There’s little doubt that Ralph Gibson has shaped the course of the medium’s development. His simple, often graphical images are usually recognisable by style alone and many would be known to those with no active interest in photography. They’ll know them because they saw them somewhere once and the image just ‘stuck’. They’re iconic. However, he has produced a lot of work I am not familiar with and I wanted to remedy this. Time spent looking at Daido Moriyama’s work after opportunistically dropping into an exhibition of his in Hamilton’s gallery, London, made me think of some Gibson prints I saw in Arles in 2012, so off to Gibson’s website I went. Why is it everything seems to be connected?
Anyway, the first thing I want to point out is the ease with which we can peruse archival images on his website (I’ve just counted and there are 25 small collections available). Many B&W era photographers do not make nearly as many of images available and I have never been quite sure why. Copyright infringement worries or the hassle associated with converting analogue images to digital? I don’t know, but it’s a pleasures to sift through a person’s work in chronological order, noting the changes in his eye over time. He also began shooting with a Leica Monochrom quite recently, so how this affected his final images was also of interest to me, especially in light of the often negative comments cast by people on forums. I would agree that his film work is stronger, but rather than use this as conclusive evidence of the uselessness of the Leica Monochrom (!) or his waning mojo, I wonder how much is simply down to his (assumed) lack of experience processing B&W files on a computer. We’ll never know.
This recent foray spurred me to invest in some Ralph Gibson books and so I did a little research online, which showed that his book ‘Nude’ was fairly well regarded, so I ordered it. And I am glad I did, because it is a nicely put together book whose 4* rating on Amazon seems about right. It’s large (35.7 x 3.9 x 26.8 cm), but not nearly as imposing as James Nachtwey’s ‘Inferno’ and, with a large (beautiful) photograph on the front cover and satin covered binding, it certainly impressed me. It’s also outwardly attractive, which shouldn’t matter much but we all know it helps! One will probably spend as much time looking at it as in in it, over the years…
The construction is fairly typical of Taschen i.e. of good quality and contemporary in execution, despite the fact that much of the material inside was created many decades ago. Images possess good contrast (unlike ‘Inferno’) and are printed on fairly typical white paper stock. There is nothing fancy about the paper or printing, but its pretty good, albeit far below much higher priced boutique offerings. There’s a mixture of classic images that will make you smile with recognition and then several pages of images that surprise you by being not remotely familiar. The quality of the imagery is generally very good, but (as with inferno) I wonder how many should have remained on the cutting room floor so to speak. This asks a fundamental question: how much are we seeking a visual feast of ‘just rightness’ and how much are we interested in the periphery: the images that are perhaps ‘decent’ (and no more) but which lend reality to a particular shoot, or add a sense of fallibility to the legacy of a master. Everyone’s opinion will differ, but I think Taschen has chosen ‘voluminous reality’ over concise perfection.
Clearly there was no shortage of material for this book, because there’s very little space unused. Once again, I would ask why the publishers felt the need to shoehorn so much inside? The mixture of B&W and colour images, formal portraits and candids create a slightly jumbled feel, but I’m inclined to think this is a ‘Taschen thing’, because I have seen them take the same approach with quite a few contemporary books. It’s as if the idea of using white space carefully, or considering the flow of images too carefully, is excessively ‘aesthetic’ or ‘formal’.
Perhaps my viewpoint marks me out as a curmudgeon at the age of 38, but I do have to shake my head in disbelief at times. It’s as if they are making a statement, while reciting ‘we are free of restraints and order. We are free spirited and artificial constructs have no place here!’ Then they get into their BMW and drive home to cook dinner in their Poggenpohl kitchen. That said, many of the images are beautifully set and I have shown a couple here. Then you trip over a bunch of images that make you wonder if the intern was unable to switch off the borderless printing option. Such is life and, as a whole, I am not a Taschen fan. What they do manage, however, is to keep the cost of large books down, which is always appreciated.
… After you close it, its hard not to reflect on the number and variation of images seen and feel rather glad you own it. It stands in stark contrast to the other books of nudes that I own and, when I delve back into nude photography again, I know its contents will have burrowed deeply into my subconscious; Gibson’s journey will have become part of mine.