Photographer Ralph Gibson is the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship as-well as an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France. In 1999, Taschen published his hardcover book “NUDE” to great success—and now they have released a sumptuous special edition with never seen before photos, stories and interviews. TREATS! talks with the man whose nude photos have been dubbed “lyrical,” “intelligent” and “poetic”. by Harvey Kubernik
Hello, Ralph, how are you?
You grew up in LA, right?
Yes, in Toluca Lake. My father worked at Warner Bros. He was an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock for a number of years, working on “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window” and “Dial M For Murder.” I worked on “Strangers On A Train” for a couple of weeks. I met Hitchcock a few times, too.
I was on the set a lot. And I would see the carbon arc lamps shining down from the catwalks onto the sets illuminating orthochromatic very slow contrasty film. So that quality of my work was clearly put in place as a young boy.
What were some of your first shoots and assignments?
Well, I came out of the Navy very advanced technically. Immediately dropped out of art school and became assistant to Dorothea Lange at age 21. So I learned a lot about imbuing content into the work. I wanted to be a photo journalist. I was working in the documentary mode. I came to New York in 1966 with two hundred bucks, checked into the Chelsea Hotel and said, “I’m not going back.” I got in a cab and was going to show my photographs to Clay Felker, (editor of “New York”). So I go see Felker and he says, “I like your pictures, kid. You got any ideas?”
I closed my eyes, and a flash went off in my head. Just like in the comic books. “Why don’t we do an article on the four oldest cab drivers in New York?” He said, “There’s a young writer who wants to start free-lancing named Nick Pileggi. Why don’t you guys work together?” So I teamed up Nick and we did a bunch of stories for “New York.”
Then I became very dissatisfied working professionally as a commercial photographer. I was working out of the Magnum office and I didn’t like it. Then I started working with Robert Frank on his films. I owed nine months of rent at the Chelsea and two or three cameras were in the pawnshop…and then I did a book in 1970 called “Somnambulist” and the rest is history.
What did you learn from Robert Frank?
I learned essentially the same thing I learned from Dorothea Lange: That you really had to be unique. You had to be original. You had to isolate your own subject matter, your own look and your own the way of doing things. The idea of emulating the people you admire in photography is a sure straight road to failure and mediocrity. And I went off and only wanted to do my own projects and satisfy myself. And it turns out when I did that then the world started responding.
Do you have a basic M.O. or philosophy when shooting?
One of the things I learned from Dorothea is that you have to have a point of departure. Any photograph I make is part of a larger whole. Any photographer I mention, whose name you would recognize, he or she will be connected to a singular body of work that launched their career. The idea of the journeyman or the box of photos goes nowhere. You have to commit to projects that have a point of departure. And I don’t pick up my camera without a point of departure.
How do you prepare for a shoot?
I need to experience an act of discovery—that’s very important to me. Then there’s always something about every figure that is unique and perfect. And I try to put the camera where I’ve never put it before. I try to think outside of my own limitations. And I’ve said for years that I’m only as good as my next photograph. And that’s how I feel about photography. It’s the next one. You don’t rest on laurels in photography. For shoots, if it works out, I’ll have one assistant to help. Often I am alone.
How did the process begin in assembling “NUDE?”
Well, what happened was that I had intermittently been photographing nudes since the very beginning of my career. And it was usually girls I was living with or involved with. And then when I got more interested in the subject I would just photograph models—but I would try to give the photograph a kind of warmth or intimacy that you get when you are shooting people you know well. Then what happened was I started shooting in color a few years ago. I had already done one book with Benedict (Taschen) back in 1999 but I still had all these color nudes.
I was at Benedict’s house in Miami and said, “I’ve got all these color things. Why don’t we do something?” “I’d love too! But why don’t we make it a complete retrospective nude book.”
I was able to integrate 50 years of photographing the figure into this book. Benedict then said, “Would you let us collaborate with you on this one?” And he sent me his young art director, Josh Baker, from Los Angeles. Josh has a pair of eyes like mine. So we laid out the book in two or three long sessions. It was just an amazing experience working with him.
And there is text and dialogue with painter and sculptor Eric Fischl, too.
Yes. I have been close friends with Eric Fishcl since the early-eighties. We’d play tennis, hang out etc. My other best friend was Helmut Newton. So we’re all very close and traveled to Europe and Asia together. Eric and I had many conversations over the years about art. Sometimes when he was living in Manhattan we’d have lunch 2 or 3 times a week. And we would have these ongoing discussions about figuration, perspective, volume, space and history of the figure. The nude goes back to 25,000 B.C. You’ve got a lot of history there.
So when Benedict said, “Who can we get for an interview?” I suggested that Eric and I record a conversation, which was no different as if we were at lunch.
Do you like when text is employed to describe or add to the solo plain image?
First of all, that discussion primarily deals with the aesthetics of the nude. And anything that broadens one’s perception on an aesthetic basis is completely interesting to me.
We weren’t talking about how I developed my film, you know. Because he has painted the figure and studied the anatomy, as have I for many years. So what we were really discussing was about one of the things that happens. When you open a book or a magazine, when you turn the page, hopefully you’re going to see something new every time you turn the page.
If you’re doing a 400-page book of nudes there’s got to be some “conceptual distance” from page to page and from spread to spread. That’s one of the things I strive to achieve in all my books.
What are some of the general emotions you feel you have conveyed in the book?
What I’m really trying to do is appeal to is the intelligence. I’m trying to use the fact that we are familiar with the subject to inspire an intelligent response. I want to make a very intellectual, very concrete nude that’s strongly etched.
This book just seems to keep reaching new audiences, new generations.
As you know, there had been a limited edition hard cover collectors’ edition publication. We laid that out and the book did very well. Benedict wanted to do a trade version. And I said to him, “I’ve continued photographing the subject. Can I add some pages?” “Of course!” So the trade version has something like 44 or 48 more pages.
Now, let’s face it: it’s a rare and unique privilege to get to do the collectors’ edition. But then, on top of that, you have the opportunity to extend the subject even more in the trade edition is a double privilege.
Benedict Taschen is the Orson Welles of publishing. Publishing is finite and limited and Benedict has transcended all the limitations of publishing. I had a publishing company for a number of years and know how it works. And here is the way Benedict thinks. I said to him, “You’re not doing those small books anymore?” “No. Because the computer now deals with images on that scale.”
Do you prefer to shoot in black and white or color?
The real challenge is that black and white is three steps removed from reality. It’s black and white and reduced in scale and it’s reduced to two dimensions. So you have some inherent drama there. So the challenge is to make color as dramatic or emphatic as the black and white.
Black and white tends to mystify things while with color you get to the end of it faster. And that’s the challenge. Black and white is closer to drawing, really. And drawing is considered closer to music.
Can we discuss photographing the nude figure in an outdoor shoot as opposed to an indoor setting?
Well, one of the things I realized as I was photographing outdoors was that 99 per cent of the human figures nudes that you see in real life are indoors. You see them at home and in your personal life. Nudes outdoors are far less often perceived. I like available light when I shoot. I’m not interested in artificial light very much.
Why the omnipresent use of the Leica camera for you over all these decades?
The Leica will let me be anything I am capable of being. One of the wisest decisions I made early on was to commit to using that camera only. And to find my visual signature with it. It’s still the best camera going! I have no intentions of changing format. The thread running through my work is woven with the Leica and a 50mm lens.
How has the digital revolution had an impact your work?
It would appear that obviously the textbook is moving to the Kindle device, the iPod etc. But the photography and the art book seems to retain its mystique. I think that there will always be a time for it. In terms of scanning and separation, color quality and things like that, the computer has been a tremendously positive lever for me. And I do all my own separations quite often. It’s a very good time to be making books right now.
As far as the future of the market that remains to be sorted out even more. But I don’t think that the book is going to become instinct. People like books. One of the things is that you hold the book in a way that’s very personal and you only look at books under ideal circumstances usually.
What advice can you offer new photographers?
I tell them they have to do something that hasn’t been done. The camera has to show me something that I haven’t seen. They have to isolate their own subject matter. They have to be as original as they can. They have to realize that by paying homage to the people they admirer they’re not going to get anywhere. And through the years the people who have followed my admonition have had some kind of careers.
Los Angeles native Harvey Kubernik has been an active music journalist for 40 years and the author of 5 books, including This Is Rebel Music (2002) and Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music In Film and On Your Screen (2004), published by University of New Mexico Press. In 2009, Kubernik wrote the critically acclaimed Canyon of Dreams The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon published by Sterling, and in 2011 he co-authored the highly regarded A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival published by Santa Monica Press.