Ralph Gibson's portrait - Photo credits © Carol Harrison

Ralph Gibson

May 9, 2016

Ralph Gibson is an eminent American photographer whose dark and seductive images have been hypnotizing his wide audience ever since the early 70s, when he published the famous trilogy of photo books, called The Somnambulist, Deja-vu and Days at Sea. Gibson is known for being disturbingly intimate, openly erotic and bizarre at times – but above all able to transform any regular scene or usual corner of the room into a new masterpiece with his trademark, favorite Leica. Gibson has received countless awards for his brilliant work and career that lasts over four decades.

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Ralph Gibson - Tinda, 1975

Finding a Departure Point

Ralph Gibson was born in Los Angeles, California in the late 40s and he was a photographer's mate in the U.S. Navy before he decided to study painting and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. The most influential experience in his younger years happened in the early 60s when he started working as a printing assistant for Dorothea Lange, another preeminent American photographer. Lange gave him the best possible advice - to find his own departure point if he truly wants to make it the world of photography. Besides Lange, Gibson was also assisting another photographer, Robert Frank, who was at the time recording a movie called Me and My Brother. Inspired by his experiences with the famous photographers, he decided to publish his photographs collected and arranged in photo books. His early work was influenced mainly by documentary photography, by Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bruce Davidson and the artist only began to understand the term departure point mentioned by Lange while analyzing his early pieces.In 1969, he moved to New York, where he founded Lustrum Press and began to develop his own style, less influenced by the typical documentary photography.

Dorothea Lange gave Gibson a great piece of advice - to select his own departure point if he truly wants to make it the world of photography

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Ralph Gibson - Mary Ellen (Hand), 1967

Surreal Erotica Collections

Gibson’s first photobook from the 70s includes erotic and mysterious imagery and puzzling, broken narratives told through surreal compositions and bizarre, disquieting elements. Each of the images from this series is a narrative unto itself, even though they can be seen as a whole because of their coherent style and ominous, overwhelming dark erotica. This series was followed by Deja-vu in 1972 and Days at Sea in 1974. These three series were the most decisive ones in Gibson's career, his true departure point in creative photography.He organized the images within these series in an interesting and unique manner, as if they were a dream sequence. All of his photographs from the 70s were black and white, taken with his trademark Leica camera and executed in high contrast. Only his later work features color photographs. The enigmatic compositions of his photographs often reflect the new influence of Surrealism and modernism - speaking about fine art, Gibson is a big admirer of Henri Matisse. Another important milestone in Gibson career happened in 1975 when he decided to move away from creating photo books and begin exhibiting in galleries. He joined Castelli Graphics gallery and organized his first exhibition there, in 1976, called Quadrants.

All of Gibson's photographs from the 70s were black and white, taken with his trademark Leica camera and executed in high contrast

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Ralph Gibson - Bikini and Breast (Untitled), 1972

Nude with Feather and Other Successes

Since the early 1970s, Gibson's photographs have been published in over 18 photo books. Many of these were publications of Gibson’s Lustrum Press. The artist's later work, from the 80s, became more formal and it is represented by many monographs, such as Syntax from 1983, Tropism from 1987 and L'Anonyme from 1987. However, his earlier work remains the best of his entire opus – for example, his image Nude With Feather from 1974 is still one of the most wanted nude images on the art market. Also, his Hand Through a Doorway was used as a part of the cover for the album Unknown Pleasures by UK band Joy Division. Gibson has received numberless awards for his work, including a prestigious fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has also won two honorary doctorates and his work is the part of important international permanent collections, such as MOMA, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the International Center for Creative Photography and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, to name a few. Nowadays, Gibson often works as a fashion photographer – for instance, he collaborates with the Italian luxury brand called Bottega Veneta.

Nude With Feather from 1974 is still one of the most wanted nude images on the art market

Ralph Gibson - Leda (Nude with Feather), 1974 terms use light page print terms use light page print

Inspiring Young Photographers

Gibson’s international success and mysterious, surreal appeal of work continue to inspire younger photographers. In his interviews, the artist often recalls the departure point term that legendary Dorothea Lang mentioned to him long time ago and he gives a similar piece of advice to his young colleagues - Photography is a medium in which the ideas of others are easily borrowed, but to hack off a piece of the territory that is one's own, a visual area which constantly refers to one's own enterprise, doesn't often happen. I would rather be a mediocre pioneer than an excellent imitator. Gibson knows how it feels to win the most severe inner battle and he wishes the same to many budding photography talents.

The artist is represented by Kunzt Gallery.

Ralph Gibson lives and works in New York City.

Featured image: Ralph Gibson's portrait - Photo credits © Carol Harrison
All other images © the artist

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