Ralph Gibson is certainly unique. He does his own thing, making photographs his way. Most of his photographs are composed in vertical format in highcontrast black-and-white. He rarely accepts a commercial assignment. His income is mainly from sales of prints and his 25 books. As the story goes, he selfpublished his first book even though he was months behind on his rent; the gamble paid off. His first two books led to his receiving National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in 1973 and 1975. Since then, Gibson has been honored with the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985 and another National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1986), as well as the Leica Medal of Excellence in 1988, the Lucie Award for Achievement in Fine Art in 2007 and several Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees by universities. Just last June, he was awarded the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor by the president of France. Along with his many honors, Gibson’s work has been featured in over 260 exhibitions in the US and around the world since 1975.
On his 17th birthday, Gibson enlisted in the US Navy and, as a Photographer’s Mate, mastered every kind of photography the Navy required. But it was working as an assistant to Dorothea Lange and later Robert Frank that set Gibson on his path to success. Ever since he acquired his first Leica M2 in 1961, he has used Leica cameras exclusively, and 99 percent of his photographs are still made with a 50mm lens.
I met Ralph way back in 1986 when I worked at Kodak and he received an Eastman Kodak grant ”” but he remembered me. Having run into technical issues with Skype, we had an enjoyable interview by old-fashioned landline phone.
Ken Lassiter: What was your early life like, and how did your family affect your career?
Ralph Gibson: I was born in Los Angeles, and growing up I had a glamourous life. My father worked in the Hollywood motion picture industry as a director for Warner Brothers, and his friends were famous actors and people in the movie industry. I often went on set to watch movies being made. My father was assistant director in several Hitchcock movies: Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder and Vertigo. I grew up knowing all my father’s friends and work associates.
KL: Did that inspire you to become interested in photography?
RG: No. My parents divorced when I was 16. I joined the Navy the day I turned 17 and was randomly selected for photography school. They turned me down at first, but I wrote a letter to the captain appealing his decision and they finally accepted me. Then I began to take photography very seriously. By the time I was 18, I had my vocation and knew what I wanted to do with my life. I recall standing watch at 3 in the morning in a terrible North Atlantic storm with rain, lightning, thunder, sleet and hail, and I shouted up at the sky, “I am going to be a photographer!” And I have been shouting ever since.
I took to photography like a drowning man to a life preserver. I knew if I was going to make anything out of my life, it had to be photography. I spent most of my time in the Navy in the darkroom developing and printing everything ”” aerial photographs, portraits of the officers, underwater ”” you name it, I did it. I even slept in the darkroom sometimes. The officers wanted their portraits with their caps on. I bounced light so there were no shadows from the hat brims. They loved my portraits because they could see their foreheads!
My first camera was a 4×5 Speed Graphic; then I bought a Rolleiflex and loved the results and ease of use. By the time I left the Navy, I knew the Zone System backwards and forwards, I mixed Ektachrome chemicals from bulk and could do virtually any kind of photography. I made Photographer’s Mate Second Class by the time I was discharged at the Brooklyn Navy Yard after three years, six months and twenty-seven days in the service. It was a great learning experience since I was involved with every kind of photography the Navy used. My only other interest was playing guitar ”” something I still do.
KL: After you left the Navy, what did you do?
RG: I enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute but left after one semester. I found I knew far more about photography than any of the students ”” and I ran out of money. Then I got lucky: I had the opportunity to work for Dorothea Lange as her darkroom assistant in Berkeley. She called the school and they recommended me. I printed all her famous negatives. They had pinholes and looked as if they had been developed by the drugstore. This was a very revealing experience. For Dorothea, technique was less important. The image subject was the most important. I worked with her for a year and a half.
From Dorothea, I learned about the point of departure. I showed her some of my work, and she said I lacked a point of departure. For example, she said if I carried my camera on a trip to the drug store, I might stumble upon a photograph. If I wandered around on the streets, I might never make any good photographs because I had no point of departure. I never understood this idea until I was working on my book, The Somnambulist, about dreams. Then I knew what she meant. I was looking only for images to use in my book. The point of departure is the backbone of my career. It is essentially how the professional photographer on assignment works. If you are working on an annual report for Chevrolet, you don’t make pictures of Fords! Photographers without points of departure just have boxes of prints.
Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Fall 2018 / Vol. 40 / No. 4