Profile | Ralph Gibson: Political Abstraction

In 1969, Ralph Gibson moved to New York and founded Lustrum Press, which published classics such as his own The Somnambulist (1970) and Tulsa by Larry Clark (1971). The author of more than 40 monographs, Gibson returns to the world stage with his latest volume, Political Abstraction (Lustrum Press/The University of Texas).

Gibson_book coverPolitical Abstraction refers to a recent series of color and black-and-white photographic diptychs made in over eight countries, which were born out of a response to the search for visual identity in the digital age. As Gibson observes, “Even though the photographs are made in different countries, they all look like they could be taken around the corner. I travel the world and I see the same picture wherever I go. I always have what I am working on in my mind and I will see reflections of it in the world’s reality. I’m projecting that on to the surface of reality. I think many photographers do that but they are not aware of it.”

As a photographer, Gibson works for himself, but as an author, he creates a new space of communion with the audience. He observes,  “When I’m taking photographs, I’m in a dialogue with myself and testing my perceptual apparatus in the world. But I agree with Marcel Duchamp that an artist has a responsibility for the work to be seen. If I am going to make a book, I’m relating to an audience because I am forced to acknowledge that the objects I am creating will inspire a perceptual act in an among themselves. I make books as a way of mapping out my own course through my intelligence. A book is a map of the mind.”


In Political Abstraction, Gibson creates a space in which we can join, bringing our own synthesis of visual experience and aesthetic information to bare on the photographs. Gibson has devoted his artistic pursuit to the idea that the viewer of the work is the actual subject of the piece itself. Thus, the photographs are relative but not restricted to the intention of the subject or the photographer. They are, to put it bluntly, abstractions to the utmost degree.

Gibson observes the way in which the photograph is an abstraction of life: “Reality exists in three dimensions, at 100% scale, and in color. A photograph exists in two dimensions, and is reduced in size to scale. With a color, a photograph is two steps removed from reality; with black and white, a photograph is three steps removed from reality—it’s always more dramatic as a result.”

In Political Abstraction Gibson pairs a color photograph with a black and white photograph to highly nuanced effect, subtly engaging our eyes and our minds with the semiography of the two dimensional image. Gibson reveals, “It’s a challenge to make color photographs as strong as black and white. They will never be, but they speak with a broader palette, no pun intended. I am interested anthropogically in the language of signs and how culture speaks through its signs. Very early on, I realized what interested me in photography was the inherent intelligence of the medium itself. I don’t have a message. I’m not telling stories. I’m not doing photojournalism.”


Instead, by removing the narrative and documentary elements from the photograph, Gibson is offering a new approach to the visual experience, inviting the viewer to join us on his journey. To better understand the topography of Gibson’s conceptual landscape, Political Abstraction includes “Synapse,” a three-page bullet-point list that features Gibson’s thoughts on the medium. Similar to Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, Gibson’s list gives us deep, philosophical ideas to consider while looking at the work.

With “Synapse,” he concludes, “Having lived for the future I now look forward to my past”, deliciously inviting us to consider the nature of the photograph and the way in which it becomes both an object of art as well as a piece of the historical record. Political Abstraction is both a reflection of Gibson and a reflection of ourselves, an opportunity for us to meet where our journeys intersect.

Images from Political Abstraction by Ralph Gibson, ©Ralph Gibson, published by Lustrum Press and distributed by the University of Texas Press, 2015

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.