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Deus Ex Machina, by Ralph Gibson, is a collection of Gibson's photography, beginning with his early days as a student in 1960 and continuing through his career up to 1999. This is quite an extensive collection, covering thirty-nine years of Gibson's career and life. The collection is presented to us chronologically by year, but it is also divided by subject matter and geographical location. The photography represented in Deus Ex Machina is predominantly black and white, although there are two chapters that have some color photography.
It is difficult to make broad based general observations about the photos in this book due to its size; it is 767 pages long and covers a huge range of subject matter. Overall, it is a journey from Ralph Gibson's beginnings, covering the majority of his career through his more recent work in 1999. I found the images in this book to be beautifully reproduced, and on the whole, a pleasure to look at. The narrative that he accompanies his photography with is humorous, intelligent, empathic, and lends great insight to his work and life as a growing, evolving artist. His observations about being a young photographer trying to find a voice resonate with truth and honesty that artists of all mediums can identify with, as do his views on the ongoing creative process in general.
Gibson began his interest in photography as a child growing up in California. His father worked at Warner Brothers, and he lived "for and by the motion picture industry", visiting his father on the sets of movies, and eventually acting as an extra and bit player. About this he observes, "My sense of contrast must surely have been born during this period, as well as the idea of strong camera presence." Joining the Navy at 16, he was assigned to photography school, where he decided he had found his "sense of self". The first few chapters of the book I found to be particularly interesting. They deal with Gibson's earliest days as a student. His style at this stage is already very predominant in his works. Nearly all of the prints are very high in contrast, many incorporate a very grainy, textured look. The photos from these chapters illustrate Gibson's interest in depicting the human condition on a large scale, as well as his emerging interest in photojournalism. Even at this early stage, his use of line and creating tension outside the frame is evident.
While living in New York, Gibson's interests move away from concrete ideas and shift more to abstract forms. He becomes interested in depicting a dream-like world in the reality he sees around him. I found the photos from "The Somnambulist" chapter to be particularly effective in achieving a dream-like quality from reality. Deja Vu and Days at Sea continue in this vein. As Gibson becomes more experienced, we see how his interests become more pointed at portraying the perspective of the photographer. In "Quadrants", he experiments with reproducing objects in photographs as they appear in life, one hundred percent of their size. He achieves this by taking a photograph of an object from one meter away, then producing a 16"X20" enlargement of the negative. Although due to the size of the book, the photos cannot appear as large as life, still, in this section are some of my favorites out of the entire volume. They are beautiful in their geometric simplicity, and the tone and contrast he achieves is rich.
It is the perspective of the photographer that eventually becomes Gibson's focal point when making his photos. The actual object becomes secondary to his perspective of how he chooses to portray it. When Gibson begins to utilize perspective in this way, he completely realizes what he is trying to achieve in his photos. He states, "I have long since lost interest in capturing great moments in the human drama and have become more concerned in making a photograph with as little external subject matter as possible. I intend the act of photographic perception itself to be the subject of the photograph." In these sections of the book involving his photos of Italy, France, Japan, and New York, there is a sense of completeness to the photos that is not as evident in his earlier works.
The section entitled, "The Black Kiss" represents Gibson's experimentation with making erotic photographs. This section may be a bit shocking for some readers in its stark bluntness. He states, "These images are intended to express both the internal as well as external motions of the libido." Whether or not the photos do achieve that is subject to opinion, although some may feel that these photos are somewhat pornographic.
The concluding chapter of the book, "The Glass Door" is filled with Gibson's observations on the creative process. He reflects on his mode of thinking that has shaped his art throughout his life, coming to the conclusion that, "(He) subtract(s) from the frame all that is superfluous to the desired content." He also states, "This is one of the fundamental qualities of being an artist: transcending personal failure in order to gain desired results. And there are no external forces to determine what one must do. It is all entirely autonomous." I felt that his reflections in this chapter were honest, wise and inspiring. Anyone who has tried to pursue a creative endeavor will surely identify with his ideas presented in this chapter. He also discusses the differences between presenting work in book form and gallery form. With regards to this, I think that the only real logistical problem with this book is its size. Some of the photos span two pages, and the binding interrupts the continuity of the image. The part of the photo along the binding is very difficult to see and it is disruptive to the overall image.
The structural layout of Deus Ex Machina interested me, as it is not chronological in the strictly linear sense. The first six chapters are exactly in order by year (1960-1974), but the nine chapters after this somewhat depart from this. They all deal with Gibson's work produced between 1975 and 1998, but rather than being sequential, they go both forwards and backwards through this time frame as the book progresses. The chapters seem to be separated and organized by not only time frame, but by the content (i.e., one chapter devoted to New York, France, Japan, etc.). The remainder of the book returns to the original form, covering the years 1995-1999. This is followed by an appendix summarizing the major events of Gibson's life, and a resume of his awards, books, personal exhibitions, and collections. If this seems contradictory and confusing at first, consider what Miles Barth says about the nature of a chronology at the end of the book: "A chronology by definition is the sequential listing of dates, places, events, and personalities that have had some importance in the life of an individual. It is not merely a tracing of highlights or events by which the artist alone would want to be remembered, but serves two functions. First, it allows the reader to understand how these cited references to particular places and persons have helped influence the artist and his work...this chronology lists some of those circumstances responsible for Ralph Gibson's individuality. Secondly, a chronology delineates the era which an artist has matured"
With Barth's observations in mind, one can see how the structure of the volume exemplifies this criteria. Rather than stick to a rigid, linear sense of time, Deus Ex Machina illustrates Gibson's artistic growth as not necessarily being an exactly linear process. The book takes into account that there are many influences on the artist at any given moment which affect his work, thereby giving rise to a sort of modified version of the completely linear chronology that the reader may be more accustomed with. The evolution of the artist's work may not be as immediately obvious through this structure at first, but I think that it ultimately enhances the reader's understanding of Gibson's process. Deus Ex Machina is successful in what it sets out to do: it is a thorough and comprehensive chronology of the work of Ralph Gibson.
Libby Fabricatore recieved a B.A in English Literature from Dowling College, where she is currently the Assistant Manager of the Photography Studio. She is continuing studies in literature, creative writing and music, while other interests include art and psychology.