Tom Gibson – Among the Naturalists (1981)

© Tom Gibson, Montreal, 1979
Graham, Robert. (1981). Tom Gibson - among the naturalists. Parachute, 22, pp. 26-29. Retrieved from

L’auteur suggère que l’émergence de la photographie en tant que documentaire social se produit en même temps que l’entrée de la photographie dans la clinique et le musée et qu’en retour, la photographie en tant que documentaire social et en particulier l’oeuvre de Torn Gibson, peut être interprétée comme une vision de certains aspects de l’institutionalisation culturelle à l’oeuvre.

The sources of that movement in photography called “social landscape”, with which Tom Gibson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and others are associated, have not been adequately articulated. The fine photography tradition of social documentary, which as Gibson says, “goes back to Atget”, has been chronicled; yet the tradition alone does not account for this seemingly unpromising collection of snapshot images of the unremarkable, routine daily life with which these photographers would appear to be concerned.

Tom Gibson’s photographic life project occurs at the confluence of several traditions. The context for his work can be considered as the meeting and overlapping of a naturalist philosophy of culture, a museology and modern urbanism. The first two of these practices converge on the issue of photography in a manner whereby each repeats certain structural characteristics of the other. Photography, as the instrument of reproduction, functions once more as a repeating mechanism of design and organization.


By 1959 systematic review of filmed material had provided evidence which supported the emergent assessment of kinesic morphology.1
Ray Birdwhistell

1959 is a benchmark year in contemporary photography, for it was during that year that there appeared the first U.S. edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans. We may note that there also appeared that year the first American edition of Erving Goffmann’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language. Birdwhistell, Goffmann and Hall represent the then burgeoning study of interaction. This research was dependent on the close examination of moments of social communication.

As Donald Theall once noted, the microcultural studies of Birdwhistell’s kinesics and Hall’s proxemics would have been impossible without the technologies of film and video. While gesture had been studied in the past as part of oratory and dramatics, research into the ordinary and inevitable movements of the body represented a discovery almost akin to Freud’s unknown mind — the unknown body.

While the use of photography in anthropology had been extensive up till then, photography had not served as the primary research tool. The crucial shift that occurs with kinesic research is that the photographic material becomes the focus of examination.

Photography entered the clinic on the following basis: that photography could provide unique data for the examination of interactional phenomena; that this data; carefully achieved and rigorously collected could be considered accurate; and that this unique and valid data had import.

It is not my purpose here to draw out the implications of such effort, to argue its failings and inevitable untenability. Let it be sufficient to note that it has been for the most part discredited as a reductionist empiricism based on an objectification of observed participants of interaction for the purpose of rational intervention and con- trol. What is worth noting is that such an ap- proach to and use of photography has gained an almost folkloric status. The popularity of Julius Fast’s body language books, guides for in- terpersonal domination by means otgaining unoffered information from others — interpersonal espionage, if you wish — attests to it.

The garnering of increasingly smaller facts of culture (Birdwhistell’s kines and Hall’s isolates) into organized collections of value-freed research continues the program of a naturalist philosophy of culture as set out by Hyppolyte Taine in 1865:

The modern method which I endeavour to follow, and which has now begun to penetrate all the sciences, consists in viewing all human creations, and works of art in particular, as facts and products whose distinguishing features are to be laid bare and whose causes are to be traced, nothing more. Thus, science neither judges nor justifies; its task is merely to establish and explain. Cultural science must employ the same methods as botany, which studies the orange tree and the pear, the spruce and the birch as of equal importance. Indeed, cultural science is nothing other than a form of applied botany, concerned not with plants but with human achievements.2

In this job that’s all I’m interested in, tradition. By which I don’t mean old pictures, I mean that line which makes the job as curator rather similar to the job of taxonomist in a natural history museum.3
John Szarkowski

The history of photography at the Museum of Modern Art and the statements of its present Director of the Department of Photography, John Szarkowski, are not of a simply general interest to the discussion of social landscape photography. Historically, the movement has been closely associated with that museum and that man.

Photography did not enter the museum upon recognition of its greatness: greatness had nothing to do with it. Photography entered MOMA inadvertently, as the pet interest of Lincoln Kirstein, the director of exhibitions, who commissioned Walker Evans to photograph Victorian houses in 1933. Under Beaumont Newhall’s guidance it held its first comprehensive exhibit Photography 1839-1937. From 1947 to 1961 the director was Edward Steichen, a student of Stieglitz and a showman who put on extremely successful exhibitions, such as the 1955 Family of Man: “its installation was as spectacular, if not more spectacular than the photographs in it.”4 Steichen purchased photos haphazardly from young photographers, paying only a few dollars and avoiding examina- tion by the acquisitions committee. He wrote a memo in 1961 concerning Garry Winogrand: “Dangerously close to snapshots but have collective impact. Maybe show group in show. Buy 3 at $10 each.”5

This tradition peaks with the appointment of John Szarkowski as director, succeeding Steichen. Kirstein’s exhibitions, Newhall’s survey, Steichen’s installations meet their theorist in Szarkowski:

In photography it is not the individual masterpiece but the accumulation of a photographer’s work that matters most… one of the limitations of most photographic collections made by serious and competent people arises from the fact that they’ve tried to collect masterpieces only _ great prints. That’s the ‘fine-art prejudice’.6

The question of number in social landscape photography would seem to be crucial. As a group, they are notorious bulk shooters; Garry Winogrand is reputed to take thirty to forty rolls of film on a busy day. Lee Friedlander’s 1979 exhibit at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal showed 150 photographs. For a large show at a small gallery (Yajima, Montreal) last March, Tom Gibson had more than 60 images; originally, he had wanted to show a hundred.

This dependency on the installation (and in a related way, the book) for the production of meaning, with its capacity to display together and as a unit a huge and disparate gathering of photographic images, comes to resemble the constructive procedures of naturalist examinations of data. No single fact is considered to have meaning until collected into a group and stochastic patterns of probability, frequency, difference, redundancy, etc. can be ascertained. While style had been recognized as frequency and similarity in art history, the individual work still had some independent completeness to it. It would seem that to consider an individual photograph as complete in itself would be to misunderstand it.

The most consistent charge against Frank, Friedlander, Gibson et al. is the charge of banality. The triviality of the individual image cannot be denied. Benjamin wrote of Atget that he sought “the forgotten and forsaken.” The trivial and the forgotten are related notions; we like to think that we forget only the unimportant and we dismiss the mundane as “forgettable.” It was Freud who first championed the trivial/ forgotten. Remember that for him it was key and not trivial, suppressed and not forgotten.

© Tom Gibson, Montreal, 1976


Order is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression.

The fundamental codes of a culture — those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices — establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home.7
Michel Foucault

Of all the levels of government, the municipal is the most physical and sensual. It is here that the regulation of physical culture most applies. Municipal laws are the laws which most directly control, inhibit and protect the body and its activities. It is at this level that regulations of sight and smell and sound are enforced. When the is- sue of pornography was shifted from the federal level, where it was argued as abstract speech rights, to the community level, it became a question of zoning and the control of personal offense: an issue of sanitation.

It is at this level, then, the level of the city and the body — politics and physicality — that Tom Gibson figures. What Gibson shows is the experience of the city as grid — Foucault’s grid in place and operating. Gibson displays the functioning of order and propriety, not as centralist dictate, but as the local, regular, repeated, constant string of moments when plan becomes experience.

He shows it in its daily manifestation as the directing, guiding, organizing of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. He draws the sight-lines, postures, expressions. He sketches the municipal orders: the street corner as punctuation, the wall, the fence (especially the wire fence — a transparent wall), the monument, the tower, the plaza, the portal (as both passage and pause). He displays the tremendous variety of the urban apparatus at work.

He also shows the limited remissive occasions, similar in effect to what Goffman calls “disruptions”, of parade, festival and carnival. Under- stood previously as the suspension of order, modernists valued play and urbanists tried to design for spontaneity. Contemporary recreation has become, instead, more widely administered. Gibson co-founded, with Bruce Kidd, the Artists/Athletes Coalition for celebration of the 1976 Olympics. The Olympics have become increasingly a vehicle for state prestige and the behaviour of officials has heightened citizen regimentation and moved towards greater intolerance of non-conformity.

The central project of the Artists/Athletes Coalition was to seek out and gather from unions, churches and other small organizations historical photographs of the ordinary games and competitions held during group picnics and annual outings. This physicalism, which certainly relates Gibson with Winogrand 8, also connects him to Eadweard Muybridge. If Muybridge showed the imperceptible yet real aspects of animal locomotion, then it may be said of Gibson that he fixes for us the scenes of social interaction and demonstrates the complex, imperceptible accords of contemporary civility.

Etzioni interprets alienation as “unresponsiveness of the world to the actor, which subjects him to forces he neither comprehends nor guides.” He distinguishes from this a hidden form of alienation — namely, “inauthenticity”… “A relationship, institution or society is inauthentic if it provides the appearance of responsiveness while the underlying condition is alienating.” This differentiation takes account, firstly, of the fact that in advanced- capitalist societies phenomena of alienation have been detached from manifestations of pauperism. But, above all, this distinction takes account of the remarkable integrative power and elasticity of this society.9
Jürgen Habermas

It is precisely in the difference between alienation and inauthenticity that we can see the break performed by the social landscape photographers from the documentary tradition of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans. The tradition of displaying distress shifts to the display of inauthenticity. How else could inauthenticity be portrayed except by means of the ironic effect of banalization?

It is a leftist commonplace, following remarks by Brecht, Benjamin and Barthes, that the politicization of the photographic image occurs at captioning. The result has been that engaged photography comes to resemble more and more the over determining photo-text combination of advertising. The reification of the moment by photography must be mediated by the interpretive process that we apply; we ourselves must caption the photograph.

Geoffrey James once wrote of Gibson’s work as a “visual roulette”: the success or failure of the individual photograph. However, the gamble occurs not with the individual image, but with the entire work. Muybridge experienced some success in the sale of his portfolios — but it has been suggested that it was at least partly due to the mildly pornographic thrill of naked women falling onto mattresses and throwing bucketsfull of water at each other. The risk for Gibson is that his slightly off-beat photos might cause people to consider them only for their titillation. Which would sorely miss the point.


1. Kinesics and Context, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1970, p. xi

2. Quoted in Ernst Cassirer, The Logic of the Humanities, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1960, p. 14

3. Maren Stange, Szarkowski at the Modern, in Photography: Current Perspectives, ed. J. Liebling, Rochester, 1978, p. 69

4. Russell Lynes, Good Old Modern, New York, 1973, p. 325 5. Quoted in Janet Malcolm, Diana & Nikon, Boston, 1980. p. 39

6. Lynes, p. 329

7. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Vintage Books, New York, 1973, p. xx

8. Garry Winogrand, Public Relations, intro. Tod Papageorge, New York, 1977. p. 9

9. Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, Boston, 1975. p. 128

Robert Graham is a graduate student in Communications at McGill University.