The Photography of Ron Gershman
Standing in Ron Gershman's studio, we confront the contrasting forces of art and technology. One wall offers exquisite prints by Eduard Steichen, Henri Cartier Bresson and Ruth Bernhard, all classical masters. Another wall houses cases of books: shelves of contemporary photography, from black and white photojournalism to art books of manipulated color and every Photoshop tutorial imaginable. The remainder of the room is taken up by state of the art digital equipment. The active conflict of opposing forces, invisible in Gershman's most recent body of work, is palpable in the room. It reflects how he strives to maintain the artistic integrity of the photographic image working under aesthetic guidelines comparable to those the photographic masters, while using the tools of technology to evolve an new photographic art form, the color digital print. Central to this new technology are the archival pigment inks that Gershman uses for his color prints, allowing color photography to join Black and White as a permanent collectable art form.
Gershman grew up in Los Angeles and began taking and printing pictures at the age of 15 with an Argus 35mm camera he found around the house and a darkroom he ordered from a Sears catalogue. He attributes his original interest in photography to the activist spirit of street photography of the 60's and 70's. What Gershman was striving to capture was an understanding of the human experience, both for himself and for the larger context of the world around him. But his desire for understanding that human experience led him away from photography and into medical school and a successful career as a psychiatrist. His love and passion for photography was never lost during this time and eventually he retired from his psychiatric practice to pursue fine art photography.
The seminal event in this transition occurred several years ago when he attended an Epson America exhibit produced on its large format printers. Suddenly, Gershman realized that this new technology could produce photo realistic color prints without having to return to the dark, toxic confines of the darkroom. Soon his office was filled with foreign equipment and a mountain of manuals. Gershman, whose technique was recently featured in Camera Arts magazine (November 2003), taught himself the most complex components of image editing, from scanning negatives, to mastering the intricacies of Photoshop, to managing the color workflow challenges of digital printing.
Gershman works with the consciousness of a social activist and the insight of a psychiatrist. He aims to recreate what the "mind' actually sees, which is deeper and more complex than what a camera actually captures on film. To achieve this he will work with multiple shots of the same object to composite them in the same way that brain reconstructs visual information into a composite memory of the experience. He uses the raw images as a road map to his inner world of perception and awareness. After first musing on a piece, feeding off his emotional memory, he then allows the changing of color palettes for emphasis, balancing the composition of the print, the tonal relationship of the elements and altering the light source all in service of one goal: the most direct and honest experience possible.
Each piece has signature borders as a "custom framing" created out of the image itself. These frames are most often black and white or off-palate highly manipulate reproductions of the same piece, layered beneath the main photo. The border actually becomes background to the image as foreground, creating a new level of context for the pictures narrative. They act most importantly as a visual prelude setting the emotional tone of the print.
His prints are born of a dialogue between artistry and technical mastery. To bring it all together artistically is a painstaking process involving a significant investment in time for each print. He works in the computer until he is ready to see the first print, which will rarely take less than one to two weeks of steady work. He then begins evolving the work over a period of several weeks to months as he lives with it, reprinting the work 10 or more times before he considers it complete. An absolute perfectionist, he does everything himself, and like his predecessors, he will work forever to achieve the perfect print.
In the dance series he captures both the motion and the emotion of the dancers in a static two dimensional image through this very process. They were shot in one session, with both flash and hot lights, and live dancers in a studio. For his prints he recreates details of the images that are resident in his memory but not captured by the lens in every frame. His manipulation, however, is never obvious. As Gershman points out, the goal is to create the most natural looking images consonant with our internal experience. In "Whiplash Dreams," two young teenage girls in Dublin are staring into the window of a fetish shop at a leather-clad dominatrix mannequin, and we feel their awe. Gershman explains that in this case the mannequin appears to the camera much smaller than it would to the girls gazing up at it, so he alters the proportions of the mannequin to create for the viewer the same experiential perspective as the girls. In doing so he moves the viewer from distant observer into a more intimate partnership with the subjects of the photo. Often though, the images are quite literal in their interpretation. This is most evident in his street photography. The irony of a dilapidated building with peeling paint and taped broken windows offering tax shelter advice, a McDonald’s advertisement posted over turn of the century Dublin store fronts, or a mural of an Edward Hopper painting in a diner with similar looking patrons, seems as if done for effect, but they are not. But Gershman stresses that he would never composite elements in an image to create a false reality. Instead he intensifies the casual observation through his techniques to ignite a higher level of awareness and perceptual responsivity in the viewer.
Gershman's “The Secret Lives of Mannequins” series comments on the dehumanizing reality and contemporary power of "the model." As the style of models as photographed for the printed media has been evolving towards a remarkable resemblence of the store front mannequins, Gershman has stepped over to the other side of the equation and humanized the mannequin. These startling lifelike images of mannequins convey a highly sensual and eroticized representation of these plastic pseudo-women. He infuses each one with a unique sense of identity and story. Here the manipulation is not just digital, but also deeply psychological. As Gershman explains, humans are born with innate emotional reactions to the human face that preempt our intellectual understanding of what we are seeing. Thus, although the viewer knows intellectually that these are not real people, he cannot on the other hand escape the innate feelings evoked. This, coupled with the reframing of our concept of a "normal" woman by the printed media's digital manipulations of models to a totally unrealistic mannequin like idealization, creates a cognitive dissonance between viewers emotions and his intellect.
It is through his creation of an utterly believable, though manipulated, dialogue, and it is through this sensitivity to human nature that we appreciate Gershman's artistic voice. Gershman has reinvented a way to share the fine art photographer's journey. In his subjects of run-down country scenes, sex shops and people caught gazing, a sidewalk Madonna on crumbling road, cemeteries in random patterns of decline, voodoo shops in New Orleans, and abandoned and forgotten homes along the back roads of Georgia, Gershman has used technology to create a truer, emotional state that resonates with our personal internal experience, while at the same time his compassion for the human experience remains congruent in his work as well as his beliefs.
-- Tania Gutsche, February 2004