While in “In Scala,” the Italian landscape is narrated through its historical and cultural dimension, in other projects like Vedute (Views, 1970–79), Colazione sull’erba (Déjeu ner sur l’Herbe, 1972–74) and Italia ailati (1971–79) Ghirri looks at places without apparent historical and aesthetic connotations, concentrating on details of a minor, marginal Italy (“ailati” is not just Italia written backwards; it is a pun that can also be translated as “at the edges”). Beaches during the offseason, cloudy skies, deserted countryside, coastal horizons: Ghirri’s provinces are made of empty spaces, details suspended in melancholy immobility, where history and drama seem to have no place. Shaped by a form of abstraction and a slow quality, here his gaze is the heir to a long figurative tradition that runs from Metaphysical painting to the cinema of Antonioni (Red Desert, 1964, for example). The plains of Emilia-Romagna, from the countryside to the sea, constitute a state of mind where the course of events is halted in a questioning gaze: the alternative side of the region’s automotive production, led by Ferrari.
On the other hand, Conceptual Art’s influence is evident in his approach to working in thematic series and in the recurrence of subjects and atmospheres that often take the final form of a publication.3 This influence becomes clear in the metalinguistic allusion to the photographic medium and to the act of seeing, as well as in the constant reference to the language and enjoyment of visual art.4 The work of mediation done by certain artists on the Modena scene was fundamental to this inf luence: Franco Guerzoni, Claudio Parmiggiani and above all Franco Vaccari can be cited among those who helped Ghirri to define his position with respect to the debates concerning the possibilities of photography in the context of contemporary art.5 Without reaching the level of depersonalization urged by Vaccari, who leaves the making of images to the viewers themselves in the various installations of Esposizione in tempo reale (1972), for Ghirri photography is a medium used by both the minimal and conceptual avant-gardes to get away from cumbersome subjectivity: to observe means to train for the possibility of losing oneself. In this sense, the most extreme points in Ghirri’s oeuvre occur in certain series based on the application of self-imposed rules that guide the choice of subjects and the way the shots are taken, reducing the possible choices left up to the photographer. In Catalogo (Catalogue, 1971–72), Ghirri looks for geometric and decorative motifs on the facades of houses and shops in Modena. In “Km 0,250,” he photographs the advertisements on the wall of Modena’s former automotive racetrack, in the same way, on a scale of 1:1 (1973). In Week End-Atlante (1973), he reproduces the pages of a geographical atlas, zooming in to the point of complete abstraction and loss of information, voiding the signs. In Infinito (1974), he gathers, in random order, 365 images of the sky on two large panels, like a calendar without any logic. Finally, throughout the 1970s, he photographs different images of geometric and perspective grids, another motif in minimal and conceptual work, clearly alluding to the modes of production of images, and the relationship between reality and its reproduction.
Yet the use of serial and automatic procedures, conducted through the application of rules, does not eliminate that sentimental, melancholy matrix, or that affectionate curiosity, that are the recurring qualities of his way of looking at the world. While Catalogo is like the Homes For America of the Po River valley, the serial repetition of “Km 0,250” concludes on a sympathetic, ironic note with a photograph of an advertising poster that states, “Vivo il mio tempo. Mi informo” (I live my time. I get informed), while the analytical process applied in Week End springs from the emotional thrust of an imaginary voyage on the surfaces of a geographical atlas, a childhood fantasy. Ghirri’s scientific gaze, developed through a passion for Dutch seventeenth-century painting and its way of describing and measuring the world through technical means, as well as his focus on geography and place names, are always driven by sympathy for their subjects.