Ralph Gibsons work contains a paradox: although designed to express the absence of the photographer in the image (the photographer disappears, leaving only the photographic object which constitutes the ultimate aim of the work), it constantly emphasises the signature of its creator, affirming an individual style.
Though Ralph Gibsons images are immediately recognizable, they effectively make the photographer, with his view of the world, anonymous. Gibson has understood how this self-eclipse can both confuse the act of photography and simultaneously threaten the photographer.
His admiration for Dorothea Lange, and especially for Robert Frank (he was assistant to both at different times), led him to deduce a set of rules for what he calls ‘perception ‘. These rules were to provide the background for his entire approach to the photographic document.
Gibson prefers the word perception , with its optical connotations, to the more ambiguous (or even ideological) word vision. He addresses purely photographic problems with which others of his generation, that of the sixties, were only distantly involved, being themselves entangled in abstract expressionism (which Gibson finds somewhat monotonous) and the kind of humanistic photojournalism of which W. Eugene Smith was the principal exponent.
In the same period, it was doubtless a desire to turn away from these very themes that prompted artists like Les Krims, Arthur Tress, Duane Michals, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Ralph Gibson to break completely with the American tradition of documentary photography, moving towards a treatment of the ambiguous relationships that exist between dreams and the psyche, and constructing vague, uncertain realities of their own. Some spoke of a return to surrealism when referring to these artists, and Gibsons work (especially in his famous trilogy) was linked by some to European surrealism because of its visual relationship with the strange and the unexpected. In fact, it was more closely linked to a tradition of precious, somewhat edulcorated and formally elegant surrealism found in images by André Kertész or Paul Outerbridge.
Aware that the camera indiscriminately records a multitude of details which can be harmful to the image, Gibson treats the information he sees purely in terms of composition. In this he embraces what the German avant-garde described when referring to the reality perceived by the camera: simplified so far as to become ornament, it [reality] dissolves into an optical substrate of itself… These conditions lead to abstraction.
Gibsons photographic world can be seen as a repertory of signs, although he prefers the term self-eclipses, an expression which refers not to the breaking of the link between photographer and subject but to the distance placed between the photographic image and its creator. If it is the subject that counts in photography, then the photographer himself counts for less and less as his work increases and as he explores the relationship of photography to other objects rather than the way he himself relates to the world.
This does not denote inhuman disinterest on Gibsons part, even if the world of his photographs involves patterns more than things, and things more than people. It reflects a shift of interest towards what he terms ‘la mouvance des ombres’ and a departure from his own relationship to those same shadows, although the two are in fact indissociable.
Gibsons interest in books as a way of presenting photographs can be explained by the fact that images sequenced on the page can embrace meanings that the anonymity of each individual photograph can scarcely achieve. Nobody can deny the originality of the three books, traditionally referred to as the trilogy, which appeared between 1970 and 1975 : The Somnambulist, DéjàVu and Days at Sea. However, it would be difficult to reduce these books to the level of meaning, for their meaning is blurred by their apparently surrealistic tone. The paradoxical impression they give is on of both silence and visual stridency; thanks to the carefully designed pages, these two qualities, instead of cancelling each other out, combine to produce a new effect, silencing particular interpretations by surpassing them all.
Some find it surprising that Ralph Gibsons work remains so stylistically stable after 40 years of photography. In fact, no commercial calculation has tempted him to explore other forms, and he sees no reason to abandon pure photography. By the same token, if his familiarity with information technology has enabled him to achieve more exciting levels of resolution for his page designs, the fact that he has created such magnificent volumes means that he still believes profoundly in the value of books as a vehicle for his art. His work is proof that the true creator affirms his superiority far more effectively by leaving his enduring mark on the world than by paying meagre tribute to passing fashion.
From the preface of the book published by Editions Marval