Ralph Gibson

Erotic photography appeared in the middle of the 19th century, however at that time it was not art and considered vulgar. One could be sentenced to prison for making and distributing erotic photographs. However, the very appearance of erotic in the then new media can be considered a predictor of the next, more liberated in every sense of the word era.

In the 20th century, erotic photography gradually became not only about the naked (primarily female) body, but about texture, corporeality as such, flexibility of lines and often surrealism of the shot, bringing it to a new level of mainly visual pleasure. Such are the photographs of a contemporary master of black-and-white half-erotic photography Ralph Gibson.

"You can't go straight to an elegant, erotic photography, you have to do all the nasty stuff to get there. When erotic photographs fail, they fail more miserably than others. They're really ugly.
The reason there's so little really great erotic work in any medium is because is that it's much more difficult to create. We're fascinated by it, we all want to understand our sexuality better but nobody gets to the end of that, either.."

From early childhood Ralph Gibson was closely connected with visual arts. His father was the first generation who was in filmmaking industry, he started working there in the 20-s when film industry was still in very much the early stages. For 12 years he had been an assistant of Alfred Hitchcock. When Ralph Gibson was 10 or 11 years old, he was invited as an actor for some movies by Hitchcock. Later, other directors invited him for their projects and he was accepted for quite a big role in the movie Eddie Cantor Story. Ralph believed that it was beginning of his career as an actor.

However when the boy was 14, his father was fired from all movie projects and began to drink heavily. Later, there was a messy divorce and Ralph's father married a blonde starlet, a popular character of a frivolous woman in film industry at that time.
The father didn't want kid to live with them and when Ralph was 16, he was faced with the choice of either military school or the Navy. At that time, military school was rather a place to punish incorrigible teenagers. Ralph knew some of its students and he chose the Navy over punishing teaching and drill training. In the Navy, he was assigned to a position of a photographer assistant and sent to the naval School of Photography to learn photographic techniques.
Ater a while, due to too many offenses, he was kicked out from Navy. Being an 18 years old young man without money and home, Ralph realized that, compared to all the difficulties he had faced, photography school was his only shelter where he was comfortable and felt needed. So after going through bureaucratic hell and writing a huge number of humiliating letters with explanations, he got his place back at the School of Photography, this time with a clear idea of what his true purpose is.

He works as an assistant photographer for the U.S. Navy until 1960, after which he continues to deepen his technical knowledge of photography at the San Francisco Art Institute.
At the same time, he got an assistant job with Dorothea Lange, a very known photojournalist. He had worked as her assistant for 2 years until 1962. Then Ralph Gibsons starts his independent professional travel into the world of photography.
In 1969 Ralph Gibson moves to New York where he formed a publishing house Lustrum Press. When he was still working with Dorothea Lange, he wanted to see his photographs as a photobook. Lustrum Press allowed him to maintain the independence and control over his own works. In 1973 he published his first photobook The Somnambulist, then, in the same year, followed Deja-vu and in 1974 Days at Sea. These three books would later be considered an example of contemporary photobook. In 2017 over 150 shots from these books were included in «Black Trilogy».

"Frankly, I wanted to make photographs you could look at for a long period of time. Longevity is the hardest thing to build into a photograph; and I wanted my work to last, to have a great depth of content, meaning. My job is not ephemera, that's for sure."
Ralph Gibson is a unique photographer in all the senses. Perhaps one of Gibson's greatest accomplishments is the presence of the benign, the sublime, the sensual, the abstract, and the mysterious all in one consistent uniform aesthetic. His naked bodies are not just naked bodies.
Yes, often we see a woman's body, but it is contextualized within a much broader visual narrative. Often, this narrative is one that enables a sense of mystery and intrigue. Who is that woman? Where and how was this photograph taken?
In one photograph in Black Trilogy collection we see the female's body outdoors as the sky looms large in the background. Yet, in true Gibson style, we are not merely given a summer sky and a nude female body – a standard erotics. We are given all that and a crocheted bikini suit. It is this latter feature – the textured bikini covered in shadow – that draws us in with such visual intensity that Gibson's photograph could never escape unnoticed. And then there is the arc of the woman's hand, and the lone stark shadow, which add subplots to his narrative, ultimately, creating a story as provoking as any of his photographs.

Ralph Gibson has traveled a long way of becoming and finding himself in photography, but now that he is 83 years old, in many interviews he underlines that he has no regrets about the thorny path he has chosen. His sensual works were presented at the Paris Photo 2023 Photography Fair and received a great response from the audience.
Author Anna Laza
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