. So now we see it more in terms of an historical documemt that has a lot of camera-handling virtuosity. Until you can handle a camera as well as he did, you couldn’t get that kind of picture. He was also very short, which gave him a special perspective. A lot of great photographers have been short and if you’re not, you bend your knees in order to get things to fall into that Petruvian perspective. He was also shooting from the hip with wide lenses that had just started making their appearance from Japan. Plus the fact that he was totally indifferent to how he exposed and developed his film, which was interesting because it was a deconstructive attitude.

BC: Did you quickly become a virtuoso with the camera? When you write about handling the camera, you refer to it as an extension of your hand.

RG: I’d done sleight of hand as a kid and I’ve been a guitarist all my life. I’ve always felt that manual dexterity was something you could continue to invent. I’m still trying to get better with the Leica.

BC: You’ve had that instrument for 42 years.

RG: It’s like a Stradivarius, I’ll never get to the end of it. The Leica will do anything I’m capable of telling it do. It’s the same thing as a pencil in the hand and you don’t get to the end of that, either.

BC: So when you photograph a hand holding a pen, you’re making a meta-photograph; it’s about writing with the camera?

RG: I had done a lot of meditating in my 20s and I was photographing from that point of view: I noticed that if I looked at something intensely, I would see it from somewhere deep inside, like when you hold a mask in front of your face and look through the eyes. I wanted to be able to put that into my photographs. So that led me to put in my hand.

BC: Let me ask a personal question. Did your mother’s death have an impact on you?

RG: There’s an interesting anecdote attached to the death of my mother. She died when I was in my early 20s, but after she and my father divorced they sold the house. She took her half of the money, became a beautician, opened a beauty parlour and then died in a hotel fire. I never cried at her funeral. And two years later to the day, I’m walking down Sixth Avenue and I see this burning beauty parlour, and these cathartic tears pour out. I knew then in an instant that I could sell my soul or find it through photography. I was in Magnum at the time and that’s one of the reasons why I quit working commercially. I wasn’t going to lose that key to introspection. I realized that photography could show me things about myself that were unique.

BC: Has photography been a search for self from that point on?

RG: Absolutely. My photographs are about how I perceive reality. I was dreaming all the time and I wanted to know what the dream was. That’s why I used the medium and that’s why I’ve maintained a fundamental autonomy I cannot compromise.

BC: When you began to shop The Somnambulist around, did you realize that you weren’t going to tolerate any loss of control? Is that why you established Lustrum?

RG: Precisely. I was extremely fortunate that I came out with the right book at the right time. I was part of a wave of American photography that became prominent in the early ’70s. Its prominence has to do with the theory of the middle generation. Prior to World War II the great photographers had been in Europe. Then World War II came along and there was no aesthetic development for essentially a 10-year period. A lot of European photographers came over to America or to the West. So America continued to develop a middle generation—Walker Evans and Robert Frank and people like that. My generation is the middle generation. In Europe there are no photographers of my age group but there are younger ones who are very good. Everything got interrupted in Europe by the war. It also coincided with the death of the picture magazines, like Life. You had a demographic totally educated in how to read photographs, but no photographs to give them. Thats when art photography came along.

BC: And subsequently an interest in the book?

RG: Well, the impulse to create a book had started with looking at The Americans and The Decisive Moment. There were very few books around that were really important. But because there was no gallery infrastructure, if you wanted a career you had to have a book. That was the only possible way of disseminating your work.

BC: So in 1970, 3000 copies of a 48-page book changed your life?

RG: Within three months I was established in art photography worldwide. I was known in Japan , I was known in Europe. It was like winning the lottery.

BC: How ambitious was the idea of Lustrum Press?

RG: Lustrum was based on seeing what a book had done for my life. I was very good friends with Larry Clark— he was living with me off and on— and he had this incredible project. I couldn’t not do Tulsa. We then showed it to Robert Frank who got Danny Seymour to put up the money and it became a great American classic. It was a very simple thing.

BC: And then you did A Loud Song around the same time.

RG: Yeah, because Danny was better than I thought. He just threw the book together in a week, but it’s really held up. It’s an interesting and different kind of book. It was a funny time and I needed some time to work on my next book. In those days I couldn’t photograph as quickly as I do now. I would shoot 20 rolls to get a picture I could use. I’d walk all day around New York. Now I get pictures on every roll.

BC: In Seymour’s book there’s a line that says “Remember the Alamo.” Then, in The Lines of My Hand you’ve got something about “Kiss the past goodbye.”

RG: In The Somnambulist I put “Aleph is a point in space where all points coincide.” I thought we could redirect the mind to a more abstract state. Since that time I’ve always put in those epigrams in six-point Helvetica. In those days I would talk to the artist and we’ d come up with a line.

BC: Seymour was very critical of what he calls the dead tradition of Europe. You obviously didn’t share that vision of European culture.

RG: Danny was an aristocrat who basically wanted to be a Puerto Rican. He dressed like the ghetto guys, he’ d wear those double-knit pants and he’d buy used clothing. He wanted to be firmly respected and entrenched in the underclass.

BC: What effect did working with Robert Frank on Me and My Brother have on you?

RG: I held Robert in extremely high regard. I would anticipate what he wanted; if he needed a piece of tape I didn’t walk over there to get it, I made it in three bounds. I had that tape back before the echo of the request had silenced. I worked very hard for him, enjoyed doing it immensely and learned a lot. Then we did The Lines of My Hand together. I’ve always been really gaga for typography and layout so we laid out the book in my darkroom. I still have his enlarger. He did The Americans, Larry did Tulsa and I did all my books on it. That enlarger wouldn’t fetch a hundred bucks in a flea market but it really has processed some imagery.

BC: So what happened to Lustrum?

RG: I did Deja Vu with money from an NEA grant. I really didn’t understand how money worked. I didn’t know that you could borrow from a bank and I didn’t have a credit card. For that reason, I didn’t have much money. I had a book signing in my loft for Deja Vu and I said, that’s it , I’m finished publishing. A friend— a graphic designer—was married to a wealthy woman and he said, why don’t John and you and I continue Lustrum? So I had a graphic designer, a lawyer and a nice loan from the designer’s wife. We started doing books and we hit the jackpot with the Darkroom Series. It was a gentleman’s hobby; we did one or two books a year and they were very successful. About 1981-82 I was really getting busy, more prolific, better shows, more money to travel and I was less interested in the work of other people. I felt I had done my bit. It was all about business and buying paper and it was bringing out the worst in me. We did about 20 books, we had some very good bookclub sales in our Darkroom Series, and we had a lot of money in the bank when I threw in the towel. Perhaps it would have grown into a big entity, but I don’t speak much about it. It’s something I did 30 years ago.

BC: You’ve been fairly uncomprimising about doing what you feel is necessary to make the work.

RG: I made some guideline principles early in my life, one of which was that nothing will come between me and my work, so I’m forced into a morality that is self-sustaining.

BC: You share that with Robert Frank. I think he is the most uncomprimising artist I have ever met.

RG: I think he gets off on it a little bit more than I do. I just want the satisfaction that my work gives me. It’s really true. I need the thrill it gives me.

BC: I’m compelled by the formal qualities of your work.

RG: Those elements are drawing ever closer. In the early work, which is more romantic, I had to force it more in the darkroom. Now, because of the nature of my projects and because of the way my vision has evolved, I can go closer to a formal whole right from the moment of exposure. This is based on studies of art history and understanding how art works in visual terms. The relationship between form and content is seldom discussed in photography, whereas it’s widely discussed in painting and sculpture. I’ve applied a lot of these principles to the way I work. After all, a painting is two dimensional and so is a photograph. The real difference is scale, which is the only thing I really envy painters for. When you make photographs that big, they don’t function in the same way as paintings do.

BC: In one of your early shows at Castelli, you tried to orchestrate the viewer’s act of perception. You realized it wouldn’t work because you couldn’t dictate how close or far away the viewer was from the image. You didn’t have that control and the way you would get it, then, was through the book.

RG: Those are discoveries I made through the years. You might argue that some of the postmodernist photographers hold you at their desired distance because the work is so big that you don’t get much closer to it. I’m thinking specifically of Gursky’s show at the Modern. Once in a while he starts triggering cinematic references, which are less effective for me. Thats about installation and I’m not really so much about installation; I’m about how photographs relate to one another. An exhibition is a very ephemeral experience. I don’t consider installation to be my strong suit. But I will continue to explore the page because theres a lot of satisfaction in it.

BC: There is a photograph I wanted to ask you about. It shows a pair of black lovers kissing in Central Park. I was reminded of the image in The Americans of the black couple in San Francisco where the man glares back at Robert. His couple seemed surprised and angry. Your couple seems complicit in the act of being photographed.

RG: I saw them and I said, keep doing that. So I was able to get close enough. Bill Brandt had this great line, “Don’t worry about the photographic truth, it’s the results that count.” By the time I started working on The Somnambulist, I had truly severed any notions of documentary truth. I admire it in the work of others but its not my preoccupation. I’m more interested in my own personal experience as a photographer. That’s really what drives me.

BC: How much is any act of photography also an act of homage? I look at your early books and I can see your Steiglitz, your Frank , your Brandt, you’ve got a shot of two people in a slightly distorted car that looks like a tribute to Lartigue. I’m wondering how conscious were those references, or was it simply a question of having absorbed the work so thoroughly that you couldn’t help but reflect it?

RG: The answer is yes.

BC: To which question?

RG: The best review The Somnambulist received was one that said there are times that Gibson seems to have arrived fully formed without any influences. Even though we all have them, I tell people in workshops to tear out your influences by the roots. Any time you see something that reminds you of somebody else, use that as a pretext for not shooting it. I’ve got an assistant in Paris and I told him every time you go to take a picture, get it fully prepared and composed and then turn around and shoot something 180 degrees behind you. You’ll have a better chance of doing something personal and unique.

BC: You have a direct quotation of the Weston photograph of a nude woman floating on the water.

RG: I was totally unaware of his picture when I made mine. I saw it some years later. That’s the reinvention of the wheel. That happens, which is not to say I wasn’t influenced by Robert or by Cartier-Bresson, but nobody ever thinks about that now.

BC: But were you consciously thinking about those people at the time? I guess I’m getting at this larger question of what has come to be called the anxiety of influence, that anybody who wants to make art is always operating in the shadow of artists who have already made it.

RG: It’s true. When I came to New York I was working out of Magnum and I was torally obsessed with Robert’s work. Totally imitative. Diane Arbus picked up on it right away, but then she had been very much influenced by him, too. But one of the things Robert said was, you’ve got to be original. He said, apropos of Me and my Brother: “In this film I’m going to fall flat on my face but at least I’m going to be original.” You’ve got to take that risk, he said, you’ve got to go out on a limb. I think what happens to young people is that influence is predicated on an emotional response to the content of the people they admire. You want to get that same feeling in your work. I basically didn’t. I’m not into pathos and Existentialism and that beautiful downbeat quality of Robert’s. In that regard I’m his total opposite. I live in another world and I have a different set of attitudes about existence and reality. I think those are the accurate definitions of influence. In the meantime, you search for a visual signature. You can recognize a Cartier-Bresson from across the parking lot. Those were concerns I might have had. But I’m 63 and if I’m lucky I’ll work for another 20 years. And if it goes as fast as the last 20 years, it’ll be over tomorrow. So I’m not really worried about a lot of the preoccupations I had at different points in my career. Now I’m just trying to maximize the time remaining.

BC: Despite the formal qualities of your work, it has always seemed to me very intimate. I wanted to get a sense of how you’ve walked that line. Formalism tends to be resistant to intimacy.

RG: My intimacy is lodged in proximity. I’m always pretty close to the subject. I know that when I concentrate on something I don’t see the forest for the trees, I just look at the tip of the leaf.

BC: In certain instances being in close has an erotic charge. The Black Kiss is that kind of book. Distance disappears as an emotional measure, not to mention a spatial one.

RG: In the erotic work, I’m operating on the premise that sex doesn’t look the way it feels. The second point is that the hardest thing to photograph are genitals. So how can you show a picture of sex organs and make it stimulating, make it seem erotic? I never get answers to the questions. Essentially, what I do in my work is to re-pose a question in a way that assuages my needs.

BC: But those photographs in The Black Kiss are very beautiful. They are not hard even though what is being photographed is pretty direct.

RG: You can’t go straight to an elegant, erotic photograph, you have to do all the nasty stuff to get there. When erotic photographs fail, they fail more miserably than others. They’re really ugly. The reason there’s so little really great erotic work in any medium is because its that much more difficult to do. We’re fascinated by it, we all want to understand our sexuality better but nobody gets to the end of that, either. I feel myself swimming across the stream of desire, scratching my nails at the further shore. The current’s just too strong.

BC: Is there any relationship between your music and the way you work as a photographer?

RG: Music is linear and photography is more vertical as a perceptive act, but they share the intensity of the present tense. They’re both right in the moment— no before, no after.

BC: That covers the act of taking a photograph but not the act of making one in the darkroom. You’ve said that in the darkroom you realize what your failures are. Is that because of what you don’t bring back?

RG: In the darkroom you have to rise to the occasion. It’s one thing to have white heat brilliance for a thousandth of a second; its easy to be great for a short period of time. Then in the morning you’ve got to drag your ass in there and you have to be as good as ever.

BC: Can you make a photograph in the darkroom that you haven’t brought back in the camera?

RG: I would say just the opposite is true. A lot of great photographs survive even though they aren’t any good technically. That brings us to the Photoshop thing: can you create great digital art? I’ll know when I see it, but I haven’t seen it yet. And that’s true even of Gursky. Photography is some kind of alchemy that transpires between light and silver and chemistry. It produces an emotional nuance that continues to fascinate us. I was looking at the Mona Lisa and I realized that painting did everything a photograph could effectively do. And yet, there’s some staying power with the Mona Lisa; she’s still touring. Photographs are limited in their staying power and their durability. They’re not considered objects to be pondered over lengthy periods, whereas any painting, even a mediocre one, commands a respect. I would like to get the same power in photographs.

BC: Does it bother you that its difficult to get there in photography? Is it a limitation in the medium or in the way we perceive art?

RG: It’s a young medium, only 160 years old. Painting’s been around for thousands of years. In your DNA you probably know how to look at a painting. Photography is also like a hydra. It reproduces itself exponentially every day in trillions and trillions of photographs. Trillions of paintings or drawings aren’t being made every clay.

BC: The effect of the Hydra is to turn anyone who looks at in to stone. You have a photograph in L’Anonyme of a woman shot from behind—she’s freckled— and there’s a way in which her body gets turned to stone. That book seems to play across the spectrum of soft flesh to hard, cold marble.

RG: When I shoot architecture I want to make it alive; when I shoot flesh I want to make it stone.

BC: Did you know that your photograph of the feather and the woman’s ass was going to have such a charge?

RG: Yes.

BC: Why does it?

RG: I’ll tell you the story. Mary Frank, Robert’s wife at the time, had been to the Bronx Aviary Zoo. All the birds were moulting and she was getting quills to draw with, and she gave me a bunch. I had a bouquet of large feathers next to the bed and I was photographing that girl on her birthday when she reached over and picked one. It was her idea, it was a collaboration. We’ d done other erotic photographs together and she knew what I was looking for.

BC: Were you passionately involved with the women you were photographing?

RG: I’m fascinated by many things and erotica is one of them. I think it defies definition. For example, I would love to photograph an orgasm. But an orgasm is something that you only understand when you’re having one. The rest of the time you’re just trying to piece it back together.

BC: I want to talk about what you are doing with the images in Ex Libris. It seems to be an attempt to find a kind of visual Esperanto.

RG: I was laying out pictures yesterday on the guitar book and pairing them off. We know that in the piano and the guitar when you hit CEG, it makes a c chord but it releases other tones you cannot strike directly. When I pair photographs, depending on scale and such, I can gel a third effect, which cannot be produced directly. This is one of the ways of determining the effectiveness of a two-page spread.

BC: ls it different from narrative sequencing?

RG: I would suppose its more aligned with notions of collage and assemblage.

BC: In Ex Libris you employ languages that already have meaning. I’m assuming that you don’t read Arabic. So there is a meaning you ignore in looking for its formal rather than its literal qualities.

RG: Yes, that’s what I do, but I do it based on my sense that there are a finite number of shapes that conform all things on the planet. I think those shapes are primal and I think on some level I understand the character in Arabic the same way I understand a Robert Motherwell.

BC: When you juxtaposed the calligraphic character with a fish hook, you got a charge that was almost murderous.

RG: That’s a fortuitous relationship.

BC: How did those two images happen to come together?

RG: Because I work on a book in a linear way over a period of time, I will have a sequence of photographs laid out, then I’ll make a new photograph which will have an impact on all the previous sequences as well as subsequent ones. So you’re dealing with this multilayered situation that happens to be very soothing to the mind. It’s an intellectual pleasure, rearranging and seeing how there is no absolute single language, how there are simultaneous layerings of intelligence.

BC: And they’re all constructions.

RG: Constructions that I’m just recognizing.

BC: So in that sense they’re found images. They are a kind of documentary.

RG: Yes. Photography will always have its hook in reality. I’m not interested in making abstract photographs, but I am interested in photographing the abstract in things. If I do it right, I can turn anything—that cup, that quarter—into an intelligent photograph. This attitude has been present in my thoughts for the last 30 years.

BC: Has the way you use black changed from the way you were using it in your early work?

RG: For me black has always been a way of getting rid of unwanted information. I have a theory that photography is subtractive as opposed to additive. At the same time, black also portends a spatial ambiguity that I find fascinating. Does black bring the picture plane forward or does black recede from the picture plane? And how does black impact on the edge of the shape next to it? All these issues are dismissed as being graphic but they’re not. I had a small show at the Whitney and when it closed there was a dinner for me. And David Ross said, “You know, Ralph, we hold your photographs in very high regard , they’re on the walls as we speak. However, it has occurred to me that if you hadn’t been a photographer, you might have been a graphic designer.” I’ve given that a lot of thought and while I love books and I love graphics very much, I would have never settled for the superficiality of the content that graphic designers have to deal with. I consider graphic design the same way I consider commercial photography. It’s all form and no content.

BC: When you talk about the way black situates itself in relation to something else in the photograph, I’m reminded of your observation that a photograph has a foreground, a middle ground and a background, just not in that order.

RG: I will confess that I lifted that line from Jean-Luc Godard, who said a film must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. One of the reasons I’ll always work with a Leica is because I have a concept of broken focus. Just for starters, I get to lots of visual territories by putting the focus where it shouldn’t be, and then arbitrarily shifting it throughout the picture making. It sounds easy but it’s very difficult to do effectively.

BC: You’re as passionate about taking images as you ever were?

RG: Perhaps more, for different reasons. I fancy my reasons for working now are better founded. As you get older your philosophical spectrum broadens, and if you’re functioning in a creative way then your creativity is going to be affected by the fact that you’re living in that world of broader meaning.

BC: You’ve photographed your partner a lot, which makes me ask an old fashioned question regarding the muse. I’m thinking about what inspires you. Is it the picture-taking or does the subject play a catalytic role?

RG: Well, Mary Jane and I worked a lot together over a ten year period. She’s less interested in posing than she used to be, so now I have models around. For years I photographed women with whom I was intimate, now I photograph models with whom I’m not intimate. I try to create that sense of intimacy because it’s one of the things I feel powerfully informs a successful nude.

BC: One of the images that I find poignant in L’Anonyme is the one where it’s clear the woman has jut taken off her clothes, because you can see the crease they have left on her skin. It’s like dirty feel in a Caravaggio painting. It’s a sign of the real in the photograph.

RG: I’ve told a lot of models not to wear underwear and come in muumuus and things like that, but that was one where I was able to compose it into the image. It was one of the rare times when I got it to work.

BC: I’m interested in how you think the fetish operates in your work.

RG: First of all, I was raised Catholic and the whole mystery of Christ is just total S&M surrealism. My mother came from Costa Rica, so I’m half Latin. But the concept of the fetish is somewhat amorphous in that anything can become fetishistic if it’s perceived in that fashion. I’ve worked a lot from the point of view of solipsism, which says how you feel determines how you perceive reality, therefore the only thing that’s real is how you feel. This is great for a photographer, it’s good for an artist in the studio, but it’s not so good for a general or a brain surgeon. When you’re creating something, you simply go with the flow.

BC: The reason I asked about fetish is that whenever you isolate a part of the body, particularly a woman’s body, you’re on thin ice.

RG: To me, it’s all erotic. I think a serious fetishist would see intense eroticism in a navel or a shoe or a thumb. I just see it everywhere, I’m pan-fetishistic, •

Volume 21, Number 2: Ralph Gibson

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #82, published May 2002.

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