Ralph Gibson has written an autobiography, Self-Exposure, and I couldn’t be happier. I have been a fan of his work for over 35 years so when I found this title on Amazon a few months ago it went straight to pre-order. I received my copy on November 20, the day of release, and read it the same day.
Ralph Gibson has been a photographer since the early sixties after a brief stint in the Navy. Early on he started on the road to be a Magnum member but wisely chose not to go the route of a journalist and started a career as a fine-art photographer. His first book “The Somnambulist “ was a great hit and he was on his way. Not only is he a great artist but he has been a successful and influential book publisher as well.
Self-Exposure tells his life story in a candid way. He goes into detail about his early years and reveals a mixture of good times and a fare amount of sad episodes. Once out of the early years the book travels through his life touching on the living of an artists life. If a man is judged by his friends than Ralph must be a remarable person. Over half of the book is dedicated to talking about the people that have been in his life. Since Ralph has spent so much of his life running workshops and mentoring photographers it is only natural that there are many chapters about the technique of photography.
Except for when he talks about the early years most of the chapters are quite brief. From a few pages to just a few paragraphs. Another thing that is unique about the book is there are a lot of photographs. That is to be expected from a photographers biography but they are scattered every few pages in the book. Not just a few in the middle. If you are new to the work of Ralph Gibson you will have a real sense of the man after reading this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.
Images from Self-Exposure by Ralph Gibson
The Black Trilogy
The second book that I’m reviewing here really is a companion to his biography. The Black Trilogy is a reissue of the early work of Ralph Gibson. It includes the work of three of his most influential books. They were, The Somnambulist, Deja-Vu, and Days at Sea. Ralph has shot with Leica’s since he started to get serious about his work and these images are prototypical Leica work. This is what you strive for your work to look like when a Leica camera is held in the hand. The images are not just beautiful to look at but a whole photography program could be built around the study of these images. The compositions are just so strong. The way that he moves close to his subjects and frames so precisely really shows a master at work. Just study how he selects his vantage point for an image. Just a little higher or lower, and the image would not be as strong. His use of framing devices is so clever and sophisticated. He also shoots often in the vertical format. Why don’t we take more verticals? He has said that 75% of the images in the first book came to him on just one weekend of shooting. That is amazing. But just as amazing is that he has also stated that it took him 3 more years to get the last 12 images for the book.
One thing I do to judge the strength of images is to look through a book upside down. I learned this from many years of working with large format cameras where the image is projected on the ground glass upside down. You really see if the composition works this way. The images in The Black Trilogy pass the test with flying colors. His compositions are just so strong. The book is a master class in composition. Another aspect of his work is the way that he uses the film grain as an element of expression. The grain adds so much to the images. In today’s digital world with all of the sterile images that today’s cameras produce, his use of grain is almost shocking. The use of grain is also one of the signatures of his style. Another thing that makes his books so good is that he is so good at sequencing his images. He just takes this to another level. Not only are the images strong, but they work together to tell a story. Open his books anywhere and compare the image to the previous image, then compare it to the next, then the next. The flow is so seamless. He makes his images combine to make an even stronger experience than just looking at single images on the wall. The books themselves are works of art.
Images from The Black Trilogy by Ralph Gibson