November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Ralph Gibson / Photographer Interview

Bicycle  ©Ralph Gibson

This photograph is the cover for Ralph Gibson’s book, MONO .

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Seeing in Mono

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by Mike Foldes

 

ralph quote4

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Q) When you say something like that, is there anything in particular you are referring to?

A) I got my first Leica, an M-2, in 1961 and have used rangefinder Leicas exclusively throughout my entire career. I knew immediately that the camera fit my hands in a unique way and that my brief was to focus on my skills as a camera handler. In those days my dream was to be a photojournalist and camera handling, speed and grace with the camera were the keys to capturing a certain kind of photograph.  And years ago it occurred to me that more great photographs had been made with a Leica and a 50mm lens than any other camera/lens combination. Now, 50 years later, the Monochrom digital has arrived and with a maximum  ISO of 10,000 there are absolutely no restrictions left. One can photograph anything just about anywhere…..with or without enough light! The image of Billie Holiday’s table was taken in a very dark room and the main challenge was finding an edge to grab for focus. Then having the immediate display of the image available, I knew the image was secure.

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Q) There is a Ralph Gibson signature edition of 35 pcs of the Monochrom, in black and silver. I take it you were involved in both the design and marketing effort for the camera. What did you tell Leica you were looking for in a digital camera when they came to you, and how long was it in development? Did you have a chance to test various editions as it was going through engineering design?

A) I was initially approached to use a proto-type model of the Monochrom. The first morning I had the camera in my hands I made the image of the bicycle and I realized that this camera harbored enormous potential. I asked for no changes whatsoever because I was too new to the digital space to suggest any modifications. The only thing the User Manual doesn’t explain is how to set the camera down.

Leda©Ralph Gibson

 Leda

Q) While you’ve used Leica cameras throughout your career, I would imagine you’ve tried using other brands. Does anything else come close? If so, what?

A) I began to photograph quite by chance in the USN. Having taken a battery of tests, I was assigned to the US Naval Photography School in Pensacola, Florida. The course was exigent and demanding in that one had to resolve problems with the view camera, the speed graphic as well as the k-25 aerial camera that shot a 100-foot roll of film. Once out of the school, I was assigned to a ship charged with making an hydrographic survey of the Aegean Sea. My duties included portraiture, industrial, aerial, (and) also lithographic process. By the end of my four-year enlistment, I was in charge of the entire photography division of the ship. I had a broad relationship to the medium including many printing processes, as well as Ektachrome processing. When I enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, my instructors knew far less technique than I. One afternoon my teacher Paul Hassel loaned me his Leica and the die was cast. I made a decision the same day to use that camera to the exclusion of all others. It was a life guiding decision, second only to my vocation to be a photographer. I didn’t stay long in school, primarily because I was offered a job as assistant to Dorothea Lange. I printed for her for about one-and-a-half years. She was the first great photographer I was able to know in a personal way and her influence has remained present throughout my entire career. 

Q) Some photographers committed to shooting black and white film have said that color photography diminishes the effect, but classical painters didn’t paint in black and white and came up with art that will last forever…. What was your initial attraction to monochrome and how did it keep you so engaged for so long?

A) Let us consider the world of reality. It exists in three dimensions, 100% scale and in living color. A black and white photograph reduces the world into two dimensions, considerably reduces the scale of reality down to the size of a print and also subtracts color. The result of this is a strong dramatic analog of the world that is immediately recognized by most of the people on the planet. Color, being only two steps abstracted from reality, is much less dramatic and for this reason remains for me a great challenge. I would like to make images in color that resonate with the same power as black and white.

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bookcover2_monoMONO Lustrum Press |104 pages

Black and white digital images

Ralph Gibson’s video of book release event

Ralph Gibson @ Kahmann Gallery’s Facebook page

Ralph Gibson’s MONO site

 

 

The foregoing interview was conducted via email between December 2013 and January 2014.

 

About the interviewer:

Mike Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in “About Us.”