1960~ - Ralph Gibson

2012.7.20 - 2012.9.8


Ralph Gibson – In Praise of his Open Eroticism
Shigeo Goto (Professor of Kyoto University of Art and Design)

Photography is the art of temptation. Photographs are not the same as paintings or drawings. The reason being that they are fragments of a mirror, or a kaleidoscope, in which reality appears. Moreover, they are mercilessly graphic, freezing moments in time so that wounds do not heal. The best photographs take the form of "questions" that nag at the viewer.

However, this "power" of photography is not something that was intended from the beginning. Who could have imagined that the technique of fixing visual images that was invented "simultaneously" by the likes of Daguerre, Niépce, and Talbot, a technique that was eventually given the name "photography" (meaning "drawing with light"), would have developed to the extent that it has, spreading all around the world?

An important factor in this growth was the linking of photography to the "unconscious" as described by Freud. If this had not occurred, photography would probably have existed solely as a technique for recording the real world. Instead, over the nearly 200 years since it was invented, photography has laid bare a variety of latent capabilities. It has also made inroads into the field of art. There were many things that led photography into the field of art, but surrealism, with André Breton at its theoretical center, did a great deal to develop it in this direction. It was Breton (or the critic Benjamin) who pointed out and recognized the ability of photography, a mechanical process beyond the threshold of human consciousness, to reveal the images that lay dormant in the depths of this consciousness. And it was Man Ray who prophetically gave expression to all the early impulses of photography.

With the onset of World War Two, the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Many Europeans migrated from Europe to the mass consumption society of the United States, and in this land of dazzling consumer products their art was transformed, and the surrealist impulse began to truly live and breathe. The same could probably be said of the engines that generated abstract expressionism, pop art, and the other movements that flourished from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Born in 1939 in Los Angeles, Ralph Gibson is a virtuoso who has continued to create and unveil work tirelessly since the late-1960s, yet despite this there is a tendency to regard him as an artist in a unique position with respect to the documentary photography and photojournalism that formed the mainstream of photography in the U.S. After moving to New York at the beginning of the 1960s, Gibson working for two years as an assistant to Dorothea Lange and then to Robert Frank on two films. But what had he grasped by the end of this decade? Herein lies the secret to the importance of Gibson's photography. Which is that photography more than anything else has the "power" to capture the underchords of society and the human unconscious. In this sense, one could say that Gibson is an extremely important artist.

This exhibition at Gallery 916 concentrates on work from Gibson's important early photobooks, The Somnambulist (1970), Déjà-Vu (1973), and Days at Sea (1975), which together make up what is usually referred to as Gibson's trilogy. Just what was the "power of photography" that Gibson discovered in the 1960s and 70s? In a sense, to reconsider this is the task of this exhibition.

Sleepwalkers, déjà-vu, and women and the sea (the only text by Gibson in Days at Sea is, "The sea is like a woman"… From the titles alone one can clearly sense that these three photobooks are concerned with matters related to the deep psyche. However, it is important not to be dazzled by these symbolic words. These collections of monochrome photographs were published over a short period of time by Lustrum Press, which Gibson founded. All three photobooks are the same size, they have few pages, and their message is almost imperceptibly simple. The Somnambulist is memorable for its photographs with heightened "narrativity," such as the famous photograph of a black hand opening a door, the photograph of a gun aimed at an area of blank space revealed by peeling wallpaper, and the photograph of a fire at a hair salon. At first the viewer is dazzled by these photographs, but gradually they realize that the book contains a large number of images that are seemingly random, such as fragments of things, reflections and textures shot in close-up, and that have been carefully edited. One can sense in this discontinuous editing a similarity with the cut-up technique used in French Nouvelle Vague and Nouveau Roman cinema. No sooner has "narrativity" been established than it is severed, leaving the viewer hanging. Or so one thinks, until another "narrativity" is generated. Fundamental to this technique is a grammar of allusion and metaphor. In contrast to surrealism, whose initial impulse of "discovering wonder" was weakened, resulting in a lapse into fantasy storytelling and the complete loss of any revolutionary character, Gibson's work is characterized by "perpetual" discovery (the corruption/popularization of surrealism is manifested in facile "image compositing" and the special effects seen in fantasy movies nowadays). By continuing to dive into the depths of the world, Gibson continues to be radical.

Gibson regards the motifs that become the subjects of his photographs both as autonomous, objective subjects and mirrors that reflect the photographer (or the person viewing the photograph) and searches for the path of dialogue. "Within the motions of the mind there is a visual span between what is seen and how it is then filtered through our perceptions. Photography is one such filter and the image seen in the mind is often echoed on the surface of the print". Photography is a mutual illusion. It is a journey of the imagination that simultaneously opens up the outer world and the inner world.

Let us look more closely at Gibson's photographs. It is noticeable that in the photographs of "puzzling parts" or "fragments" there are selection criteria in the form of certain objects or textures that are more than simply allusions or metaphors that give rise to narrative (Gibson sometimes refers to these as "the voice of shadow"). It is truly difficult to explain this accurately in words (a psychiatrist would probably call it "the object of desire"), but here I would like to call it "the power of eroticism." Bataille spoke of eroticism as being generated in the context of the ultimate frenzied orgy leading to death. He regarded it as something that could be achieved through such things as sexual ecstasy, states of trance, and expression that breaks taboos. However, we also sense eroticism in objects themselves as well as in textures. Great photographs bestow on inorganic subjects the power of eroticism. And this "power of photography" is palpable in Gibson's photographs. The nude torsos of females, tableware, pistols, and the textures of shadows are all invested "equally" with this power of eroticism.

This demonstrates that rather than staging or inventing surreal stories, Gibson has the ability to scrutinize in an instant "that which is in front of him" and gauge with a high degree of accuracy whether or not the object in question is capable of exhibiting "the power of eroticism" when transformed into a photograph. In other words, he has acquired a unique "power generation technique" with respect to the moment that is completely different to the Cartier-Bressonian "decisive moment."

This ability to make "the power of eroticism" "the power of photography" is expressed particularly strongly in Gibson's approach to nude photography. The naked body alone is an erotic thing, but as to the question of whether it is invested with the power of eroticism when photographed, the answer is that it absolutely is not. In fact, there is no difference whatsoever between the naked body and many "objects of desire." As photographed by Gibson, things like "freckled buttocks" and naked bodies bathed in slits of light almost acquire the beauty of ceramics. One could even regard the nude photography of Robert Mapplethorpe as carrying on the tradition of these photographs of Gibson's as an advanced variation of them. One should probably also point out the two are related in that Mapplethorpe also pursued both the orgiastic side of eroticism and that which would seem to be its complete opposite in the form of a tranquil, contemplative eroticism.

Finally, I would like to mention one more important point. That is, Gibson's photographs have a certain "flirtatiousness" or "openness to new encounters." There is something modern and stylish about his photographs, and since the 1970s his work has taken on an increasing degree of refinement with regard to such subjects as nudes, sculptures, and architecture. This is also a reflection of his unique approach, which involves not making an exhaustive study of newly discovered motifs according to his own style, but rather continuing to photograph them almost as if embarking on one journey after another and being open to new encounters along the way. It would be easy to call this curiosity, but I think one could go further and call it a photographic approach that involves maintaining the tension of the power of eroticism by refraining from climaxing. This means pursuing photography as none other than a never-ending flirtation. The inherent power of photography transforms people's lives.

Ralph Gibson is a great pioneer of photography whose career spans more than fifty years. What is important, however, is that his photographs concern themselves today in a way that is truly fresh with the "possibilities" of photography without in the least looking old. Invested with the "power of eroticism" of photography and the "openness" that comes with it, Gibson's photographs both offer us a glimpse of the future of photography and show us the way forward.

more info


Ralph Gibson

After working as an assistant to Dorothea Lange in 1962, Ralph Gibson launched his career as a freelance photographer in 1963. He made his art photography debut in 1966 with the LA street life series, "The Strip." In 1969, Gibson moved from LA to NY, where he worked with Robert Frank on the production of two films. He went on to publish The Somnambulist (1970), followed by Déjà-Vu (1973) and Days at Sea (1975), with Lustrum Press, establishing the bold, graphic photographic style he has come to be known for, and maintains with conviction to this day.

book information

We are pleased to introduce you the catalogus that published to coincide with the exhibition Ralph Gibson “1960~.” It includes a copy of all 58 of his wonderful works exhibited in the gallery. Please contact us for inquiry.

Ralph Gibson
Published by 916 Press


Ralph Gibson

Date : 20 July, 2012 - 8 September, 2012
Time : Weekday 11:00 - 20:00 / Saturdays and Holidays 11:00 - 18:30
Closed : Sundays and Mondays

Ralph Gibson, the photographs For enquiries regarding
the purchase of the photographs, please contact the gallery.
TEL: +81-(3)-5403-9161 / FAX: +81-(3)-5403-9162
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