A Review by Michael Ernest Sweet
It is not often, these days, that I open a book of photography and feel excitement. We are in an age where everyone with a camera also has a book in print. So it goes. Yet, excitement does still come, now and then. One such day was when I opened The Black Trilogy by photographer Ralph Gibson. Indeed, my initial reaction: I’ve not seen photography this good for a very long time. A simple thought, but given my point above, a profound statement. Yet, the fact that I had not seen it before was, largely, my own fault. The Black Trilogy is not a new book, rather it is a reissue of an out-of-print and hard-to-find classic.
Ralph Gibson is not one of these “guys with a camera and a book”. No, he is, despite his relative obscurity among street photographers, a very well-established “general” photographer. Gibson, now in his late seventies, has work in some 150 museums worldwide. Yes, you read correctly, that’s one hundred and fifty museums! In fact, likely more museums than I’ve ever visited, and I’m an academic and avid museumgoer! Among these museum walls are those belonging to both MoMA and the MET. So, as you can see, we are not dealing with an amateur here in any sense of the word. But being a professional and a prolifically-collected photographer is no guarantee of “good” photography. When I think of people who’ve managed to successfully sell bad photography several high-profile people immediately come to mind, but I will behave myself and refrain from mentioning any names. Suffice it to say, Gibson has indeed nailed both – good photography and commercial success.
Among Gibson’s other accolades is his investiture as a commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, an honour given to only twenty artists a year. The list of other commendations and honours is too numerous to undertake here. The point: Gibson has arrived. And, as an added bonus, the work is actually worthy of such an arrival. Why, specifically, is Gibson’s work so deliciously unique? The reasons are multifold. Let’s examine some of them in turn.
Perhaps one of Gibson’s greatest accomplishments is the presence of the benign, the sublime, the sensual, the abstract, and the mysterious all in one consistent uniform aesthetic. Not only is this an impressive list of qualities to have present in one’s work, but it is a list that combines, in Gibson’s case, to produce a truly unique narrative and visual signature. His nudes are not just nudes. Yes, often we find a woman’s breasts, but they are contextualized within a much greater visual narrative. Often, this narrative is one that enables a sense of mystery and intrigue. Who is that woman? Where was this photograph taken? In one photograph in this collection we know those breasts (indeed the whole body) is outdoors as the sky looms large in the background. Yet, in true Gibson style, we are not merely given a summer sky and a nude female body – a photo that could easily be a great one. No, we are given all that and a crocheted bikini suit. It is this latter feature – the bikini – that draws us in with such visual intensity that Gibson’s photograph could never hope escape unnoticed. Oh, and then there is the rogue nipple, the arc of the woman’s hand, and the lone stark shadow, which add subplots to his narrative, ultimately, creating a story as provoking as any ever found between two covers.
Alternating between realism, like we might find in a Hockney or a Colville painting, and classical mid-twentieth-century scènes noir, Gibson leaves us with little doubt about his credentials as an bonafide artist. In another thought-provoking photograph – a woman’s nude back and her plume of jet-black hair awash in sea air – we are treated to a lesson on how too many poor photographs suffer not from what is not included in them but from what is included, namely too much information. In this particular photograph Gibson leaves the entire right half of the frame empty save for the sea and a scant hint of a far-away shoreline. The faceless and somewhat abstract features of the woman are tightly aligned with the right edge of the frame. The fact that some of her person is “off the frame” adds to our desire to know. In precis, it keeps us wanting more from Gibson and his camera.
The Black Trilogy is a worthy addition to any photographer’s monograph collection. Indeed, a whole generation of photographers, many now famous like the late Mary Ellen Mark or the very-much-still-alive Larry Clark, have drawn much inspiration from the first edition of this book. Each image between these covers is stimulating and informing. We are able to both enjoy and learn when we engage with the work of Ralph Gibson. And, thanks to the University of Texas Press, a whole new generation of photographers can now revel in the inspiration this book so easily imparts. Enjoy it, for it is truly a rare day when one gets to delve into such a great book of photography, reprint or not.
The Black Trilogy
The University of Texas Press
Paperback, 170 Photos