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By Alan Behr

PARIS, 1 MAY 2018 — When you have what, in photography, could be called celebrity status and have held that honor for close to half a century, staying fresh, to say nothing of hoping to best yourself, can surely be a challenge. One of the interesting things about Ralph Gibson (and there are too many of those to cover here) is that he has, during that time, maintained a consistency of vision and execution, mostly in black and white but also in color, and he has managed to create a body of work that has appeared au courant during every phase along the way.

Gibson has accomplished that by listening to his own muse, which guided him, in 1970, to self-publish his first book, The Somnambulist. Two years later came Déjà-Vu and, one year after that, Days at Sea. Together, they create a body of work known as “The Black Trilogy,” and they have just been published again, this time in a single volume and under that title.

Photographs from the trilogy form the thematic core of the latest exhibition by Gibson, Vu Imprévu, now on view at Galerie Thierry Bigaignon, in Paris.

Mr. Bigaignon, who is both accessible and approachable, clearly knows his man: any wall that is not stark white is respectfully painted black. On view are fifteen monochrome works made by Gibson from 1968 to 1990, and most should be quite familiar to those who admire his photography.

Thierry Bigaignon at his gallery in Paris
Photo: Alan Behr

Great visual art should frustrate those who would attempt to capture its essence in textural exposition. (If you can talk write about it as well as they can show it, why trouble anyone to see it?). Gibson’s images do a fine job of making sure an explanation of them do not do them justice. (On whether music might succeed where words fail, more presently.) Gibson isolates details in what he sees and emphasizes, in a way in which classic black and white photography finds its métier, through the power of line and tone. And as with many great works, the technique appears so simple, it would seem that anyone could imitate him. (Relying on the faithful sharpness of Leica lenses, shoot Tri-X or similar black and white film at a higher ISO rating than normal, push-process it in coarse-grain developer, and print for high contrast.) It is no use: a Gibson can only be by Gibson—and that will likely hold true whatever else may come.

More so than with other photographers, key to understanding Gibson’s work is to embrace his methods of arrangement and curation. In Déjà Vu, seemingly disparate images are shown in pairs, such as, perhaps most famously, where the image at the left is of a hand (apparently female) leveling a cocked revolver, and the image to its right is of a bare triceps and a thicket of dark hair (apparently male), giving an abstracted impression of threat from a hirsute hermaphrodite.

In all three books, there is an internal cohesion that maintains structure, and the result is visual narrative, a progression of images that tells a kind of story—an open-ended tale that can alter with each viewing. The challenge facing any gallerist holding what is, in all but name, a retrospective of early Gibson works, is to capture his method in the selection and display of the
prints, which is something that the Bigaignon gallery has done quite well, given that it had only those fifteen images to display. The limitation was probably imposed by the twist provided by Gibson himself: A guitarist, he has composed musical pieces to accompany each photograph.

With the help of your smartphone and perhaps a bit of technical guidance by Mr. Bigaignon (at least in this grateful reviewer’s experience), you can hear his music while you see Gibson’s photograph that inspired it.

The music is quite listenable and somewhat varied, with an air of post-modern mellowness prevailing. On the back of each print appears several staves from the dedicated score. The use of audio is a clever tool to get you to take a careful look at each image. In terms of the consequentiality of the oeuvre of the photographer, however, it is quite irrelevant, unless your plans are to buy a print, hang it in the living room and keep the audio on hand to play aloud whenever an appreciating guest arrives—and many other collectors do the same.

Perhaps it is also about marketing: as with most other great photographers of his generation, Gibson’s early work was not editioned, meaning that rarity has to be imposed after the fact, as has been done here: each picture/score combination is limited to an edition of three.

Everyone experiences art in his or her own way, of course, and I prefer galleries to be as silent as libraries when I visit. I also think that the intricate and surprising pairing of image with image that Gibson has been able to achieve in his books succeeds more effectively than the pairing of image with music. You do not need to see any of the ten paintings by Viktor Hartmann that inspired each of the movements in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or to know or care which picture was made into an aural experience by which segment of the musical work. The music is successful as music and the paintings, like Gibson’s photographs, were made without awareness that the music would one day come.

If you want to hear how Gibson hears his own classic images, a visit with your smartphone will be a fun experience; but the work happily still stands on its own on mute gelatin silver paper, as strong and as contemporary as when it first appeared.

Ralph Gibson, Vu Imprévu, on exhibition through 12 May at
Galerie Thierry Bigaignon,
9 rue Charlot,
75003, Paris.