MAP Spotlight: Legendary Photog Ralph Gibson Puts Images in Motion ... With His Own Music

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 23, 2013

Next week at the Palm Springs Photo Festival, the legendary fine-art photographer Ralph Gibson will be leading a workshop in photographing the nude—a subject he’s abundantly familiar with. Gibson is perhaps best known for his fragmentary and furtive photographs of the human figure—the black-and-white images, built around bold light and dark shadow, are instantly recognizable to the legions of admirers who collect his prints and the more than 40 books he has published.

At Palm Springs, Gibson, a noted Leica user, will be shooting with a new piece of equipment—a “Ralph Gibson” signature Leica M Monochrom camera, with which, he said in a recent interview, he hopes to create very specific types of images for a very specific purpose. “I have an idea of the figure, where I’m going to have a 90mm lens on the Leica M, and I’m going to abstract the figure—you’re going to know that what I’m shooting are body parts, but they are going to be moving in and out of the frame, in and out of the focal plane. And that’s going to be my next film.”

Film—not book.

gibFor all his fame as a photographer, Gibson is omnivorous in his interests and has experimented with other mediums throughout his career. (His biography notes that he once worked with Robert Frank on two films.) He is also devoted to music, having played the guitar since the age of 13. If he draws boundaries between his various pursuits, they are porous ones that allow his creative juices to flow freely. Gibson has come to believe, in fact, that there are really no boundaries—or, more precisely, that there are conceptual pathways or metaphysical connections between different kinds of art—between his image making and music making. When he talked to PPD about the work he had planned for the Palm Spring festival, for instance, he noted that his subjects would not only be moving in and out of focus, but also “in and out of pitch."

 It’s that connection, between sight and sound, that Gibson has been exploring in a series of motion-art pieces created in recent years. The remarkable work, which combines video footage with his own stills, is made to be projected during live performances at which Gibson provides accompaniment, playing his own compositions.

Gibson has made five of the pieces so far and performed with them at a number of venues and events around the world, including the Festival de Fotografia Paraty Em Foco in Brazil, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Windsor International Photo Seminar, in Windsor, Ontario, The Stone performance space in New York City, and, most recently, at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. The first of the pieces, called “Ich Bin die Nacht,” is a 20-minute film made up almost exclusively of Gibson’s still images. In later works, such as “Typography,” “Atlas,” and “Signal (to) Noise,” Gibson began incorporating more film and video, shot at first with a Bolex camera, then with a Canon 5D Mark II HDSLR, and now with the new Leica.

Gibson's "Ich Bin die Nacht"

Gibson became intrigued by the idea of combining his images with his own music only about eight years ago—after he began studying music theory seriously. “I’d always played the guitar, but I’d spent a lifetime building up a wall against learning music theory and harmony,” he said. His study not only brought the architecture of music into clearer focus, but also the equivalencies between music and photography.

“I realized that reality is to photography what melody is to music,” said Gibson. “You can make a photograph—you can satisfy all the requirements of the medium of photography, without showing reality. But in doing that, if you go too far, you have challenged the initial characteristic of the medium, which is its relationship to reality. And the same thing is true with music—you can go beyond melody into total sound and skronk.” Gibson’s motion pieces and music skitter around this skein of concepts. “I want to be right on the cusp of where photographic reality turns abstract and where melody turns atonal,” he said.

Gibson is certainly not the only photographer to embrace music. Ansel Adams, for one, was an accomplished pianist. “I knew Ansel, and, boy, that guy could sit down and do Mozart and Beethoven with his wrinkled-up old arthritic hands,” Gibson noted in our interview. But he may be the first to combine his own compositions with his own still and motion imagery in such challenging ways. “I’ve never wanted to do music that makes people want to tap their toes,” he said. “I want to do music and art that makes them scratch their heads.”




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