Ralph Gibson Gets Old, Surrenders To Convenience

By Bruce Robbins, January 21, 2014. This article originally appeared under the title A Less Beautiful Ralph Gibson in www.theonlinedarkroom.com. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Ralph Gibson has gone over to the dark side, his beloved Leica MP and M6 film cameras replaced by a digital impostor that looks the same but eats pixels instead of silver. Who’da thunk it? He’s just published his latest book of photographs, Mono, all of which are digital. Ralph built his reputation on a certain look in his photographs, lots of contrast, empty black areas and sharp composition. He now believes he can achieve the same look with a digital Leica Mwhatever. Maybe he can but that’s hardly the point, is it?

Even one as ill-versed in Ralph’s work as I could quickly grasp that his photographs were organic, they had vitality and soul. More so than most other photographers’, his images lived and breathed. I saw that straight away when my pal Phil Rogers (who’s art school trained – rolls eyes) educated me about Ralph’s photography last year. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and doubtless would give zone system aficionados conniptions but, love it or hate it, it was the antithesis of the perfect digital image. So I loved it.

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Now, regardless of whatever direction Ralph’s future photography takes, we’ll all know that it’s not born of some deliberate combination of over-exposure and over-development – a technique arrived at over decades – but of some footering in Photoshop. No longer will it be unique. Now it’ll be just the same heavily manipulated pixel pap that I’m getting fed up of seeing on Flickr and other forums. (The Online Darkroom Flickr group is a rare exception. Check it out.)

Ralph, who was 75 last week, will now need to rewrite his personal website as well if he’s going to sell his new images there because he states, “All black and white prints are silver gelatin unless otherwise requested.” Somehow, I can’t see too many prospective buyers saying to Ralph, “No, it’s OK. I’ll pass on the hand-made, silver gelatin darkroom print. Just pop me out one of those nice, modern inkjet thingies.”

Some readers might think I’m going over the top but I don’t think I am. If you want an analogy between film and digital, I’d compare them to making a chair. Imagine if you were a craftsman who selected the seasoned wood, sketched out the design for the chair in a notebook, cut the timber to length, shaped it, carved the mortise and tenon joints, assembled it and finished it off with French polish.

Now imagine you had a computer on which you could design the chair. Imagine you could fire that design off to a CNC machine that carved the chair out of a block of wood and spat it out ready made and finished in varnish. The initial vision in both cases – the design – is the same. The latter would be the more perfect but which would you rather own?

Or here’s an analogy from the music world. You write the song, rehearse it with your favourite musicians and record it live. Or, you write the song, programme various computer-controlled synths to play the the various instruments absolutely flawlessly and record that. Which record would you rather listen to?

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Why as a society are we so hell-bent on moving away from things made by human hand to soul-less computer-based crap? The lack of human input is so prevalent in the manufacturing process it’s palpable. I was a motoring writer for about 15 years and test drove hundreds of cars and I’d virtually no interest in any of them. They were the motoring equivalent of white goods.

Hand Built

The vehicles I like are mainly pre-1970s (although I had a soft spot for my MX5  because it was the Lotus Elan I couldn’t afford). If I won the lottery, after the DB5 and E-Type, I’d be paying visits to Morgan and Bristol and that’s it. In fact, when doing the motoring column, the only motoring magazines I actually bought on a regular basis were from the kit car industry – hand-built, you see?

Getting back to Ralph, I was aware he’d been “dabbling” with digital for years but, from what I’d read, he always seemed to be quite dismissive of it. Not in a bad way but he made it very clear that everything about his images screamed film and always would.

As far back as 2001, Leica were trying to tempt him with digital cameras without success. Listen to what Ralph said in an interview at that time, “Digital photography is about another kind of information. Digital photography seems to excel in all those areas that I’m not interested in.

“I’m interested in the alchemy of light on film and chemistry and silver. When I’m taking a photograph I imagine the light rays passing through my lens and penetrating the emulsion of my film. And when I’m developing my film I imagine the emulsion swelling and softening and the little particles of silver tarnishing.

“But anyway, the big emphasis in digital photography is how many more million pixels this new model has than the competitor’s model. It’s about resolution, resolution, resolution as though that were going to provide us with a picture that harboured more content, more emotional power.

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“Well, in fact, it’s very good for a certain kind of graphic thing in colour but I don’t necessarily do that kind of photograph. So when it comes to digital, I have to say that digital just doesn’t look the way photography looks: it looks digital. However, I strongly suspect some kid is going to come along with a Photoshop filter called Tri X and you just load that and you’ve got yourself something that looks like photography (laughs).” My italics, Ralph’s laughter.


Photography or Digital

Now, everyone is obviously free to change their mind but I’m not sure there have been any developments in digital in the last few years that would negate anything Ralph said about his own view of photography or the materials he used. Did you see the way he spoke of “photography” and “digital” as two separate entities? Does that mean he’s no longer a photographer?

Why would a photographer who has built a considerable reputation using film ditch it in his 76th year? Is he getting too old to spend hour after hour in the darkroom or did Leica make him an offer he couldn’t refuse? Or was it the sudden realisation that all his earlier utterances about swelling, penetrating and softening (will that pass the censors? – ED) were wrong all along? Or was that just art speak designed to impress the pseuds?

Here’s Ralph’s (wholly unconvincing in my opinion) justification for taking the wrong fork in the road. Note that he concedes he’s now offering a less “beautiful” product.

These words about making images could be written in English, French, or any number of languages we know exist in the world,” he said in promoting his book.

“I am writing both about images and my life long relationship to the creative process. We could talk about the moon in many different languages but it would still be the moon being described.

“So when I work in digital, I might be describing the same subject but in a different language, a somewhat altered syntax. But the subject is the same. And the very moment I discovered that I could get my “look” on digital, I was convinced that this was a new language that I wanted very much to explore.

“Imagine my excitement after 55 years in the darkroom. It must be said that the silver-gelatin print is still more beautiful than the ink-jet but at the rate technology is progressing it is not inconceivable that the substrates will become even more desirable. For the moment I am totally inspired and enjoy picking up my Leica and expressing my thoughts and visual ideas. I have always liked picking up my Leica…”

Sorry, Ralph, mate. You’ve just gone from designer label to store bought.

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Postscript: On February 1, 2014, Leica announced a limited edition Leica Monochrom “Ralph Gibson Edition, priced at 21,000 Euros (around $28,000). A total of 35 units were produced.

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