Arc Work

Gibson's "abstract things."

“I’M NOT REALLY interested in photographing the great event,” says photographer Ralph Gibson, who at the age of 63 has seen plenty of history. Gibson’s street images from the 1960s clearly showed an influence from the social realists (notably Robert Frank, with whom Gibson briefly worked on a film), but his more recent work is famous for its precise, high-contrast compositions that celebrate textures, contours, lines, and curves. The corner of a bare room, for example, becomes a study of polygons and tonal fields, not unlike what you’d expect to see in modern painting. Instead of capturing moments, Gibson focuses on the fundamentals of visual perception—light, shadow, and shapes. “I don’t want to make abstract photographs,” Gibson told me in an interview, “but I do want to photograph the abstract in things.”

The Benham Gallery is presenting a mini-retrospective on Gibson that includes his formal, dramatically lit architectural views; several black-and-white nudes; fragmentary color images of France (a tabletop, a curtain); and a few of his faceless portraits—a priest’s neck and collar, heads of men or women turned away from the camera or partially covered by inky shadow, a wrinkled hand on a cane. The 28 photographs demonstrate how well Gibson has refined his reductive style—what might be called an intimate minimalism—on everything from a building’s cornice to the human body. In his nudes, the camera often slides in too close for a full portrait (you rarely see a face), but Gibson seems to be looking deeper, for something like a glimpse of what forms the body’s grace—the movement traced by a folded arm or leg, a balance of arcs between the shoulder and breast.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Gibson is visiting Seattle this week. Wednesday night at the Museum of History and Industry he’ll show slides from his work (including several from Light Strings, his forthcoming book on the guitar) and discuss his style and techniques, such as pre-visualization and camera handling (see visual arts calendar for details). Since 1961, Gibson has used the compact Leica Rangefinder, a camera that (unlike a single lens reflex) lets you see what lies outside of the picture—essential for a photographer who “subtracts from the frame until I have just what it is I want to include.”

A trick Gibson borrowed from Mikhail Baryshnikov may best define the essence of his work. Meeting the great dancer years ago, Gibson asked him how it was that he often appeared to be suspended in mid-air. Baryshnikov, it turned out, exhaled at the summit of his arc. Ever since, Gibson says, “I’ve been exhaling at the moment of exposure.” It’s no wonder, then, that the response to one of Gibson’s photographs—say, a shadowed hood of a car—is often like the faintest of sighs.