Ever since Freud opened the discussion on the subject of dreams, people have been trying to interpret the fantasies we have in sleep. The Surrealists thought that dreams provided a sort of trap door into a higher truth than mere everyday reality. The dreamworld was a combination of the real and the unreal, organized or rearranged in ways which might hold revelatory codes to that higher state of consciousness. Surrealist art was intended to represent the meeting ground of waking apprehension and the alchemical landscape of dreams. Artists were the leaders in an exploration of the unconscious sphere, where imagery and messages constituted a new language of orphic transmission.
In photography, Alfred Stieglitz believed that pictures taken with panchromatic film could stand as "equivalents" of feelings and thoughts for which there might not previously have been a visual allegory or analogue. He took pictures of strange cloud formations, which he believed either resembled other shapes or objects, or which "meant" abstract or imaginative statements. A photograph could tell you something about yourself, or about the world. A unique image might be the singular interpretation for a sensation that no one had ever had in quite the same way before. Photographs could become a kind of creative dreaming.
I've written previously about Minor White, whose particular combination of baffling abstractions, portraits and quotidian objects seen from odd angles, sequenced into weird narratives, was able to evoke visual novels of the unconscious, suggesting magical prayers or incantations or spells. Some filmmakers tried to do the same thing in movies.
Ralph Gibson's specific metier has been the economical monograph, or set of selected images, sequenced in the way that White did it, but with less portentous implication. Gibson's images, rather like the French photographer Jean-Loup Sieff, seem more isolated and open-ended, and as a consequence the feeling in his pictures is freer, even hedonistic, though with a sharper, more honed sensibility. Both photographers incorporate landscape and still-life studies interspersed with nudes and haunting details. Gibson has published a series of books over the years, not simply selections or collections, but deliberate sequences of images which cover an unspecified segment of time and place, which make coherent statements.
Formally, Gibson likes high-contrast scaled images. Most of the subtlety comes from juxtaposition and surprise, not gradations of tone. Many of his images seem to originate in an imagined dream-state, where shapes and views seem slightly distorted or isolated from context. The accretion of such disorienting pictures is like a gallery of fetishized memories, intended to preserve their elusive hypnotic qualities against forgetfulness and decay.
Memory and mystery combine to form testaments of conviction. "Do you recall the moment," his pictures seem to be saying, "when we saw that unusual sight? Do you recall how you felt, or what you were doing?" If many of the images seem to be staged, there are others which feel very candid and opportunistic, or even accidental.
An odd detail at the corner of vision may escape one's notice, only to be discovered or re-discovered later. The odd dark curls on the back of this woman are curiously mesmerizing. A study of something may function as a talisman of an experience, or as a symbolic marker. Or it may encompass an entire logarithm, from approach to recognition to emotional generator.
The formation of meaning in the mind is stimulated by initial data, but creative thought is both generative and responsive. We "want" to take a picture of something, perhaps, but it's impossible to control all the aspects of the aesthetic process. Visual queues may set into motions feelings and previous associations which we may be unable or unwilling to address or to master. In the hands of Gibson, we feel this process to be one in which we must submit to the unknown, the unreasonable, the unexpected, in order fully to experience what he is doing.