I wrote the following yesterday: "Cameras have all gotten so 'good' that what's starting to emerge is a certain tyranny of sharp, clear, detailed, correct-color, adequate-DR digital images. It's not all the same equipment, but more and more it's the same, or a similar, aesthetic look."
Richard Palmer emailed this morning to point out that Ralph Gibson addressed that very subject in a TEDx talk called "Finding a Visual Identity in the Digital Age." Indeed, at 2:53, Ralph says more or less the same thing I did: "...software is a key word here because it enables us all to take pictures very easily, and at the same time it makes everybody's pictures look the same."
I'm not sure Ralph entirely answers the question about how to find your identity—not everyone's work is keyed to graphic issues such as shapes—but his talk is good to listen to all the same: it's certainly great to hear about his epiphany in the Navy, what he learned from (and about) Dorothea Lange, his catharsis about his mother in front of the New York City beauty parlor, and other big moments in his life.
I've met Ralph several times, and in his studio darkroom in Manhattan I got to see a curious photographic artifact: his old Leitz enlarger (the Leitz family began and owned Leica for many years). Not only was it the enlarger that printed all the pictures from Ralph's seminal 1970s books (Ralph said he liked negatives that "fought back"), but he got it from another photographer he assisted, Robert Frank, who used the same enlarger to print all the pictures in The Americans. I wrote to Ralph long ago suggesting that that enlarger belongs in the Smithsonian or the George Eastman Museum when he's done with it. Nobody values old darkroom equipment but that's one of the most significant darkroom artifacts in American photography if you ask me. Hope I planted that seed. (I've been aware of several cases where famous photographers sold off significant darkroom artifacts simply as used equipment, with no thought to its provenance.)
If you don't know Ralph Gibson, head to your local library and see if you can find copies of his Lustrum Press books The Somnambulist (1970), Déjà-vu (1973), and Days At Sea (1974) (you couldn't get away with that scandalous NSFW cover today!) to look through. Here's a short backgrounder on Lustrum Press, which he founded and ran. Many of his later books are just as good but weren't nearly so famous or influential. My own favorite book of his, for reasons I don't fully understand, was his first book in color, L'Histoire de France.
(Thanks to Rich Palmer)
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Featured Comments from:
San Warzoné: "It was obvious early on that Ralph Gibson's images were different...nowhere near the 'same' and certainly not 'MCU back of head with outdoorsy hat.' It was his choice of subjects that made them look so unique and attention grabbing. Being poor and living out of a suitcase didn't stop me from buying his 'Trilogy' in the bookstores along Polk Street back in the '70s, while living in San Francisco. Looking through those books was like going to school...eye opening, provocative, stimulating and direction changing...eyes open and head up."
s.wolters: "There is a lot in here Mike. Here are some loose thoughts:
"Alec Soth is one of my favorites. In Ping Pong Conversations he comments on his postcard picture 'Falls 26' in his Niagara project:
‘Everybody shoots in the same direction as I did here. The cover of any touristic book is essentially this view. What I think is hysterical is that this was my best selling picture. I printed it large and people said “Wow, you just could fall in, it’s so beautiful…” but there are a hundred million people that have taken the same picture.’
Alec Soth, Falls 26
"Looking at many of his pictures you get the feeling that you could easily have made them yourselves. So what is so good about them? Soth is of course very much involved with his his subject. A more personal style (like Gibson or Adams) would have interfered with his story.
"Technically perfect images can be extremely boring and ineffective when it comes to visual communication. In my career as graphic designer I have dealt with these problems so many times. There is always a need to make a difference. You always need something special for grabbing the attention. So if everybody shoots full color with the latest high-end DSLR you might steal the show with let’s say a twenty-five-year-old compact camera and pushed Tri-X. Good illustrations of this can be found at fashion magazines. Real professionals don't always go for the latest high tech. (Graphic designers have of course many more and heavier weapons to pimp boring images, a universe that expands far beyond Lightroom and Photoshop).
"The most important rule in the world of imaging is that there are no rules. Except for: ‘Always be honest.’
"The 'MCU back of head with outdoorsy hat' series seems larger than the sum of parts. The cheerleader effect. Also reminded me of this great project [Exactitudes] of photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek."
Mike replies: Thanks for that. I'd been thinking of that project but I couldn't remember any of the names. It's really not good for my work to have most of my books in boxes. I need my working library!
It's also fascinating to hear Alec Soth's thoughts about that picture, because it's what I always thought about it. It always seemed out of place to me in the book. Which I also have. Somewhere.