The Online Darkroom Store

Tuesday, January 21

A Less Beautiful Ralph Gibson

online darkroom, analogue, analog, film, printing, enlarging, tri x, leica, m6, mp
A digital photograph similar to those Ralph used to take.

Ralph Gibson has gone over to the dark side, his beloved Leica MP and M6 film cameras replaced by a digital impostor that looks the same but eats pixels instead of silver. Who'da thunk it? He's just published his latest book of photographs, Mono, all of which are digital. Ralph built his reputation on a certain look in his photographs, lots of contrast, empty black areas and sharp composition. He now believes he can achieve the same look with a digital Leica Mwhatever. Maybe he can but that's hardly the point, is it?

Even one as ill-versed in Ralph's work as I could quickly grasp that his photographs were organic, they had vitality and soul. More so than most other photographers', his images lived and breathed. I saw that straight away when my pal Phil Rogers (who's art school trained - rolls eyes) educated me about Ralph's photography last year. It's not everyone's cup of tea and doubtless would give zone system aficionados conniptions but, love it or hate it, it was the antithesis of the perfect digital image. So I loved it.

Now, regardless of whatever direction Ralph's future photography takes, we'll all know that it's not born of some deliberate combination of over-exposure and over-development - a technique arrived at over decades - but of some footering in Photoshop. No longer will it be unique. Now it'll be just the same heavily manipulated pixel pap that I'm getting fed up of seeing on Flickr and other forums. (The Online Darkroom Flickr group is a rare exception. Check it out.)

Ralph, who was 75 last week, will now need to rewrite his personal website as well if he's going to sell his new images there because he states, "All black and white prints are silver gelatin unless otherwise requested." Somehow, I can't see too many prospective buyers saying to Ralph, "No, it's OK. I'll pass on the hand-made, silver gelatin darkroom print. Just pop me out one of those nice, modern inkjet thingies."

online darkroom, analogue, analog, film, printing, enlarging, tri x, leica, m6, mp
A Gibson classic - as I'll choose to remember him.

Some readers might think I'm going over the top but I don't think I am. If you want an analogy between film and digital, I'd compare them to making a chair. Imagine if you were a craftsman who selected the seasoned wood, sketched out the design for the chair in a notebook, cut the timber to length, shaped it, carved the mortise and tenon joints, assembled it and finished it off with French polish.

Now imagine you had a computer on which you could design the chair. Imagine you could fire that design off to a CNC machine that carved the chair out of a block of wood and spat it out ready made and finished in varnish. The initial vision in both cases - the design - is the same. The latter would be the more perfect but which would you rather own?

Or here's an analogy from the music world. You write the song, rehearse it with your favourite musicians and record it live. Or, you write the song, programme various computer-controlled synths to play the the various instruments absolutely flawlessly and record that. Which record would you rather listen to?

Why as a society are we so hell-bent on moving away from things made by human hand to soul-less computer-based crap? The lack of human input is so prevalent in the manufacturing process it's palpable. I was a motoring writer for about 15 years and test drove hundreds of cars and I'd virtually no interest in any of them. They were the motoring equivalent of white goods.

Hand Built
The vehicles I like are mainly pre-1970s (although I had a soft spot for my MX5 because it was the Lotus Elan I couldn't afford). If I won the lottery, after the DB5 and E-Type, I'd be paying visits to Morgan and Bristol and that's it. In fact, when doing the motoring column, the only motoring magazines I actually bought on a regular basis were from the kit car industry - hand-built, you see?

Getting back to Ralph, I was aware he'd been "dabbling" with digital for years but, from what I'd read, he always seemed to be quite dismissive of it. Not in a bad way but he made it very clear that everything about his images screamed film and always would.

As far back as 2001, Leica were trying to tempt him with digital cameras without success. Listen to what Ralph said in an interview at that time, "Digital photography is about another kind of information. Digital photography seems to excel in all those areas that I'm not interested in.

"I'm interested in the alchemy of light on film and chemistry and silver. When I'm taking a photograph I imagine the light rays passing through my lens and penetrating the emulsion of my film. And when I'm developing my film I imagine the emulsion swelling and softening and the little particles of silver tarnishing.

"But anyway, the big emphasis in digital photography is how many more million pixels this new model has than the competitor's model. It's about resolution, resolution, resolution as though that were going to provide us with a picture that harboured more content, more emotional power.

"Well, in fact, it's very good for a certain kind of graphic thing in colour but I don't necessarily do that kind of photograph. So when it comes to digital, I have to say that digital just doesn't look the way photography looks: it looks digital. However, I strongly suspect some kid is going to come along with a Photoshop filter called Tri X and you just load that and you've got yourself something that looks like photography (laughs)." My italics, Ralph's laughter.

Photography or Digital
Now, everyone is obviously free to change their mind but I'm not sure there have been any developments in digital in the last few years that would negate anything Ralph said about his own view of photography or the materials he used. Did you see the way he spoke of "photography" and "digital" as two separate entities? Does that mean he's no longer a photographer?

Why would a photographer who has built a considerable reputation using film ditch it in his 76th year? Is he getting too old to spend hour after hour in the darkroom or did Leica make him an offer he couldn't refuse? Or was it the sudden realisation that all his earlier utterances about swelling, penetrating and softening (will that pass the censors? - ED) were wrong all along? Or was that just art speak designed to impress the pseuds?

Here's Ralph's (wholly unconvincing in my opinion) justification for taking the wrong fork in the road. Note that he concedes he's now offering a less "beautiful" product.

"These words about making images could be written in English, French, or any number of languages we know exist in the world," he said in promoting his book.

"I am writing both about images and my life long relationship to the creative process. We could talk about the moon in many different languages but it would still be the moon being described.

"So when I work in digital, I might be describing the same subject but in a different language, a somewhat altered syntax. But the subject is the same. And the very moment I discovered that I could get my “look” on digital, I was convinced that this was a new language that I wanted very much to explore.

"Imagine my excitement after 55 years in the darkroom. It must be said that the silver-gelatin print is still more beautiful than the ink-jet but at the rate technology is progressing it is not inconceivable that the substrates will become even more desirable. For the moment I am totally inspired and enjoy picking up my Leica and expressing my thoughts and visual ideas. I have always liked picking up my Leica…"

Sorry, Ralph, mate. You've just gone from designer label to store bought.

You might also like:

Ditch Digital - Do it Now!
Return to Film - A Year On
Internal v External Visualisation


Herman Sheephouse said...

Oh beautiful Bruce - that is the most artful and exquisite rant I have ever read!
You know I was prepared to forgive the old bugger . . but not now. You've set the silver flag up above the fort . . it's them or us! Overwhelming odds.
Only shoot when you see the whites of their eyes.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, it is the Leica Monochrom that has persuaded Ralph to pursue digital photography. I'm sure that he will still be providing traditional silver halide prints via negatives from his digital files. They won't have the same 'organic' quality to them but the benefits might outweigh the loss of tradition.
A good post, thanks.


Bruce Robbins said...

I appreciate that, Mike, but for the type of image Ralph is after then an M8 would have been overkill.

Jon Hoffmann said...

I've loved Ralph Gibson's work for a long time and spent hours looking through his archive on his website. He had a distinct style that worked, but like many other photographers has been seduced by what is perceived to be better, easier, more creative, the digital alternative. I've tried this myself, many many times, 'flip flopping' I call it, film-digital-film-digital but I always go back to film, as it just seems to have something that I've never really been able to articulate, but you Bruce in many ways have done that for me in this article.

Many thanks for a great piece

Paul Friday said...

Have you seen Terry Cryer's work and printing? He makes silver sing.

Anonymous said...

That's all the more surprising as, just a few years ago, he was laudative about the Fuji Neopan 1600 film because it gave him the right amount of grain "modern" (2005?) TRi-X didn't deliver anymore.

Methinks Ralphie took Leitz's fat check and played to the music... ;-)

Derek Scully said...

Me thinks he Leica the sponsorship.Perhaps sold his soul and vision for a new market.

On a similar vein the Linn Sondeck LP12 turntable which is now 40 years old is still seen as the best for vinyl records, the CD player is just too clinical hence sales of vinyl records are rising.

The plinth is now made from timber used to mature Scotch whisky. Hows that Bruce for a plug for Scotland!

Pure and Simple is best.

Bruce Robbins said...

I still use the Rega Planar 3 I bought 30 years ago. When I saw the name, I thought it must have been made by Zeiss. :)

Anonymous said...

Your bias made me smile broadly. :-). There's a risk that you're dismayed by many images that are produced by people who couldn't create anything but crap with film anyway. I suspect that in general, those awful film photographers are producing better images with digital than they ever did with film. Most never entered a darkroom. Boots the Chemist was their printer !

I've just bought a Leica Monochrom to compare with my Hasselblad Imacon scans and then digital prints by Whitewall on Hanemuelle paper. I shut down my darkroom this year after deciding to move house. The digital prints from my Hasselblad 203FE, 503Cx and SWC/M have been very satisfying albeit not silver prints.

My first 2 days out with the Monochrom produced these 5 images, latest upload here:

I'm sure I'll soon be able to develop them to my taste, but in consider these to be a good start.

A Japanese philosopher spent his whole life seeking the best Cherry Blossom. On his deathbed he realised that they were all beautiful.

Leica & Hass Man

Anonymous said...

Oh the horror. Dylan's gone electric and Miles has decided to hang out On The Corner. Artists choose to change their mode of expression as they see fit. What is important is not the medium they choose but the strength of their vision. I'm looking forward to seeing what Ralph brings to the digital realm.

As a lifelong friend (who is a fly fishing guide) reminded someone over beers one evening, "It's not the wand but the magician that matters."

That being said I enjoyed the article.


Joe V said...

Well, technically he *could* offer silver gelatin prints from digital files, but this has little to do with whether he switched from film to pixels in the capture phase.

morris1800 said...

If Ansel Adams were alive today and announced he was moving to digital it would make no difference to my personal enjoyment in practicing film photography. Would I stop following/ admiring his work ....yes I would because he would be using a medium for creating pictures I have no interest in or understanding of the level of skill with camera or computer equipment in the creation of an image. Pressing a button to focus,zoom in, set asa, set mono/colour,import images to computer,post process pressing multiple predefined buttons all this cannot compete with the almost infinite variables of levers, dials, swinging needles, film , paper, chemicals. I have tried digital but it left me feeling empty, I felt my primary contribution to any image was just framing a shot while the camera and computer did the rest. My only concern about people(high profile or not) moving into digital is the impact on the availability of film related products. I feel when a photographer wants his work to be considered art it must be seen to be created by his own unique skills and clearly demonstrate his personal contribution to the final image.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Certainly got tongues wagging on the Rangefinder Forum

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed the 'banter' at the RFF.

Would you care to comment in a future blog on what it feels like to stimulate such debate?

Did you mean every word? Did you fail to signpost the irony? Was there irony?

I don't do 'social media' and try to avoid Google things, but I'm Ian from North Ayrshire, still shoving 35mm film through ageing cameras.

Bruce Robbins said...

I'll think about that. Anon. Could you leave a name (even if it's not your real name) next time. It can get a bit confusing if there are two or thee anons all leaving comments.

Anonymous said...

I'm Ian from North Ayrshire - in the last paragraph. I have a very unusual surname and tend not to use it online.

I like your prose and believe that after a few weeks you could produce a wry commentary on the past 36 or so hours.

Marc Meeks said...

Bruce - you're now building a fan base. Count me in. What's missing from digital - and what film possesses - is nuance. Or as the French say a certain "je ne sais quoi." This nuance seems directly tied to texture...texture associated with silver halide emulsions, which in turn seems tied to other irregularities associated with exposure, chemical development, paper composition, etc.

I shoot film everyday for my job and personal work but recently have now returned to more analog B&W for personal work simply because I love film. I love loading film, the smell of film, film sprocket holes, the different emulsions, and the mystery concealed in ever roll as I await its results. I love Ralph Gibson's work. Have for years. But not one of his digital prints will every be worth what his traditional silver prints are worth. Sorry, but digital images can be created at light-speed compared to the sweat and frustration and skill that's often imbued in a single darkroom print which carries much more value. Ralph can spit out a digital print now in a few minutes with little effort attached, and I'm sure he'll (like so many others) still want to charge the same prices as before. It's a cheat. It's a lie. It's cookie-cutter, and worst, it's the sign of the times.

Bruce Robbins said...

Well said, Marc. Couldn't agree with you more.

Anonymous said...

How funny... I went through the same "conversion to digital" in the early 2000's that lasted about five years.

David M said...

For me, the most important part of Ralph Gibson's statement is "...I very much wanted to explore."

Wholly commendable, even if he might be treading on the tender toes of a few steam-powered photographers.

Now I have to check if my own film has dried.

Anonymous said...

In the introduction to "The Negative" Ansel Adams wrote in 1982:
"I eagerly await new concepts and processes. I believe that the electronic image will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them"


Bruce Robbins said...

One man's opinion, Frank. None of us has to share it.

Anonymous said...

Well, not an opinion, the first commercial digital camera was not even there yet, so how could he have an opinion.
But it shows that this 82 year old was more open to new roads than we are. Maybe the same goes for Ralph Gibson and maybe, some day we will also see the light.
In the meantime I will go on using my Rolleiflex TLR, Brooks Veriwide and Olympus slr's with Tri-X or whatever is available.

Bruce Robbins said...

I've already seen the light, Frank. That's why I gave up digital. It's wrong to think that people who are using film are only doing so because they haven't "seen the light" or aren't open to new developments.

I realise you were perhaps speaking about your own position but please don't include me in that. I was entirely open to digital when the revolution started. I put my Mamiya Press aside and bought a Minolta A2 before going onto a Pentax K10D and then the D700.

I can do more with a digital camera and Photoshop than I can with film and the darkroom but it is, for me, a soulless experience and one I was glad to leave behind.

As for Ansel's "opinion". If it wasn't an opinion then what was it?

Anonymous said...

Well Bruce, I hope you spotted the irony in my remarks :-)

As for Ansel Adams, I think it's remarkable that a man of his age, who achieved what he did with film, foresaw the possibilities of digital at that moment in history.

As said, the first commercial digital camera had not yet been presented, but he thought it important enough to mention the technique in a book about his life's work.

Wonder if he would have liked digital if he had lived now, but that's something else.

Anonymous said...

This is a different issue to different people. To young photographers currently, digital is what they see happening. There is a valuable perspective to be seen from someone with decades of experience with chemical/mechanical photography now using electronic/digital equipment. The key issue is, this is not really a subtraction, but an addition.

Photography itself was once percieved as "quickie" and "junk" by people who were used to painting, sculpture, engravings, etc.

The first hood ornaments on cars were little horse's heads - put there to ease the minds of people used to seeing the back of a horse's head while being conveyed in carriages.

Is that what photographers are looking for now - the missing horse?

-Steve Bennett

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Steve,
It's only an addition as long as film is able to withstand digital's onslaught. Digital is a real threat to film and I don't think survival of the fittest is a good way of choosing between artistic mediums.

annie barsby said...

A part of me died when I saw that Gibson had converted. On my photography course, whenever people complain about it not being feasible for a film photographer to make money these days, Gibson was the perfect example of someone who never gave in despite pressure and I imagine a lot of editors and the like expecting the speed and "economy" of digital.
For me, what was worse about that video was that Andy Summers was the reason I started taking pictures in the first place and he seemed to hate digital even more than Ralph, and even he seemed convinced (he once, deadpan, compared digital to self abuse) :D

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Annie,

I wonder if Andy was influenced by Ralph's move to digital as they seem to be quite pally. I suppose Andy's decision is understandable in one repect as he seems to like going on epic jorneys with 100 rolls of film in his bag. A digital would make life much easier for him. He's still a turncoat, though. :)

Robert said...

The biggest mistake to make is to compare analogue and digital printing! Digital and analogue are two completely different languages and the artist may choose himself what language he wants to speak.

I will not compare, I will choose.

Just like watercolour and oil painitng are different.

Not one is better or worse than the other.

So I do not understand this post at all....

Ralph Gibson has made a choice and he's happy with it.

It's up to us to like it or not but comparing does not make any sense.

Do whatever makes your boat float.

Leon said...

I've used a Leica MP with a Focomat V35 for many years but I 'm now using a Leica X2 with a Canon Pixma Pro 1 printer.

Let me tell you this: there is not a single soul in the universe who cares about you shooting film or digital or making darkroom prints or digital prints.

People care about emotion, vision and impact and it is a mistake to think that film or optical prints can provide that better than digital.

Do you really think that Ansel Adams' negatives had any visual impact out of the camera? Forget it.... Ansel was a great master of dodging and burning and only because of his 'modifications' his prints became what we know today.

I can make these exact modifications digitally with much more precision. Is that an easy thing to do? Forget it! Is it easier to control than in a darkroom? You bet!

Does that make me or Ralph Gibson a worse artist? No way! the vision is still the same and that is what counts.... not HOW I did it.

Don't let yourself be fooled: at the end of the day what remains is the print, not the process!

A bad photo printed by the greatest darkroom printer will always be a bad photo. Just like a bad digital photo printed on the best printer.

it's the photographer who ultimately decides, not the equipment or the process.

And don't forget the amount of manipulation that happens in a traditional darkroom......

in that respect, digital and film are essentially the same, we just use different tools to get there.

A good digital print on fine art paper will blow you away but please don't judge if you've never seen or used it.

I woud still be using my Leica gear if digital had not convinced me. That says a lot....

Bruce Robbins said...

Fair points, Leon. I've got a lot of experience with digital and, personally, don't approach this from a quality of results perspective. Digital prints have been good enough for quite a few years. However, for me, digital is a completely soul-less process which does absolutely nothing for me. I missed film cameras, loading and developing film and making darkroom prints. That's why I gave up digital and went back to film. If you get satisfaction and enjoyment from the digital process then good luck to you.

Leon said...

Bruce, good points! I agree with you that the analog process has a certain magic to it but I also believe that an artist should have his/ her own style regardless of the medium they use. Ralph Gibson is still very Ralph Gibson even if he shoots digitally.

I would personally never manipulate any digital image; I will only make the adjustments that I made in the traditional darkroom, that is dodging and burning and that's it. Very pure and simple.

In the end I just love to hold a print in my hands, be it digital or analogue. The process is less important to me because processes come and go but prints remain.

Just like nobody really cares how Elvis recorded his songs ;-) we just listen to them and either like or dislike them.

I agree with a previous comment that pigment inks and silver halide just do not compare.

I love film and traditional darkroom printing but digital is just more productive to me.

Merry x-mas!

Anonymous said...

Photography or Digital
Wow, you're saying this like digital photography doesn't even exist. Just because you hate digital photography and that there's no such thing as it doesn't mean it's true. This kind of elitism is helping me turn away from film photography.

Bruce Robbins said...

Congratulations. You've completely missed the whole point of the post.

LCL said...

People seem to have missed the reality that film is also digital, the data is just stored in a different way. The numbers are represented by dark/lightness of a tiny spot on the film, and the same for the print. If you convert a digital file to a film negative, it has simply been downgraded to a different way of representing the numbers. So if you like breathing chemicals and doing your digital the old slow way, I'm sure nothing I say will stop you.

Everything is digital, all our thoughts that seem so organic, are actually coming from extremely fast mathematical calculus being done in our heads. Every bit of it.

Cartier Bresson said that he didn't need a camera at all, he could just mentally take and store an image in his head. Much more efficient than film chemical digital or modern mechanical digital.

Bruce Robbins said...

I thought this idea that film is digital had been nailed years ago but apparently not. I think you've prompted me to write a post about it!

Anonymous said...

Ralph Gibson is Ralph Gibson, discussing his preference of any hardware is like discussing the brand of the brushes or papers that Picasso preferred during his life. Big waste of time.

Bruce Robbins said...

You're wrong, Anon. Ralph spent many column inches discussing in some detail his choice of brushes and papers. He talked about how the brushes and papers he used were crucial not only to his vision but to the precise look he wanted to achieve in his photographs. He was the one who made his brushes and papers a big part of his art by speaking about them so often.

Here's a reminder, ""Digital photography is about another kind of information. Digital photography seems to excel in all those areas that I'm not interested in.

"I'm interested in the alchemy of light on film and chemistry and silver (you can read this as brushes and paper if it makes you any happier). When I'm taking a photograph I imagine the light rays passing through my lens and penetrating the emulsion of my film. And when I'm developing my film I imagine the emulsion swelling and softening and the little particles of silver tarnishing.

"But anyway, the big emphasis in digital photography is how many more million pixels this new model has than the competitor's model. It's about resolution, resolution, resolution as though that were going to provide us with a picture that harboured more content, more emotional power."

Then, one day out of the blue, Ralph switched to a new set of digital brushes and papers with absolutely no explanation. Now, he obviously doesn't have to explain himself to anyone but switching brushes so late in life having proselytised about a certain type for decades is a valid area of investigation and speculation. So the only waste of time here is your comment.

Ward said...

Late to the party here but here goes...

He's the artist. He works in the manner he wants. Bob Dylan went electric. He lost a lot of fans in the process. He didn't care. I suspect Gibson doesn't either.

Using his 15-year-old words against himself is a bit unfair. I don't think he switched all-of-a-sudden. Leica made a digital camera that they felt might suit his sensibilities. At one point, after some cajoling, it finally won him over. He was impressed by the speed he was able to work. He vision is mature enough that he can deal with it. Perhaps this change *is* a function of his age and his continuing need to produce. This doesn't bother me.

It's a shame how many can't allow their heroes to change or evolve. If you like his film work, great! You have his past works to enjoy. Like his digital work, which he has acknowledged is a "different language", great! We can enjoy this new context and expression in his remaining years.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, are you aware that quite a few photographers are returning to film? Also, many who embraced digital first, are now trying film. Ask Ffordes at Inverness, Scotland, how many film cameras they have sold this year so far? Nikon F/F2/F3/F4/F5/F6. Or Olympus OM, Minolta, Pentax, Canon, Contax or Leica - M, Screw-mount or Leicaflex, SL or SL2 or Leica R3 to R9. Look on eBay at the film cameras and lenses selling, the Canon F1 or Nikon F3 you looked at yesterday and resisted clicking "buy it now" is absent today as somebody has bought it.
I had four film cameras - all Nikon I was not using. I'd taken up with a nice Leicaflex SL from 1971 and needed R lenses, so sold my bodies.
Nikon F2AS sold within minutes of posting it (I had difficulty seeing the metering LEDs) . A Nikon F plain prism with pieces out of the bottom of the mirror, sold in an hour or so. A black Nikon F with jammed shutter sold after half an hour and a Nikon EL2 in an afternoon. Paid for my 135/2.8, 250/4 and 90/2.8 R series lenses.

Michael Mejia said...

It is remarkable to me what craftspeople have managed to achieve within the vestiges and limitations of film after only 125 years of practice. What is really charming is that devotees have fetishized the value of these factors into a truth; an end in itself precluding any further thinking or development of technology.

Forgive me as I had no wish to be brutal but the clarity of the thought was hard to avoid.