Between two worlds: Maria Antonella Pelizzari on the art of Luigi Ghirri.
Living in an Italy overrun by cliched images of its own heritage, Ghirri sought a new mode of representing the country's landscape through what he called "minimal journeys" within a few miles of his home, focusing on the marginal and minor as sites for discovery of the self. "The subjects of my photographs are those of the everyday," he wrote; -they belong to our customary field of vision: Hence, these are images we are used to enjoying passively. These images are charged with new significance as the camera isolates them from a familiar surrounding, creating a new narrative." (1) Ghirri's records of his neighborhood show a new map of visual puns and uncanny framing that guides the photographer's search for his identity, defined through place. If photography normally functions as a document of the world, through Ghirri's apparatus this duplicity is not a repetition but a making strange, not an orientation but a push to the outer limits, an irruption of the alienation and enchantment experienced by the modern subject.
Ghirri's imagination and intellectual curiosity have had a significant impact on Italian photographers who sought to revisit and reframe their country's storied iconography, and on a younger generation of artists still intent on discerning those historical traces hidden within the normalcy of daily life. Moreover, Ghirri's innovative vision has crossed national borders, impacting a global art world that continues to investigate the ambiguities of the real through photography.
The past few years have seen an escalation of Ghirri projects, ranging from Aperture Gallery's 2008 anthological exhibition "It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It"; the inclusion of Ghirri's photos in the Fifty-Fourth Venice Biennale of 2011; Mack's impeccable reprint of Ghirri's landmark 1978 book, Kodachrome; and the current exhibition of its vintage prints at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York to the retrospective at MAXXI, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome, opening this month. And later this year, Ghirri's work will be presented, once again, at the Venice Biennale, where the photographs from "Viaggio in Italia" (Voyage in Italy, 1984), Ghirri's ambitious curatorial project, will appropriately reflect the theme of "vice versa," identified by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, curator of the Italian pavilion, as a key cipher for interpreting the country's art and culture.
Such an investigation of reality was also at the core of a recent group exhibition that showcased a wide selection of Ghirri's prints: Thomas Demand's spectacular curatorial project "La Carte d'apres nature," at the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco in 2010 and at Matthew Marks, New York, in 2011. Under a title inspired by Rene Magritte, Demand brought together prominent artists who explored the surreal nature of culture. In mixing Ghirri's photographs with such works as Tacita Dean's videos and Martin Boyce's overarching architecture, he suggested their currency. Could the photographer's doubled vision inspire contemporary viewers to rethink the significance of the banal and unsettle our image-saturated present?
GHIRRI WAS BORN IN SCAN DIANO, in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, in 1943. He lived in this region his entire life, witnessing postwar recovery, the boost of the "economic miracle," the terrorism and societal breakdown accompanying the period between the late 1960s and early '80s known as the Anni di piombo (Years of Lead), and the sudden change from an agrarian culture to a postindustrial economy--a shift particularly felt along the flat, wide plains of the Po River. He alternated between city and country life, working as a land surveyor in Modena, and finetuning a precise yet imaginative understanding of spatial relationships through his professional expertise. Ghirri was also a daydreamer and a voracious reader, a visionary who rarely cleaned his glasses.
He would travel--quite literally--across the pages of an atlas, taking photographs of maps, words, and symbols and blowing them up into an impossible cartography. "Atlante" (Atlas), 1973, Ghirri's most daring and abstract series, reflected his awareness of the opacity of the world, and the consequent challenge of description. He was, in this regard, attuned to the writing of Italo Calvino, who aimed to "give speech to that which has no language" (2) and devised strategies to remove the clutter from our quotidian inertia. Like Calvino's fictional protagonists (Marcovaldo, Marco Polo in Invisible Cities, Cosimo in The Baron in the Trees), Ghirri was drawn to imagine an alternative world: a new city under the snow, the cracks of nature inside urban walls, a fantastic kingdom lit up at night. His last home, on an abandoned farming estate in Roncocesi, Reggio Emilia, exemplified such a place: a microcosm where, in the final years of his life, Ghirri envisioned projects that put photography at the center of a social and cultural renewal. (3)
For Ghirri, the act of taking pictures was organically linked to his awareness of being in the world; Ghirri's sense of region and location was thus directly connected to vision. He detected what he termed an increasing social "disaffection" that separated the individual from the environment, and he saw this alienation as part of our culture's inability to see and represent place. (4) And yet his native landscape held a rich creative energy--as demonstrated by Visconti's and Fellini's Neorealist films staged in the rural flatland of this region (Ossessione  and La strada , respectively) and by Antonioni's first color film, Red Desert (1964), which tracked the existential desolation of contemporary industrial culture. These films opened Ghirri's eye to new possibilities of representation, just as he was first engaging with the art world.
In the late '60s, with the ascendancy of Arte Povera and the circle of Germano Celant, Ghirri became close with another group of artists in Modena--Franco Guerzoni, Carlo Cremaschi, Claudio Parmiggiani, and Giuliano Della Casa--whose Conceptual practice reflected a similar zeitgeist but who focused on much smaller-scale projects, bound to a local context. Ghirri's early photography, de-skilled and mostly black-and-white, perceived small temporal shifts and sudden disruptions of the ordinary, as he recorded performances, objects, and temporary installations. As he explained, "The most important lesson I received from Conceptual art consisted in the recording of simple and obvious things, and viewing them under a whole new light." Branching into the world of graphic arts, where he would meet designer Paola Borgonzoni, his future wife, Ghirri also engaged in the creation of artists' books. (6) He designed the dust jacket of Guerzoni's Rolleiflex (1975) and, with Borgonzoni and a photographer friend, Giovanni Chiaramonte, launched Punto e Virgola, a short-lived publishing house (1977-79) dedicated to the circulation of new projects in photography.
Just as Ghirri began working with the Modena Conceptual group, photography in Italy was at a turning point. Walter Benjamin's writings on photography had come to prominence after their translation in 1966, and Umberto Eco's semiotics of the image had contributed to a wider discussion of the medium, no longer written off as direct mimesis. Photographers left behind their documentary practice to explore the camera's technological conventions, turning toward the kinds of investigations of apparatus and context apparent in Conceptual practices elsewhere, from the work of Jan Dibbets to that of Douglas Huebler. Ugo Mulas, for example, shifted gears with his "Verifiche" (Verifications), 1971-72, which analyzed photography through such signifiers as light, frame, time, optics, enlargement, and caption; Mario Cresci, who later became a close friend of Ghirri's, paid homage to Piero Manzoni's Merda d'artista (Artist's Shit), 1961, with an installation in 1969 that included scraps of film inside cylindrical canisters; at the 1972 Venice Biennale, Franco Vaccari placed a photo mat on the floor in a large room with empty walls and invited visitors to attach a "photographic trace" of their "fleeting visit."
Vaccari, also based in Modena, was struck by the deadpan quality of Ghirri's early work--its unsentimental, nonsensational, and nonprescri bed quality--and gave him his first small show, in 1972. In the catalogue, Vaccari pointed out the ways in which these photographs departed radically from trite postwar reportage that still imagined Italy as somehow both folkloric and melancholic; there were no southern widows dressed in black, no glorified ruins from ancient history or remote little towns immersed in timeless atmospheres. (7) The friendship between the two artists was sealed; seven years later, Ghirri published Vaccari's Fotografia e inconscio tecnologico (Photography and the Technological Unconscious), a study that focused on the camera's automatic mechanism as a way to free the artist from cultural conditioning and subjectivity. Ghirri absorbed these theories into his own practice, with the goal of unhinging visual habit. He would later describe this process as "forgetting about oneself ... not as an act of reproduction of the world, but as a way of showing one's own relationship with the world in a less schematic, regulated, or preordered manner." (8)
KODACHROME, Ghirri's first prominent photobook, published in 1978 by Punto e Virgola, exemplifies the artist's inventive framing and poetic sequencing. The metalanguage of Kodachrome is conveyed in its title, not only in its signification of the trademark of color photography but also in its allusion to Ghirri's preference for the snapshot as a democratic form, shared and understood by most people. The book thus harked back to the radical choice made by William Eggleston and others who pioneered "lowly" color photography in the '60s. But Kodachrome does not simply explore the populist immediacy of the genre; it also slows down and attenuates our experience of color photography and its commercially determined range. More so than black-and-white, color allowed Ghirri to foreground the act of seeing and its conceptual framing; as he stated, "The formal artistic gesture is already expressed in the act of taking the photograph," thus announcing his departure from an academic tradition of artistic photography that privileged the final print. (9)
Kodachrome distills a series of thematic projects, shot with a 35-mm camera over a period of eight years, intuitively rearranged into a new ensemble of ninety-two pictures. Ghirri frames the world as representation in a crescendo of ready-made installations, kitsch backdrops, Pop ads, commercial and tourist simulacra, and textured patterns that resemble photomontages, estranged and out of context. (The series thus anticipates strategies of mediation and appropriation prominently explored in the following decade; recognizing this prescience, Charles Traub, then director of Light Gallery in New York, gave him a show in 1980.)
In Kodachrome's preface, Ghirri explains that for him, photography is a means to knowledge. In 1969, the entire planet looked in awe at the first picture of Earth taken from Apollo 11 on its flight to the moon: an image that contained all images ever produced by humans, a "total hieroglyph," as he defines it, which left an overwhelming surfeit of information. Therefore, he continues, "the meaning that I try to give to my work is that of the verification of how it is still possible to wish to face the way of knowledge, to make it possible at last to tell the real identity of man, of things, of life, from the image of man, of things, of life." (10)
The book's first image--a meditative view of electrical wires crossing a few clouds in the sky--exem-plifies a subject that would continue to inspire Ghirri: the fantastic shape of clouds and the narrative possibility suggested by their contours. The lines drawn by the wires resemble those of a musical staff or a composition book, implying a witty understanding of the photographic process as a way to allow the natural (if man-made) elements of the landscape to "write" the image. The sequence flows from a serene contemplation of blue skies and solitary sandy beaches with a single red slide, a wind-whipped umbrella, to enigmatic mirror reflections at a campground, progressively building to a visual tour de force that questions what is real and what is represented, what is life-size and what is miniature, what is upright and what is upside down.
These ambiguous flip sides, as I call them, both disquieting and fun, recur in many individual series thematically organized by Ghirri prior to Kodachrome. In addition to "Atlante," "Paesaggi di cartone" (Cardboard Landscapes), 1971-74, collected in a little book of the same title in 1974, shows a contemporary landscape camouflaged by advertising found on public walls; "II Paese dei balocchi" (Toyland), 1972-79, is an entertaining exploration of the simulated worlds of amusement parks, wax museums, and dioramas, which Ghirri began photographing before Hiroshi Sugimoto's well-known "Dioramas" series from 1976; "Still Life," 1975-81, is a study of found images, flea-market objects, and paintings layered against colorful backdrops, ominous shadows, and flashes of light (such combinations will inform the more complex compositions that Ghirri created with the Polaroid 20 x 24 camera, on the invitation to work in Amsterdam's Polaroid studio in 198081); "Diaframma 11, 1/125, luce naturale" (F-Stop 11, 1/125, Natural Light), 1970-79, combines portraits of people seen from behind, captured in the act of looking at posters or canvases, as if flattened and lost inside these surfaces (these precede Martin Parr's voyeuristic shots of passersby, as well as Thomas Struth's attentive observation of museumgoers); "Colazione sull'erba" (Luncheon on the Grass), 1972-74, whose title alludes to Mallet's paradoxical painting, is a group of pictures taken on the periphery of Modena, where nature is a gentle and ironic presence patched in among ordinary dwellings, as when an artificial flock of swallows decorates a patio wall.
With its rigorously frontal compositions, "Colazione sull'erba" reveals a deep affinity with Ghirri's favorite photographer, Walker Evans. (11) Ghirri probably became familiar with the work of Evans through John Szarkowski's 1971 monograph and a series of exhibitions in Italy on American photography, fostered by a collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and art historian Arturo Carlo Quintavalle at the University of Parma. (Significantly, Quintavalle also organized the first major Ghirri exhibition in Parma, in 1979.) Ghirri found a special alchemy in Evans's knowledge of light and framing, his capacity to allow things to reveal themselves spontaneously; Ghirri then translated these qualities into his own clever equivalences and "tender" records of the vernacular. (12)
The artist was also drawn to Evans's sensitivity to personal artifacts as signifiers of individual stories. Ghirri's series "Identikit," 1976-79, is an intimate survey of his own library--with LPs, postcards, and collected souvenirs hanging on his home's walls--a self-portrait sketched through the objects of affection. He revisited this subject with a small Polaroid camera (which he used between 1979 and 1983) and later expanded his repertoire, in 1989-90, as he immersed himself in Giorgio Morandi's studio and Aldo Rossi's living space, identifying meaningful clues (drawings, books, a twin bed) that portrayed the artists through invisible gestures.
If Evans was an important reference for Ghirri's intimate portrayals of domestic interiors, Ed Ruscha inspired other projects in which serial it and repetition introduce new models of representing the landscape. "Km 0,250," 1973, a series also made into an accordion book stretching just over eight feet, shows a strip of billboards, photographed at the same distance, lined up one after the other in taxonomic order; "Catalogo," 1970-79, a collection of deadpan images, organized by surface and pattern (shades, tiles, pebbles, tesserae), resembles a purchase catalogue; "Infinito," 1974--an abstract mosaic of images of the sky, recorded day by day for an entire year--experiments with the technical limitations of the camera to frame time and space.
Ultimately, then, there is another way one might consider the title of Kodachrome registering in this critical decade, particularly as its color is more saturated than in any of his later work: as Ghirri's response to Pop art, recuperated through Eco's analysis of the language of publicity and Gillo Dorfles's timely survey Kitsch: The World as Bad Taste (1968). The world of Kodachrome is bright and often jarring (as in the signs of consumer goods, from a Coca-Cola flag to a Sprite billboard), and photography appears itself as a commodity (see, for example, the photograph of a postcard rack full of sunset photographs, or the last image in the book, showing a bizarre camera, like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, centered in the middle of traffic).
Ghirri's amusing and disorienting comments on tourist kitsch (an Eiffel Tower model held by a boy as if it were some kind of special relic) recur during this decade and are epitomized by the series "In Scala" (In Scale), 1977-78, in which he journeys to a miniature Italy set up in Rimini. The sparse visitors, walking among stereotypical buildings and alpine peaks, enhance the absurd quality of this Lilliputian landscape, which has become a toy world. Committed to investigate this country's dialectical manifestations, Ghirri will return, over and over, to the double sides of the Italian landscape: the historic building and the contemporary billboard, the scenic landscape and the familiar playground. The series "Italia Ailati," 1971-79, is precisely about this research, as its title--which flips the country's name, "Italia," backward--suggests.
THROUGHOUT THE '80S, Ghirri's photographs increasingly became invested in the idea of the journey as an adventure of the mind and of the eye to redefine the Italian landscape. Ghirri was not alone in his analysis of a country whose terrain, since the '50s, had been disfigured through accelerating real estate development and the growth of a chaotic infrastructure and its consequent sprawl. Orchestrated by Ghirri, "Viaggio in Italia" constituted the collective research of twenty photographers--an impressive realization of the communality of these issues, as much as proof of a new trend in Italian photography. Working in dialogue with architects, urban planners, economists, and writers, photographers became the visual interpreters of a landscape otherwise perceived as superfluous and nondescript. (13) "Viaggio in Italia" epitomized the kind of teamwork Ghirri would continue to seek out in such projects as "Esplorazioni sulla Via Emilia" (Explorations on the Via Emilia), 1983-86, a study of the territorial shifts across a road built by the Romans; "Il pro fib delle nuvole" (The Outline of Clouds), 1980-92, a journey localized in the Po valley, where Ghirri and Gianni Celati collaborated on a photo-essay; and "Paesaggio Italiano" (Italian Landscape), 1980-92, a portfolio of his research on landscape, strung together with text from architects, architectural historians, and singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla.
Ghirri's vision expanded as he began to use medium-format cameras, conveying more directly the experience of his body in space. Recuperating earlier explorations of scale, Ghirri touched on metaphysical questions about one's existence within an infinite landscape. In a short essay from 1986-87, "The Little Man on the Brink of the Ravine," "Ghirri reflects on his childhood, when he observed nineteenth-century photographs that included a lonely figure as a unit of measure of the sublime's large vistas. The "little man," he writes, appeared as a reassuring presence in those photographs, a guarantor of visual comprehension of one's monumental surroundings, and a silent companion for the artist. Ghirri describes his incapacity, as a photographer, to find that man, that anchoring subject position, and his immediate and sudden awareness that landscapes have become "uninhabitable." His mature work sprang from this anguish and longing, as he sought a way to express what it means to "inhabit" a place. (The songs of Bob Dylan, his favorite musician, accompanied his journeys through a world both intimate and sublime.) The landscape is experienced as if a threshold, and Ghirri devised numerous strategies that allowed him to cross this boundary.
One such tactic was to unfix description, to break through the barrier between what we see and where we stand. This led him to the question of whether one can convey temporal duration in photography, an inquiry that echoes Gilles Deleuze's analysis of the "time-image" in opposition to the "movement-image" in film. Ghirri, for example, describes his fascination with a sequence from La strada where sound combined with the cinematic progression of the picture contributes to a vivid sensorial image of landscape. How, he asks, can photography achieve this effect? (15) In order to create the multi-sensory, temporal impression of film, he calibrated light and color, privileging atmospheric conditions that render the world fuzzy and uncertain. This explains the incredible signature of Ghirri's photographs: at once precisely focused and preternaturally lit, so that fields glow in fog, and skies dissolve into puddles and cement.
Color printing also breached this boundary. From the beginning, Ghirri worked with a local lab technician, Arrigo Ghi, but it was in the '80s that the artist developed a more attentive palette that privileged color not only as a democratic process (as in Kodachrome) but also as an expressive tool that allowed the spectator to move across and beyond the flat appearance of the image, to become immersed, so to speak, in its space. He brought lightness to his subjects, avoiding saturation and experimenting with a range of photographic papers and exposure times that enhanced the muted colors and matte finish that are so characteristic of his prints.
Ghirri's personal understanding of color as a distinct mode of defining experience was filtered through the multiple journeys he made for commissions: in Capri, Naples, and the region of Puglia, where he discovered a bright and glowing Mediterranean light, reflected onto local dwellings and monumental sites; at Versailles, where he filtered its geometries and wide-open spaces, channeling the startling clarity of Eugene Atget's famous series there; and in his own region, where he shot parochial buildings as they turned into castles in the magic hour, vast rural plains with their furrowed one-point perspective, and empty roadside gas stations.
The resulting photographs are epiphanies. They demonstrate what it means to exist at a certain time and in a certain place. Sublime views of historic piazzas alternate with soccer players running in a field lit up at night. Ghirri's images return our gazes to family albums, where we find our aunt and uncle who crossed the Alpine plateau; they invite us to open a gate and walk toward the infinite; they help us retrace the mysterious memories of our childhoods, which are themselves flip sides of reality. These impressions are so vivid and astonishing in their simplicity that we now witness similar images as Ghirri-like or Ghirriesque.
MIGHT THIS EXPLAIN the artist's current revival? Demand, in his provocative curatorial spin, hinted at the secret nature of Ghirri's camera, shuttling between image and reality, making the discarded worthy, even valuable. One can perhaps elaborate on this. It seems clear that the reasons we are so captivated by this work lie not only in the ambiguity but also in the intimate clarity Ghirri's visions brings forth. I am reminded here of Alec Soth's pondering over Erik Kessels's installation of every photograph uploaded to Flickr over a twenty-four-hour period (the artist's pick in Art forum's December 2012 issue) and of Joachim Schmid's print-on-demand books selectively drawn from various public online archives, for which the artist culls from today's digital clutter with the precise intention of creating a visual "ecology" (in Schmid's wording).
Sadly, Ghirri did not live long enough to address the digital revolution, but he thought about these issues:
The ultimate role of photography as a contemporary language of visual communication consists of its capacity to slow down our fast and chaotic way of reading images. ... It is as if it were possible, for once, to read a newspaper article without someone constantly turning the pages for us. Photography elicits a slowness of vision that I find extremely important, when we consider how technology has sped up perception in recent years. (16)
I like to think of these small color photographs as moments of awakening, when we begin to understand what lies between the world and its representation. Ghirri's intense vision unlocked a code, by which we now know what it means to inhabit a place.
"Luigi Ghirri: Pensare per immagini;" organized by Francesca Fabiani, Laura Gasparini, and Giuliano Sergio, will he on view at MAXXI, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome from Apr. 24 through Oct. 27; travels to the Instituto Moreira Salles in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Nov. 2013 and Feb. 2014, respectively.
All translations the author's.
(1.) Luigi Ghirri, "Paesaggi di cartone," in Niente di antico sotto il sole. Scritti e immagini per un'autobiografia, ed. Paolo Costantini and Giovanni Chiaramonte (Turin: SEI, 1997), 17.
(2.) Italo Calvino, "Multiplicity," in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (New York: Vintage Books, 1993),124.
(3.) See Laura Gasparini, Adele Ghirri, and Quentin Bajac, Un'idea e un progetto. Luigi Ghirri e l'attvita curatoriale (Reggio Emilia, Italy: Biblioteca Panizzi, 2012). This publication explains the history of the collaboration between Ghirri and the Bi blioteca. Panizzi, which led to the important gift of his archive to this library in Reggio Emilia.
(4.) See Ghirri's lecture in Lezioni di fotografia, ed. Giulio Bizzarri and Paolo Barbaro (Macerata, Italy: Quodlibet, 2010), 56.
(5.) Luigi Ghirri, conversation with Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, in Niente di antico solo il sole, 312.
(6.) All these books are available through the digital project created at the Biblioteca Panizzi. See http://digilib.netribe.it/bdr01/Sezione.jsp?idSezione=78.
(7.) Vaccari's catalogue essay is reprinted in Arturo Carlo Quintavalle and Massimo Mussini, Luigi Ghirri (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1979), 37-38.
(8.) Ghirri, Lezioni di fotografia, 21.
(9.) See Laura Gasparini, "Note sulle tecniche," in Massimo Mussini, Luigi Ghirri (Milan: Federico Motta Editore, 2001), 7.
(10.) Luigi Ghirri, foreword to Kodachrome (London: Mack, 2012), 12.
(11.) Ghirri's personal library is conserved at the Biblioteca Panizzi in Reggio Emilia. I thank Laura Gasparini for sharing information on the photobooks Ghirri collected by Evans, Ruscha, and Lee Friedlander, among others.
(12.) See Luigi Ghirri, "Le carezze fatte al mondo di Walker Evans," in Ghirri, Niente di antico sotto il sole, 70-71; Gianni Celati, "Ricordo di Luigi, fotografia e amicizia," in Ghirri, Lezioni di fotografia, 251-64.
(13.) See Pippo Ciorra, "Artepaesaggioarchitettura," in Paesaggi fatti ad arte, ed. Alberto Bertagna (Macerata, Italy: Quodlibet, 2010), 84.
(14.) Luigi Ghirri, The Little Man on the Brink of the Ravine," in Paesaggio Italiano (Milan Electa, 1989), 20.
(15.) Luigi Ghirri, Vista ems camera. 200 fotografie in Emilia Romagna, ed. Paola Ghirri and Ennery Taramelli (Milan: Federico Motta Editore, 1992), 21.
(16.) Ghirri, Lezioni di fotografia, 55.
MARIA ANTONELLA PELIZZARI IS PROFESSOR OF ART HISTORY AT HUNTER COLLEGE AND THE GRADUATE CENTER, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK. (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)
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|Author:||Pelizzari, Maria Antonella|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2013|
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