Fine Art Photographer Ralph Gibson's Visual Guide to New York City
Gibson took us for an afternoon stroll at some of his favorite spots in the Big Apple—and told us about his favorite camera.
“New York is the center of culture in western civilization,” said fine art photographer Ralph Gibson. It’s a sentence he’ll repeat over and over again while walking past some of the city’s most notorious landmarks such as New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building or the Vessel at Hudson Yards. And who can argue with him, really?
Gibson, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, has been a Big Apple resident since 1967 when, at 27, he moved into the Chelsea Hotel with $200 in his pocket. Of course, since then a lot has changed both in his life and the city that he so much loves.
“When I moved into my loft in SoHo, you had to walk down in the middle of the street after nine o’clock at night because people will be lurking in the doorway and hit you over the head. Now, with all the flagship stores and limousines, it seems more dangerous. You walk down the middle of the street and you might get run over by an Uber.”
Gibson is now one of the most celebrated fine art photographers, not just in our country, but across the Atlantic as well. In 1986, he was decorated as an Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government—the country’s highest honor. His photographs can be found in over 150 museum collections around the world including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has authored many books among which the groundbreaking “The Somnambulist” which he published in 1970 while he was still living at the Chelsea hotel. His work is often described as surreal and minimal, with a penchant for high-contrast visuals.
“I am trying to photograph the abstract in things,” he explained. “If you’re making an essay you add words and you stop when you have added enough. What I do is I subtract. I only put what I want in the picture. My process is not additive. I work subtractively.”
Even though Gibson has quite literally traveled the world (and at 81 shows no sign of stopping), he says he feels the best working in his studio in the city.
“New York is the only drug I can’t kick. If you’re an artist you have to be here,” he said. He calls New York City “the vertical horizon” for obvious reasons—after all, there are over 50 skyscrapers in Manhattan alone. And he is fascinated with the city’s architecture.
“I like the visual and aural language of New York,” he explained. “I like the drama of the streets. I’ve always been a city boy. The city is very intellectual and I am a thinker. I am always fascinated by other places but I don’t want to live there.”
Some of his favorite spots in the city are Grand Central Terminal, the High Line, the World Trade Center, and Hudson Yards, New York’s newest neighborhood because he says, they are “visually stimulating.” You can also find him dining at Pastis in the Meatpacking District.
Of course, he always carries a camera with him (“If I don’t then I really see a lot of good pictures.”) Not just any camera though—a Leica. His love affair with the German camera and lens manufacturer started in1961. He spent 55 years shooting analog and then one day, about seven years ago, the company gifted him a digital camera. He hasn’t looked back since and says he does not miss the darkroom.
“I was able to reinvent myself at age 74. I became inherently more prolific.” He was also able to see the results instantly—a major advantage digital cameras have over film.
And it’s easy to see why he loves it so much. There is a certain amount of drama in black and white photography but the camera’s ultra-high resolution (40 megapixels) sensor really amps up that effect. The result is impressive—sharp details, stunning contrast, vivid monochrome tones that produce intense images even in less than ideal conditions.
Now, enjoy some of Gibson’s original photographs that he took exclusively for departures.com with Leica’s M10 Monochrom.