What I Learned from Ralph Gibson

I had the privilege this week of being amongst a handful of photographers attending a 3-day workshop taught by legendary photographer Ralph Gibson.  Ralph is one of the great fine art photographers alive, and has had a huge impact on the art community since his breakthrough work, The Somnambulist, in 1970.

Before going to this workshop, I'm not sure that I really understood what fine art photography was, much less whether or not I wanted to be one.  I'm not quite a modernist when it comes to photography, trying to document the world as it is.  But I'm also not sure whether or not I want or need my photography to be quite as deliberately abstract as Ralph's.  And I'm definitely not interested in getting myself sucked into the intellectual vortex of contemporary art theory and criticism.  I escaped the academy once, and that's plenty.  :-)

What I do know for sure is that my photography is part of how I process the world.  More specifically, it's how I better understand people, and an important part of how I connect myself to humanity.  It's why I've always been most interested in photographing people, and why I'm less interested in photographing landscapes, abstracts, etc.  My photographs of people reflect my own weirdly introverted psychology, where I'm deeply interested in the individual, and profoundly repelled by the group.

This was perhaps the most important discovery of the workshop.  And I made it because I was totally not grooving on Ralph's approach to photographing the nude which treated the female figure, it's proportions, and geometric aesthetic as something distinct and more interesting than the actual human being whose photograph was being taken.  That runs completely counter to what my photography does for me, hence the dissonance.  But trying to make sense of it was immensely valuable.  And I wouldn't have tried if it were just some other photography instructor, and not one of the greats.

So other than getting a bead on this very important aspect of my photography, I learned a bunch of other stuff:

  1. I need to spend more time looking at my own work and critically evaluating it.  The portfolio that I presented to Ralph for review was thematically consistent (mostly portraits), but of mixed quality.  It would have been better to have presented five very, very good images rather than 5 very, very good images, and 10 of their mediocre cousins.  I would certainly never do this in my other work, so it was good to be reminded: always present your best work.
  2. I need to spend more time looking at photography in general.  I need a better critical vocabulary for describing what's in an image so that I can do a better job understanding what about an image or a style of photography is resonating with me, and so that I can know how those images or photographers should or should not inform my own work.
  3. Ralph was big on this notion of "point of departure."  What story are you trying to tell with your images?  What unifies them other than their technical qualities?  When you go out with your camera do you know what you're looking for, or are you just a tourist taking pictures of whatever catches your eye?
  4. Ralph was very insistent that you should be deliberate about the image that you wanted to make before you bring the viewfinder to your eye (and equally insistent that live view is for amateurs) and press the shutter release.  This is related to the previous point.  If you know your prime focal lengths cold, then as you are looking at the world, you can see what is in 50mm, 90mm,..., frame.  If you are looking at the world with a critical eye, you will know what makes an interesting photograph, what you might need to edit in the scene in order to get a clean image, and where to put the camera, even if you don't have a camera on you.  Bringing the viewfinder to your eye and trying to find an interesting photograph through that perspective entices you to be lazy and non-deliberate about the image that you're trying to get.
  5. I need a body of work.  The good thing about this is that I had already figured this out in July, and my Behind the Tech project is a very specific point of departure and intended to produce a body of work (in addition to the other good that the project will accomplish.)  This workshop just reinforced the importance of this, and reminded me that I can have more than one point of departure, and more than one project ongoing at any point in time.  I'm going to try to develop one that will incorporate my kids, and perhaps another around this notion of technological dissociation that I feel more and more all the time.
  6. Ralph asked us if he had a genie who could give us one photographic wish, what would it be.  I instantaneously knew what my wish was.  Time.  A few minutes later, I actually left the workshop early because I decided that my time would be better spent making progress on Behind the Tech than competing with 20 other photographers to pose and photograph models.
  7. The 85-90mm focal length (relative to a 35mm sensor) is where I'm most comfortable.  That might mean a 56mm on my Fujifilm X-T2, an 85mm on the my Canon, a 90mm on my Leica or Sony A7r2, or a 120mm on my medium format camera.  Whether it's a head shot or head-to-foot full figure shots, this focal length gives me compression that I like in my images, and allows introverted me to keep a comfortable, but not impersonal distance from my subject.  That said, I'm going to work very hard to try to master 50mm over the next 12 months.  At 78 years old, Ralph was trying to master the Leica 135mm, so there's little excuse for me not getting out of my comfort zone.
  8. This is perhaps the least artistic of my workshop discoveries, but, this workshop taught me that I need to trust my medium format camera more.  This workshop involved shooting models in natural light in a studio environment.  I started off with my medium format camera, shooting ISO 800 with a 120mm macro at f/4.  Just looking at the back, I wasn't thrilled with the images.  I didn't have time to check critical focus on the back, but was assuming that because I was wide open on the lens, and the camera and lens are heavy as hell, and I'm shooting hand held, that none of my images were going to turn out.  I switched over to my Leica M Monochrom for the rest of the shoot, and at the end of the day, I was so convinced that my MF images were going to bad, that I didn't even pull the card out of the camera to see what I had.  Two days later, I finally processed the card, and jesus christ, the images that I got with my medium format camera were even better than the ones I got with the Leica.

All in all, the workshop was a great use of time.  I would totally do it again.


Kevin Scott