Printing Prodigy

Ralph Gibson's legendary photo-book press gets a look from the Center for Creative Photography

In 1970, the young Ralph Gibson published The Somnambulist, a book of shadowy photographs that told a strange tale of nightwalking.

Part abstraction, part surrealism, part narration, the black-and-white photos were arresting images of hands grasping a boat, of a veiled face, of light coming through a doorway, of a seacoast.

The groundbreaking book caused a sensation and made the young photographer's reputation. But it also enjoyed a curious distinction: Gibson published it himself, via his own company, Lustrum Press.

And not only did he bring out books of his own work, including first The Somnambulist, then Déjà-Vu in 1973 and Days at Sea in 1974; he also published other leading photographers, from Mary Ellen Mark to Robert Frank and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

This summer, the Center for Creative Photography looks at the Lustrum phenomenon. Curated by acting CCP director Britt Salvesen, the exhibition, Ralph Gibson and Lustrum Press, 1970-1985: A Chapter in the History of Photo Book Publishing, displays some 50 prints by Gibson and almost 30 by other photographers, including Frank, Alvarez Bravo, Paul Caponigro and Robert Mapplethorpe. All of the images were originally published by Lustrum.

"Lustrum was important, because it offered a venue for young photographers to test new ideas at a time when exhibition opportunities were still scarce," Salvesen said in an e-mail. "Gibson's own books pioneered a kind of surrealistic narrative style that had not been seen in photo books up to this point."

Overseen by Gibson, Lustrum's printing was high quality, with a "real emphasis on achieving (the) rich blacks" so important to Gibson's work.

The CCP started a Gibson archive early on, when he was still in his 30s, and the show includes negatives and contact sheets, and papers from the Lustrum years. Gibson shut down Lustrum in the mid-'80s, though he continued to publish fine-photo books with other publishers and to exhibit in countries as far-flung as China, France and Brazil.

Now 68, Gibson estimates his tally of books at about 40. He'll pay a visit to Tucson on Sept. 28, to give a talk at the show's closing reception. In a phone call from his New York studio, Gibson talked about his career and his interest in books.

What were your earliest artistic influences?

My father, C. Carter Gibson, started working at Warner Bros. in the '20s, first-generation Hollywood. By the time I was born (in 1939, in Los Angeles), he was an assistant director at Warner Bros. I would go on the sets, and I would see these arc lamps. These high-contrast films were being lit by high-contrast lamps. That has to be where (my interest in dark shadows) was formed.

When did you start doing photography?

I learned photography in the Navy. By the time I was 18, I had a real vocation. (The Navy photography school) was founded by (Edward) Steichen during World War II. It was a large school in Pensacola, Fla. Steichen brought a very high quality of aesthetics to naval photography. You'd photograph portraits, industrial work, aerial work, making maps of the coastline sometimes, mostly applied photography. I was head of the darkroom for several years on the ship. I had 20 guys under me by the time I was 20 years old.

You worked with Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, both photographic stars.

I went to the San Francisco Art Institute for a few months. Then I worked with Dorothea Lange a couple of years. She was toward the end (of her life). I'm talking about 1961. It was huge, the first break I ever got. It was totally an education. I printed all day long, all the famous negatives. I printed "Migrant Mother" a lot of times. She'd be in the darkroom, and we'd use all different kinds of papers and chemicals. In those days, I thought that technique was everything, so I studied very hard. And then when I met Dorothea, I realized technique was nothing. It was the content, what you're trying to say, that mattered. If the picture had it, then the form supported it.

Along comes Robert Frank, who completely deconstructed technique. I had met him at a party in San Francisco. I started assisting him. We became very good friends. He helped me a lot while I was still struggling. I worked for Frank off and on. It was never a steady job.

How did you branch out into doing your own work?

I had moved to New York, about '67, '68. I was accepted at Magnum. But then I didn't like being a photojournalist. I wanted to do my own thing. I knew I had to do a book to get recognized. So I worked very hard and got The Somnambulist (out). It brought a lot of attention my way. I went from starving anonymity with three cameras in a pawn shop to having the reputation that I have now, in three months' time. I was just 30. In those days in America, you heard--constantly--that you had to succeed by 30. I just snuck in under the wire.

Can you describe The Somnambulist?

It's about a dream. While sleeping, a dreamer reappears elsewhere on the planet and becomes two men. The somnambulist chose to be the latter. I illustrated a sequence of photographs; conventional documentary photographs were being recontextualized. The book became a very big part of what the pictures were saying.

Why are photo books so important to you?

When I have an exhibition, it shows how I think about photography. When I make a book, it shows how I think about my photographs, how they speak to one another. You control the scale. (I had) Lustrum, an imprint of my own, until about 1985. Then I stopped publishing my own work and/or the work of other people. Now I sell them to (other publishers). I make the dummies and lay out the final scans. I have total autonomy.

Your 2001 book, Ex Libris, had photographs of texts.

I've always been interested in typography. I've always been very interested in the language of signs. I love books. I'm surrounded by them. I believe it's the best place for my work. For years, I'd been thinking about going to the great libraries of the world and making a book about books. That's how that Ex Libris project came about.

How would you describe your style?

I'm interested in photographing not so much what the thing looks like, but what it feels like to look at something. At the end of a given project, I know more about the subject than I did when I began.

How do you choose subjects?

They choose me. I find myself looking at things. I've always loved women very much. I'm doing a book of nudes called The Wounded Nurse and Other Nudes. I'm constantly working on musical-related projects. And architecture: When you go to a new city, you study the scale, the proportion, the volume of the buildings, the width of the streets. Basically, every city is a museum for me. My eyes are open, and I want to photograph.

I believe that if you can photograph the nude, and if you can photograph architecture, you can photograph anything in between. Those two subjects prepare you for just about anything you're going to encounter.

One's curves and one's angles?

All that.