Ralph Gibson (1939 - )

Gibson is a master of dramatic understatement. His high-contrast pictures - usually focusing on one geometric element (the corner of a room) or a single human gesture (the curve of a hand) - form a kind of dream-narrative when gathered together. Or, as Gibson puts it: 'I embrace the abstract in photography and exist on a few bits of order extracted from the chaos of reality'.

Gibson grew up in Hollywood, a child of divorce. After being thrown out of the house and into the military at 16, he proceeded to flunk out of the Navy's photography school; he was allowed to return only after he promised to clean the latrine for six weeks. That was the end of his formal training in photography. He eventually apprenticed with Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, yet, for all his contact with the giants of American documentary and his own life as a potential subject of their hardscrabble portraits, Gibson's own photos are utterly sedate: formal studies of light and shadow, images that calmly explore a singular subject or theme, like a face, vase, or salt shaker, or the curves of light and shadow on the female body. His work has far more in common with that of Harry Callahan and other American formalist-diarists than of the snapshot-aesthetic practitioners of his generation.

Of course, it could be that because of his own difficult path to life as an artist, Gibson's interests lie elsewhere - in the clinical, calming realm of the camera's ability not to capture life, but to create a life of its own. Gibson has compared his photographs to objects, a melding of light and time to make not just a reproduction of life, but something new - an image made palpable, and abstraction made real. In his San Francisco (1960), the singular image of an old man's - or old woman's - ghostly white hand, holding a wooden cane against a brick wall, is at once rooted in reality and cut loose from it. Three of the most solid elements described in literature and art - flesh, bricks, wood - are temporarily loosed from reality by the abstracting influence of bright light and black shadow. Mediterranean light, the films of Ingmar Bergman, conceptual and minimal art, and especially the concrete instability of early Surrealism all influence Gibson's work.

Much of Gibson's photography can be found in his many books, most published by his own Lustrum Press, founded in 1969. One of his latest is Overtones (1997), based on his theory that two individual images, when seen side by side, combine to form a third image, or 'overtone' in the viewer's mind. An interactive version of this idea, titled Light Years, can be found on Gibson's Web site: www.ralphgibson.com.

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