LOS ANGELES — For celebrated photographer Ralph Gibson, the guitar wasn’t yet another theme for him to consider, but a very personal nod to his first creative affair.
“I studied guitar as boy, and in art school I got a job playing classical guitar on a cruise ship,” Gibson, 65 and still alluringly curious and enthusiastic about everything, recalls during his visit here. “I decided I wanted to starve as a photographer more. But I never ended my relationship with music. Photography is my love, and music is my passion.”
So much so, that in recent years he’s thrown himself into music theory, studies that he notes helps to further refine his sensibilities. The musical deconstruction also matched his intellectual tendencies in his photography and book design. He tends to emphasize fragments of forms and closed spaces that provide a breaking moment of detail — structural and abstract — to great, captivating effect.
So when Gibson decided to point his 35 mm Leica at the guitar, he brought to the work all the pure and sensual, high-contrast form that characterizes his more than three decades of work. The results, 100 color and black-and-white photographs, are compiled in “Light Strings: Impressions of the Guitar” (Chronicle Books, $40).
An accompanying exhibition opened Thursday night at the gallery inside Hermès’ Madison Avenue door in New York, and runs through Dec. 17. It follows the show’s debut in mid-September in the Beverly Hills counterpart of the French house, at which time Gibson, who has lived and worked in SoHo since the late Sixties, returned home to his native Los Angeles.
“Light Strings,” Gibson’s 40th monograph, is actually a collaboration with his friend and fellow picker, Andy Summers of The Police and a photographer in his own right. Summers’ poetic narrative flows with historical context of the guitar’s many manifestations and masters. He also recounts the personal, rare experience a rock star, famous or fledgling, knows of standing on stage with a Les Paul guitar.
The pair met in 1993, when Summers looked up Gibson for help in laying out his first book of photographs, “Throb.” “I got really serious about photography when I was in The Police because I could afford a decent camera and I had a lot of time on my hands,” recalls Summer, who’s lived “an idyllic existence” in Santa Monica with his wife and three children, now teens, for the last 15 years.
Gibson agreed to help only if Summers returned the favor in regard to his guitar playing. And “it was love at first sight from then on,” jokes Gibson.
The idea for “Light Strings” came years later when guitar-maker Gibson (no connection to Ralph) created a signature instrument for Summers. “I was seeing Ralph in a cafe in downtown Tucson, [Ariz.,] when I said, ‘Why don’t you do Gibson does Gibson?’ It was as a joke, really. But he said, ‘I’ll do it and you have to write it.’”
The project evolved to include a broader range of guitar makers. And rather than make another book skewed at ax heads, the pair spent the next 18 months composing a love letter to their favorite instrument. “This is proof we’re good friends,” laughs Gibson.
And both incredibly prolific.
“I lead a very maxed-out creative existence,” admits Summers, who writes a minimum of three hours a day, even when he’s on the road. An autobiography is in the works, along with compiling years of archival photographs for two books set for 2005 releases. One showcases The Police; the other features night photographs taken during his years touring. He still hits the stage throughout the year with his namesake jazz trio.
As for Gibson, he now has in production a museum catalogue and a book on aesthetics, along with a laundry list of photography projects — including now capturing master guitar musicians. He’s also been writing and self-recording music. “The CDs have a spatial atmosphere and emotional timbre that isn’t unlike what you see in my photographs. It’s finally the two coming together.”