Thursday, December 2, 1999
Ask internationally renowned photographer Ruth Mayerson Gilbert which photographers have most influenced her own picture-taking and, after casting about for a moment in search of an answer, she begins talking about some of the great painters of Western Europe: Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Bacon, Munch.
"I think I''m more influenced by painters," she says, finally.
Photography has never been about technical achievement for Gilbert, who turns 90 this month and lives in Monterey. She shoots exclusively with 35mm cameras and began playing with zoom lenses only relatively recently.
Nor does Gilbert see photography as anything but Art. She''s written that she takes "no interest in the debates about a special aesthetic of photography," the idea that photography must be judged by values different from those applied to paintings and other graphic productions."
"Taking pictures was a way I could talk about what I felt about what I saw," she states simply. "This relationship of people that comes about," she says, "that''s the kind of thing I treasure."
Gilbert, whose latest retrospective opens at the Santa Catalina School Gallery on Saturday, was born and raised in a Jewish family in Philadelphia. She was always inclined toward the arts. Her father was an amateur painter, and she received a degree from the Moore Institute of Art. But, she says, she never intended to pursue a career in photography. While her first husband owned a good camera, she says he didn''t think she could operate it. "I didn''t think I could handle it." she exclaims. "I was a typical woman of that day."
Nonetheless, at age 63, Gilbert bought a camera on a whim and, after learning how to work it properly (her first three rolls of film came back blank), she taught herself the fundamentals of shooting and printing pictures with the help of the Time-Life series of photography books.
Then living in Basel, Switzerland where her husband was the director of the Bank of International Settlement, Gilbert began snapping shots of children, animals, Romanesque churches, "you know, the things everyone takes pictures of," she says. She enrolled in a few photography workshops in Arles, in the South of France, where she made lasting friendships with various accomplished photographers. But it was her chance encounter in the 1970s with a group of men delivering meat to a butcher shop on the Rue de Seine in Paris that truly launched her career.
Gilbert was captivated by these porteurs de viande, and she repeatedly returned to Paris over the course of a year to photograph them hoisting about large, cumbersome sides of beef and pork during brief 15- to 20-minute deliveries.
Dressed in bloodied white aprons and hoods, Gilbert''s meat carriers seem to transcend their mundane task. Without any decipherable background placing the black-and-white images in time and space, they appear otherwordly. Some conjure up images of Christ bearing his cross. Others look hauntingly like scenes orchestrated by the Grim Reaper, or some kind of unknown pagan ritual. All of them pull the viewer toward contemplation of a spiritual world not quite within our earthly grasp.
Jean-Claude Lemangny, curator of photography at the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale [National Library], wrote that her images seize "the very instant when action is frozen into beauty." They recapture, he writes, "the long streams of light piercing the shadow, those perfect moments of balance so dear to the Old Masters."
Gilbert''s meat carriers astounded the world of photography. After being discovered during their first showing in Basel in 1978, they earned Gilbert, then an unknown, 14 pages in Zoom magazine. They were later purchased for the permanent collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale and Paris'' Musee Carnavalet.
Since then, she''s gone on to work on several other series. For one of them, Gilbert camped out in museums taking pictures of people as they looked at and considered artwork. Often humorous, the images offer a lighthearted commentary on how art reflects people, as well as on the complex relationship between a work of art and its viewer.
In another series, Gilbert spent two days photographing a gathering of old men playing cards in Sorrento, Italy. In contrast with the meat carrier series, in which Gilbert suspends in time a group of able-bodied, hard-working young men, here she used a slow shutter speed to capture in blurs the dynamic movement of these old men at play. By highlighting the movement, she draws the viewer to focus on life''s vigor even in a relatively static scene--a group of old men sitting, chatting and dealing cards as they must do most afternoons, "a group playing out their last hand in life."
A friend once wrote to Gilbert saying that, for her, Gilbert''s pictures were "one of the few photographic creations that fulfills the function of art...A creation is true art when it stretches the horizon of the soul, admitting the energy of a bit of life not heretofore lived."
On the cusp of her 10th decade, Gilbert shoots and prints her pictures at unrelenting speed, jogs a bit near her Del Monte Beach home, and is clearly looking forward to capturing--on film, and in person--more sparkling slices of a life not heretofore lived.
A retrospective of Ruth Gilbert''s photography opens Friday at the Santa Catalina School Gallery, 1500 Mark Thomas Dr., Monterey, with an artist''s reception from 6-8pm. The exhibit runs through Jan. 16.