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

As far as we know, you took up photography during your service in the U.S. Navy. What happened to become your incitement?

It’s a very funny story. I was very young, only 17. I was given the examination and I did very well. So I was distributed to the control tower at the airport.  They saw that I wasn’t that excited so they told me there was someone who really wanted this job. And I said I didn’t care. They offered to send me to a photography school instead. I agreed. It was purely by mistake, merely a chance. So I went to a photography school where I soon failed. I was very bad. Though I realized this was my chance to do something in life. So I wrote captain a letter. And he let me get back to school. But I was obliged to clean the latrine in the barracks for six weeks. I was maybe just eighteen when I became a completely devoted photographer.

Your works are rich and very laconic. They are often compared with puzzles, Japanese poems and hieroglyphs, the meaning of which has to be discovered. Do you tend to imbue the pictures you take with some meaning?

My situation is this. I believe in the abstract of things. I believe very much in the abstraction of the simple object. I look for this and I photograph this when I can. I am simply interested in the abstract of the common object. It is called the redemption of physical reality.

Some critics have called you a great illusionist of the present time whose simple photographs are in fact magnificent, akin to icons. What do respond to such notions?

Well, you know, a successful photograph is based on making lots of correct decisions. Good photograph is basically perfect. It is very hard to make a good one, of course. And the word ‘iconic’ has another meaning. What happens is sometimes images become icons by the virtue of the fact they get reproduced and people keep asking for them. I have photographs that have become iconic in the correct sense of the word ‘icon’. I try to photograph the monumental, the important things in the simple object. I’m not waiting for the great moment (the execution, or the man to jump) I am waiting for the non-event.

How do you think, do your pictures require some peculiar background knowledge or they can be understood by any viewer?

Everybody understands photography on some level or another. Photography is almost as well understood as music.

During your professional career you’ve worked in almost every genre. Is there any of them you feel you haven’t fulfilled what you potentially could?

I consider myself only as good as my next photograph. My next photograph is the one I consider to be important. I don’t think specifically in terms of genre. André Kertész told me that a photographer must learn to photograph everything. I do not think much in terms of genre. I think in terms of photographing everything. I have a very broad palette of subject matter among my contemporaries. I like portraying objects, simple non-important things.

Describing your style you once said that you exclude everything unimportant from your pictures. How do you manage to do that?

If you’re going to make a drawing you take a paper and a pencil and you add marks. You keep adding until you finish the drawing and you don’t add any more. When I take a photograph I subtract away from the viewfinder. I use Leica and I look at everything in my frame. When I’m satisfied that I am responsible for everything in my frame only then I release the shutter.

Are you still loyal to Leica in the age of digital photography?

Those are not digital photographs, those are digital images. A photograph is made through photography which is light on film; which has the alchemy of light on film. Digital systems for the moment are attempting to imitate photography which they do in some ways but a digital image is used to transfer information precisely. And a photograph will create new information which did not previously exist. I am not interested in digital photography. I think it’s good for young people. I have a friend Raymond Meier who is a great commercial photographer. I think digital is wonderful for commercial work. But I’m interested in the content that I get with silver based photography. I have made some photographs that have certain content in them and I don’t see any particular content in digital images.

What serves today as your motivation?

I want to fulfill my potential as an artist. I want to see how far I can go. I want to get more content in my work.

Has it always been this way? What was driving you during your adolescent years?

You know, when you’re young you don’t really know what’s driving you. You’re just responding to a bunch of feelings that you can understand.

Were you thinking about becoming successful? Or was it a simple love to photography?

Success is kind of relevant. I always thought that I would be successful because I was so passionate. But I thought I would be successful as a commercial photographer. And then as I got into my late twenties I realized I did not want to have somebody else tell me what to do. I had a personal relationship to the medium and I wanted to stay true to it. I did not want to corrupt my work. I was fortunate I had enough recognition early when I was thirty to be able to make a living as an art photographer. I was very lucky I guess.

Many people agree that you possess an ability to conquer time and space. When did you discover it?

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