Ralph Gibson

One of the most famous American art photographers. Master of an abstract minimalism. Author of more than a dozen books and photo albums. He was lucky to learn from such legendary artists as Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank. Today Ralph Gibson is a living legend himself. When estimating his contribution to the world of art, he is often compared to Kazimir Malevich.

Published in DFOTO, №4, 2008.


Web-site of the photographer


of simple things

I studied all the great masters. And I analyzed the reason why some photographs are much better than the other ones. Photography is a very mediocre medium. It’s very easy to be a mediocre photographer. But because it’s such a simple medium it makes it difficult to take it to a higher point. I mean little by little, by staying true to my work I was able to hopefully improve and I continue to tempt to improve. It’s a very satisfying and a very difficult way to live.

Can you agree that you’re not only a successful photographer, but an adventurer, a philosopher and a successful businessman as well?

(Laughs) Yes. In Western society to be a successful artist you have to understand how business works. It’s a socioeconomic structure that supports the art. Art is a luxury in every society. It’s something you do when you have extra money. You don’t buy art not paying for food, or rent, or electricity. You buy art after you have paid your rent or electricity. I live in a very rich society and it enabled me to be an artist. But I know that an artist who is not a business person has more difficult times supporting their art. I don’t want tot do photographs for money. I need money so that I could do photographs.  That’s the difference between the artist and the commercial photographer.

How to create a good erotic photo?

Here’s the story. Sex doesn’t look as it feels. That’s why pornography goes to a certain level and then stops. And never goes beyond. The reason there have been so little great erotic work is that erotica is extremely difficult to do. The minute you attempt to make an erotic artwork above the level of porno you’ve got yourself a very big challenge. I find this an interesting challenge. But that’s something I don’t do very often.

How to define this narrow line that divides erotic photography from porn? It is simple?

It’s not a narrow line. It’s an enormous distance. Erotic art is in the Heaven and porn is in the mud. It’s not a fine line at all. The only thing that might give you that impression is that some people think there’s art in the mud.

Creating a photograph do you often try to evoke discussions?

No. I don’t even think that way. I make a photograph to prove to myself I can make it. Discussions and the notions are something that are externalized and come after the creative act. Any discussion I do of my work with you or anybody else is just an attempt to understand my work better. The only acceptable definition of anything that I do is the work itself. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it.

How do you choose your lighting scheme?

The subject matter will dictate how it wants to be photographed. You have to listen to the subject. You have to listen to photography. You have to know how to show something in such a manner that it will express what you’re trying to say about it. I don’t sit there and say ‘I will use a red light with a strobe filter’. I simply find myself looking at something. For that reason I consider the light to always be perfect. The weather is always perfect. It’s an absolute. And the light is always perfect as well. My ability to render the light correctly is sometimes less than perfect. I think that I must listen to the light. I must let the subject determine the way it wants to be photographed. I am not the music I am the radio through which the music plays.

Do you feel that in your pictures there’s a reflection of American mentality?

Not particularly. The only thing American about by photographs is that I feel free to do anything I want. I consider myself to be a citizen of the world. And being an American citizen it’s possible to go any place I want. It makes me free to do my work. For that reason I profoundly grateful to be an American. But I’m not necessarily reflecting American culture. We have some great photographers who do that. Lee Friedlander, for instance. He reflects America. I don’t.

Do you have your favorite quotation or a motto?

No. Why would one have one?

To motivate oneself, perhaps?

Inspiration is the most interesting creative tool. It’s the best piece of technique you can have - the ability to inspire yourself. I don’t have any trouble working. I solved it a long time ago. I have everything I need except all the time. If I had ten lifetimes that would be different.

Could you tell us something about your current projects. What are you working on right now?

I have several projects in the studio. I’ve just finished a book called State of the Axe. Axe is a terminology for a musical instrument. And it’s about great guitar players. I am also a musician, very involved with guitar. I’ve done a book of seventy portraits of great avant-garde guitarists and they write one page of text opposite their portrait. That will be in the museum of fine art in Houston this fall.  Yale University Press publishes the book. I’m also working on a very large retrospective of all the erotic photographs I created.

How do you manage to stick to such a hectic schedule?

Well you learn as you go. As you grow older you get busier and you get more experience in your career. It will be hard to accomplish for an adolescent guy.

What stimulates you more: praise or critics?

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