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Souvenir D’Italie:
Luigi Ghirri

Words by
Luca Cerizza
Issue 13 — Winter 2011/12

Beyond amateur photography and photojournalism, a unique photographic oeuvre combines Pop and conceptual art influences into asentimental journey through the Italian landscape.

Writing about Luigi Ghirri means writing not only about the Italian landscape, the preferred theme of his work, but also about a widespread model of Italian visual culture that approaches itself and the world in relation to questions of a social and political order.

Born in 1943 in the small town of Fellegara (Reggio Emilia), Ghirri’s interest in photography developed relatively late, after a period of technical studies. He was able to avoid the two most common directions taken by photographers in Italy: the aesthetic drift of amateur photography and the sociological and political investigations of photojournalism. Other references contributed to his identity, combining humanist sentiment with a scientific gaze. Certain early photographs made in 1970 reflect Ghirri’s literary background in a taste for narration that pays close attention to the details of a minor, possibly poetic reality. His passion for both historical and contemporary art led to a rigorous attitude of thinking through images that went beyond the mere pictorial interpretation of the photograph. In the early phase of his career that I will discuss here, which spanned the 1970s, Pop and conceptual art provided Ghirri the most timely tools with which to look at reality, mainly through the genre of landscape.

Ghirri works by subtraction rather than accumulation: in the midst of the flow of merchandise he narrows in on a few details—products and advertising images—bringing out their lyrical qualities.

A “pop” vision of the landscape is evident in some of Ghirri’s earliest works, especially in the series “Paesaggi di cartone” (Cardboard Landscapes, 1971-74) and “Km. 0,250” (1973). In the 1970s and 1980s, Ghirri took photographs especially while traveling, however his selective gaze produced a unity to the pictures he captured. Thus the images he seeks in Switzerland, France or Holland are not that different from the ones he finds close to home.1 Traces of American Pop imagery emerge in Ghirri’s photographs from both Lucerne and Modena: gaudy pencils, white and red stars printed on paper, the gigantic open legs of a skater at the entrance to an amusement park. Continental distances are erased in the continuity of an Americanized landscape that Ghirri has interpreted not only through his admiration for Walker Evans, but also through an ideal relationship between American “on the road” mythology and the tales of his native plains.

The influence of Pop revealed itself in Ghirri’s focus on the world of merchandise, advertising and entertainment, and in his recurring allusion to reality mediated by the image. Yet for Ghirri, these subjects are steeped more in the melancholy of memory than the optimism of consumption. Ghirri works by subtraction rather than accumulation: in the midst of the flow of merchandise he narrows in on a few details—products and advertising images—bringing out their lyrical qualities. The garments photographed in the shop windows of Modena or Lucerne are the targets of an indifferent, phlegmatic gaze. Images of Charlie Chaplin and nude women appear on little scraps of paper found on a beach, faded relics of some bygone spectacle.2

Ghirri’s viewpoint on Italian cultural history, however, avoids both rhetorical paeans and aesthetic polish. While in Paris, Ghirri photographed, from behind, a young man who reminds us of Jimi Hendrix clutching a souvenir of the Eiffel Tower, an almost surreal combination. In other photographs, the Italian art cities are similarly seen through their reduction to objects meant to be consumed by tourists. Not only are the monuments and landscapes translated into kitschy trinkets, the entire boot of Italy becomes a big toy in the series “In Scala” (1977–78). The series, which features the “Miniature Italy” theme park in Rimini, plays with photography’s potential to create illusions. It sums up many of the impulses that drive Ghirri’s work in this period: a focus on the Italian natural and cultural landscape, the irony of an anti-rhetorical gaze that is, however, never cynical, a discourse on the relationships between reality and fiction through the mediation of two levels of reproduction (physical scale and photographic replication).

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.

The influence of conceptual art also arises in the intention already evident in his earliest works to avoid the imposition of an authoritative viewpoint; instead, Ghirri attempts to let reality—rather than the ego—do the talking. This implies, as he puts it, the “possibility of a surprise within the everyday dimension (…), the possibility of starting with the simplest, most obvious things, to see them in a new light.”6 Ghirri, in short, thinks of photography not so much in the automatic, impersonal sense of Vaccari and other more analytical conceptual artists. Rather, he seems to pursue an interpretation of the medium based on the concepts of “imprint” and “clue” derived from the reflections of Ronald Barthes and Michel Foucault on photography.

To photograph, then, does not mean seeking a total image, conveying the decisive, revelatory moment through a unique, unveiling image. More modestly, it means gathering and selecting among apparently minor details taken through a curious observation of the world. The sum of these moments, the progression of images imprinted on the film almost “without effort,” constitutes the possibility of a nearly unintentional anthropology. In this sense, Ghirri’s oeuvre is part of that series of different interpretations Italian art has continued to produce with respect to American and British conceptual and minimal art, grafting onto their forms a more precise focus on the conditions of time, place and history, as well as a dose of emotional overtones not found in the original points of reference.

In Ghirri’s work, the twofold character of this attitude reveals its full, beautiful and yet ambiguous complexity. While his focus on a marginal landscape and a “minor” history can be a tool of an antirhetorical, critical attitude towards the real, the melancholy poetics of his photography seem to represent a form of acceptance, a fundamentally world. Hence the “slowed down” observation of the landscape and history, the suspension in an almost metaphysical atmosphere, which in the 1980s are also expressed in Ghirri’s tributes to figures like Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Morandi, seem to elude social and political analysis to move toward an interpretation of reality that relies on rigid givens not likely to be subject to change.

Until the end of his short life in 1992, Ghirri would continue to photograph the Italian natural and cultural landscape in its state of melancholy suspension, excluding its current events, drama, chaos, violence. When his gaze does encounter death, it is a silent, slow form of decay. It would be interesting to know how he would look at that same landscape today, increasingly plagued by neglect and speculation, floods, tremors and landslides that are not only physical in nature.

1 “This is why I love travels in the atlas, and this is why I like minimum Sunday outings even better, within a range of three kilometers from my home”; Ghirri wrote this in reference to the series Paesaggi di cartone. Massimo Mussini, “Luigi Ghirri. Attraverso la fotografia,” in Luigi Ghirri (Milan: Federico Motta Editore, 2001), 45.
2 This, after all, was the early 1970s when Italy was in the economic slump that followed the optimism of its boom years, and when the hope for political change that thrived in ’68 had shifted into escalating disappointment and public and private violence.
3 As the artist himself stated in 1982, “When I photograph I think more about the book than the exhibition.” Cited in Mussini, op. cit., 46.
4 Mussini, the first photography scholar to concentrate on Ghirri’s work, talks about Ghirri’s “short and direct experience in the field of conceptual art, substantially marginally but intelligently exploited,” and his relationship with conceptual art, which began in 1969. Ibid., 14.
5 Perhaps less direct but equally important is the influence of an artist like Giulio Paolini, who combined the analysis of sight and historical-artistic memories in an enigmatic, suspended gaze.
6 Luigi Ghirri, cited in Laura Gasparini, “Profilo Biografico,” in Luigi Ghirri, Op. cit., 61.

Luigi Ghirri (1943– 1992) was an Italian photographer.
Luca Cerizza is a curator, writer, and art historian currently based in Berlin.
All images courtesy of Paola Ghirri and Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia © Luigi Ghirri Estate

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