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The acclaimed American art photographer looks back at his career, and the cultural and temporal influences ...
2023-03-06 09:00:00

With My Naked Eye
An Interview with Ralph Gibson

With My Naked Eye
With My Naked Eye

He isn’t particularly interested in the past, but in how the future changes it. Ralph Gibson, one of the most acclaimed American art photographers, talks with Polish photographer, Wojtek Wieteska. 

Read in 12 minutes

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I find it hard to believe you don’t know
The beauty you are
But if you don’t, let me be your eyes
A hand to your darkness, so you won’t be afraid

Lou Reed, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” 

Wojtek Wieteska: In 1987, I saw your photographs in person in New York. It was a different feeling compared to looking at them in books. I discovered the textures, tonality, and quality of those prints. All the subtleties, the mastery of photography. And that’s where it all began. If I could take one book with me to a desert island I’d take yours: Deus Ex Machina. I know that complimenting an artist’s ego can be annoying… But that’s a fact. 

Ralph Gibson: I had those feelings with other artists throughout the years. Right now, I’m obsessed with Cy Twombly. I’ve been living in New York for over fifty years. When I think of the city, at one time it represented the center of the culture of western civilization for me. It was the beginning of brilliant art careers. When I came here, I was very influenced by the motions and the people and the activity of the city. It was so exciting in the 1960s. I lived in the famous Chelsea Hotel for three years and met everybody there. I used to say: “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I live in New York.” I also used to say that New York was the only drug that I couldn’t kick. But it would appear now that I might have taken everything I want from the city. Now I am planning to sit in the great cities of Europe. I’ll be going to Paris in a couple of weeks. I feel that there I’d get more of what I’m looking for. 

I know what you mean. I have the same feelings with Paris that you have with New York. I was living in Paris in the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s and at that time it was a completely different city.  

I don’t mind the fact that all these cities are changing. I know Paris has changed. I can see the change also here, in New York. Early this year I was reading a book by Colette—a collection of short stories about cats. And in it she says—this book was written in 1927, almost a hundred years ago—“Saint Tropez is not what it used to be, it’s completely covered with tourists, I don’t like it here anymore.” Haha. Everything we really love is based on an epiphany that we had when we were twenty, twenty-five years old. And anything other than that, we feel it’s a change for the worse. We love the photographs we loved when we first discovered photography, we love the paintings we loved, we love the music. A mature man doesn’t have any nostalgia for the past, but a great nostalgia for the future. And he has no illusions—he won’t be able to fulfill his potential. 

I’m not very keen on meeting artists that I admire, because I think art and personality sometimes can be very different and that difference doesn’t matter to me. My meeting with you is one-of-a-kind. As you said, in 1987, when I was looking at your pictures, I was twenty-three, so they stayed with me… They are here today.  

I have a distinct pleasure of having met all the great masters before me. They all embrace me and welcome me to their homes, I got to know them throughout the years. Many, many great photographers and artists. I recently wrote in my autobiography that art is always better than the artist. The photograph is better than the photographer. Otherwise, why make it? When you look at a work of art, it represents a step away from an artist and his or her struggle. And when you’re looking at the photographs or at the paintings, it’s about the painting and you. Not the artist and you. I never think about people looking at my photographs. I only think about my own relationship to them. Roland Barthes says very beautifully that the author of the book is only fifty percent of the book. So, you’ve got a thousand people reading that book and you have a lot of different books. 

Marcel Duchamp said it before Roland Barthes. 

Yes, I know, you are talking about Pierre Cabanne’s book Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp.  

It’s very good. Pierre also says that the artist has the responsibility to get the work seen. You have to get the work out. It is a bit like being a parent, you don’t put your child in the closet, you give it to the world. And so, if you are a photographer, you don’t take a photograph and put it in a drawer. Now I have a strong sense of responsibility for my work. I don’t have the kind of ego that cares what people think about my work. I publish and exhibit because that’s part of my responsibility as the person who gets to participate in the creation of this work. But I’m not the music, I’m the radio through which the music plays. And I’ve known this forever. Every time I take a picture, I’m telling myself: do not be the observer, be the one they observe.  

What is keeping you busy these days? 

I’m starting a series now where I’m attempting to photograph from the back of my retina, not in front, from behind the retina. There’s a word—asemic, it is a kind of writing, an écriture, not connected to any particular language. I see shapes this way. It might be an object which produces this shape, but the shape I’m interested in is not necessarily relevant to that object. It might be even more interesting than that object. When I go to foreign countries and I look at the letters and the writing I don’t understand the language but I see the shape. Just the way I think that the photograph is better than the photographer, I think the sign might be better than the signified. I believe that the human eye can look at any shape and process it, even a shape as ephemeral as the light on the back of this chair, in front of your lens. I learned all this in New York. But I learned a lot in Europe too—I immersed myself in the older cultures there. I needed to go back, to visit the Lascaux caves. I went to the original.  

Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson
Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson

You went to the original, really? 

Yes, I took three steps into the Lascaux caves and I fell to my knees weeping. Tears that I couldn’t control. I saw immediately that the people who made those lines of the bison and the swimming bear, the buffalo, were just as smart as we are, just like you and me. The great culture anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss did a study in Brazil of a tribe living at the edge of the jungle and the savannah. They made beautiful baskets, they decorated their doors and they planted their corn. And then he went thirty miles into the jungle, where there was another tribe, a very small tribe. They were all naked and they didn’t even have anything to put their head on when they were sleeping. Lévi-Strauss says the man sleeping in the dirt has as much intellectual brilliance as the man making a basket on the edge of the savannah. It really just depends on where you happen to find yourself. 

Do you believe that the past—where you were born and people you met—has affected you in any way? 

I talk a lot about that in my autobiography Self-Exposure. It covers my past, my childhood, my growing up in Hollywood. One of the things I would add to that now that I’m in my eighties and I’m constantly doing retrospectives, exhibitions, and publications: as a photographer you probably know, you are often looking at photographs that you took a long time ago. I realized that they become objects, artifacts, that change their meaning. A picture taken in 1970 meant something when I took it. I took it for one reason and now I’m looking at it fifty years later, and it means something else. I’m not so much interested in the past, but I am interested in how the future changes the past. 

Freedom—this is what your photos are for me.  

I don’t consider the word “freedom” to be very relevant in terms of what I do. I prefer the term “autonomy.” We live in a society where you stop at red, you go at green, you don’t shoot, you don’t steal. You obey the law and as a result society gives you a tremendous amount in exchange for that. But all I’ve really wanted is to have nothing between me and my work. I take all the credit, all the blame, and so autonomy is what I seek, and it’s what I set out to achieve. If it’s any good it’s because I made it, if it’s a failure it’s because I’ve failed. But it doesn’t have to do with freedom or absence of freedom.  

Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson
Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson

Photographs are always linked with memory. But in yours I see that you’re mostly linked with the present, the here and now.  

I am really glad that you raised this issue. I’m not interested in the concepts of the past in photography and I try to take away the markers that will indicate when the picture was made. It’s very seldom, only if I find a cultural reference like in France, will I clearly show a picture that is a piece of architecture that’s old. But I’m interested in phenomenology, the Maurice Merleau-Ponty approach to looking at something now. If I just look at the edges of this cup of my coffee, that will be more interesting to me than taking a picture of somebody in a mini skirt or a tattoo or something like that. There’s a tremendous amount of philosophical debate that goes on that one should live in the eternal present. Long ago I decided that was my time zone.  

Your impression on the outside cultures—French, Italian, Brazilian, Japanese—is so strong that I ask myself: “Did Ralph Gibson have a preference for one of them?” 

Well, the more interesting question will be how come I travel the world and I come back and all the photographs look like I’ve taken them around the corner from my studio in New York. My book Political Abstraction has nine countries in it and it looks like I took them in Manhattan or some other familiar place. I know that perception has a tremendous number of projections included in the whole process, in the motion, in the condition. I’m not waiting for a great event to take my picture. For me the great event would be if I can look at the reflection of light on your cup and if I can turn it into a powerful image. Even as a little boy I was searching for such moments. I had my eyes wide open and kept staring at things and I wouldn’t blink. I just kept looking.  

Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson
Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson

If not photography, then what other medium would you choose to express yourself? 

I’m also a musician, I perform a couple of times a year. Next year, I’m having a retrospective at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. I’ll probably do a performance. I’m really interested in the relationships between sound and how it creates a language that is most abstract of all. Most asemic—as I mentioned earlier—is a language that does not only convey emotional content and information, but it leads to other places in the mind and it does communicate certain ideas, especially the ones that remain unconfessed.  

The last exhibition of your photographs that I saw was at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. I’m reminded of the structure of the grain argentique. Why do you choose to see it like that? 

The reason for which my work was so grainy for many decades was because I wanted to make a specific reference to the material, to the film. If you look at the sculpture, you’ll notice that a sculptor follows the grain of the marble, the will of the material. Photography lacked that organic component. What I try to do is not forget the fact that I’m talking about light, silver when I expose film. I would imagine the light rays coming to the lens until the surface of the emotions. Now when I’m working digital I’m also looking for an organic component to the digital space. I really like the edge characteristic of digital. It’s another language, I’m learning to speak it. Charlemagne said: “To have another language is to possess a second soul. You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” I believe it’s true.  

Your photographic world is disconnected from all kinds of news reports, you cut off one of the main functions of photography. From where did you take this power to resist and to build your own world? 

You’re European, you’ve grown up in an old country that has an Academy and the tradition of Polish music, art, culture… The same is true of Italian and French. France fascinates me the most. I grew up in Los Angeles in the forties and fifties, with a bunch of cowboys. When I started to travel to Europe, meeting people I admired, I discovered that they are very cultural people. I decided that I want that to be my formation. I wanted to continue to go to Europe but at the same time I didn’t want to look like a French photographer. I quit Magnum at twenty-seven, after just three months. I said: pas pour moi. I didn’t want to make generic photographs. I needed my photographs to be self-referential.  

Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson
Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson

When I heard your voice on the phone: “It’s Ralph Gibson”—what crossed my mind was: “A voice of a young man, but he’s eighty-four!” Was it photography that kept you out of time? 

Being a photographer is part of the reason why I’m still working every day. I do pushups every morning, I’ve done yoga since I was in my twenties, I quit drinking thirty-five years ago, I quit smoking forty-five years ago. I make a lot of decisions predicated on whether or not they’d be good for my work and I’m in a phase in life where, I’m happy to say, it appears that some of these decisions are paying off. I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I had everything I wanted when I was forty. Now I have to keep up with it—with all my invitations, obligations, and projects, which definitely affects my energy. 

To see is to believe.” Do you believe in what you show in your photographs? Or is it just a game and your life is a different territory?

It’s a multiple-choice question and you just gave me the choice of two answers! There are always more than just two answers. “To see is to believe”—it depends. There is this term invented by the Greeks: solipsism. How you feel determines how you perceive reality. Therefore, the only thing that’s real is how you feel. But I don’t necessarily believe in everything I feel. I think some of my emotions are more valid, superior to others. If my emotional state determines how and why I photograph, I better be sure I understand what I’m doing. A photograph is very fair, it really shows me who and what I am. That’s what I believe. 

Why have you never moved towards moving images, cinematography?

The reason I never make films is because I’m not a raconteur, I’m a formalist. I don’t have a story to tell. Directors really believe that telling stories is very important. Well, I guess it is. But it’s not for me.  

And what about virtual reality?

I’m friends with Laurie Anderson, a great artist who is doing tremendous work in VR. But I’m not going to spend time doing that. I want to do it with my naked eye. And if I’m going to continue my studies it’s gonna be in musical theory, harmony, counterpoint, and things alike.  

Have you achieved what you wanted to achieve?

Well, so far yes. But I’m not by any means finished. My closing thought will be: I’m good enough as a photographer to know how good I really could be. Not there yet.  

Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson
Photo courtesy of Ralph Gibson

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Ralph Gibson 

Born in 1939. A devotee of vertical framing and 50 mm lens, his photographs are included in more than 150 museum collections around the world.

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