Luigi Ghirri, photographer – by Giulia Zorzi

Luigi Ghirri, photographer – by Giulia Zorzi

You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
– Bob Dylan, Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie

These verses seem to encapsulate the poetics of Luigi Ghirri: an invitation to clear the dust from one’s eyes, to see the banality of reality as it appears, as if for the first time, with awe and wonder. It is the enchantment of those who see with imagination and, in doing so, make the everyday eternal.

Luigi Ghirri was born in 1943 in Scandiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia. In 1960 he moved to the nearby city of Modena, where he made friends with a group of conceptual artists. He was fond of music and cinema, and an avid reader. In the following decade he learned about photography, paying special attention to the work of Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, August Sander, Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston. In 1970 he began to make his first photographs — and also to write. His numerous texts make him a unique figure among photographers, the quality of his essays marked by a progressive reasoning that, precisely through writing, helped him focus his ideas.

‘Modena’, 1973 (The Map and The Territory) C-print, printed 1979, 18.6 × 28.3 cm
CSAC, Università di Parma. Courtesy of MACK

Ghirri recounts that it all started from the emotion he felt when looking at the first photograph of the Earth taken from the Moon. The totality of the world was within that sphere: a total duplication that encompassed all images. It was 1969, and that photo was a counterpart to the moon he had observed as a child, reflected in the wells of the countryside where he grew up. Likewise, the Castle of Fontanellato, a 14th-century fortress near Parma, represented a place of worship for Ghirri. Inside it is an optical chamber — built in the late 19th century by Count Giovanni Sanvitale, an engineer with a vocation as a photographer — a sort of camera obscura in which, through a hole, inverted images of the piazza are reflected. “As if, miniaturized,” says Ghirri, “we could magically enter a camera.” Again, the enchantment.

Luigi Ghirri’s world is in color: at first with pop tones, then increasingly desaturated because, as he writes, “The real world is not black and white.” In a renowned exhibition, hosted at MoMA in 1978, titled Mirrors and Windows, curator John Szarowski divided photographers into two categories: those who understand images as mirrors of themselves, and those who regard them as windows through which to discover the world. Ghirri has always opted for the second designation, though with no ambition of truth: he is interested in infinite diversity, each image a fragment referring to another fragment. He is an artist who shifts perspectives, who looks and photographs to better understand, through a process in which eyes and mind are connected.

The strength lies in incompleteness, in what is outside the frame, in imagination. Photography is the world looking at the world. It is no accident that windows, doors and gates, people with their backs to something, mirrors reflecting reality, are recurring themes in his images.

‘L’Île-Rousse’, 1976 (Kodachrome, 1970-1978) C-print, new print, 20 × 30.2 cm,
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Courtesy of MACK

Ghirri had success but during the course of his life he knew neither fame nor wealth. Yet from 1972, the year of his first exhibition in the lobby of the Hotel Canalgrande in Modena, to his untimely death in 1992, his work was prolific.

In 1974 he finally abandoned his day job as a surveyor and devoted himself to Infinito, a documentation of the sky in 365 photographs, one each day, a kind of daily exercise inspired by a story by Pliny the Elder in which he relates how Apelles practiced painting every day. The simplicity of the daily gesture. Could he not have photographed the sky from which everything began?

That same year he made Cardboard Landscapes, in which he isolated and decontextualized advertising images. The result was a disorienting investigation within the medium itself. The project was exhibited at Il Diaframma, the first private gallery dedicated exclusively to photography, founded in Milan in 1967 by Lanfranco Colombo. In March 1975, an invaluable hand-bound album containing 111 photographs of Cardboard Landscapes was donated by art critic Arturo Carlo Quintavalle to John Szarkowski, director of the photography department at MoMA. It remains there today, along with other Ghirri works the museum later acquired.

‘Modena’ 1971 (The Map and The Territory) C-print 22.4 × 15.1 cm,
eredi di Luigi Ghirri. Courtesy of MACK

Meanwhile Ghirri developed and defined his photographic approach to the Italian landscape. In Niente di antico sotto il sole, a collection of texts written between 1973 and 1991 (first published in 1997 and then again in 2021 – there is a different but comparable English version of Ghirri’s texts released as The Complete Essays in 2016), he wrote: “Giordano Bruno says that images are enigmas that are solved with the heart. To those who sometimes ask me what photography is I reply with this phrase because, among the possible answers that are also pertinent, but nevertheless always somewhat partial and restrictive, this seems to me to be, in substance, the closest to what I think.”

Also in these years he made a body of work on l’Italia in Miniatura, a theme park near Rimini, the brainchild of Ivo Rambaldi in which all the elements are reduced to scale — as, in fact, is photography, which renders an abstract and confused perception of reality. The work is entitled In Scala, and it also allows Ghirri to address other themes dear to his heart: man in the landscape, the consumption of touristic reality, and the emergence of artificial nature.

In 1977 he founded the Punto e Virgola publishing house, in collaboration with his wife Paola Borgonzoni and photographer Giovanni Chiaramonte, with the intention of developing a catalogue focused entirely on the nascent Italian artistic photography scene. The following year Ghirri published his first monograph entitled Kodachrome, a collection of images made by walking, looking at reality and simultaneously thinking about it. As Gianni Celati, an intellectual and close friend, said, “I like to walk, you walk in circles.” The last photograph in the series was not published in the book. It shows a newspaper, crumpled on the ground, bearing the significant headline ‘Come pensare per immagini’, which means: how to think in images. The text, this time, is in the photograph.

On the back of the volume’s checkered cover, eight forthcoming titles were announced. The imprint soon went bankrupt, however, though what Ghirri managed to publish remains a testament of the role he played — with Paola Borgonzoni and especially with Giovanni Chiaramonte, who would continue in the publishing venture — in the Italian photographic and cultural landscape.

‘Bastìa’, 1976 (Kodachrome, 1970-1978) C-Print, printed 1979, 13.8 x 27.2 cm.
CSAC, Università di Parma. Courtesy of MACK

In 1978 he held a major exhibition at the University of Parma in which he presented all the work he had produced up to that time. In the book published for the occasion, Ghirri wrote a text for each section, taking stock of his photographic practice and poetics, reaffirming the importance of writing in his work.

Viaggio in Italia, the exhibition presented in Bari in 1984, curated with Enzo Velati and Gianni Leone was a cultural phenomenon unprecedented in Italy, a venture in which Ghirri brought together twenty photographers to represent the country through a new photographic language both intellectual and emotive. Rejecting the stereotyped vision of Italy, it marked a rite of passage in the history of landscape photography. Among the many artists were Guido Guidi and Gabriele Basilico. (A sign of the times: Cuchi White is the only woman present.)

The catalogue looks like a school book, with a map of Italy printed on the cover. Written on the back flap: “Viaggio in Italia was born out of the need to take a journey into the new in Italian photography and, in particular, to see how a generation of photographers, having cast aside the myth of exotic travel, sensational reportage, formalistic analysis, and presumed and forced creativity, has instead turned its gaze to the reality and landscape around us.”

In 1986, the success of the exhibition convinced Ghirri to propose a collective project to the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, to document the Via Emilia, an ancient road of Roman origin, interweaving photography and writing. Two volumes were published: one of images only, and the other of texts by several authors, including Italo Calvino.

‘Brest’, 1972 (The Map and The Territory) C-print, printed 1979, 21 × 28.5 cm
CSAC, Università di Parma. Courtesy of MACK

During these years, Ghirri devoted himself, with increasing success, to projects commissioned by both private companies and public institutions. The French Ministry of Culture commissioned him to photograph the palace and gardens of Versailles; Lotus International magazine entrusted him with a photographic reading of the S. Cataldo cemetery in Modena, designed by architect Aldo Rossi. The latter was initially less than enthusiastic about Ghirri’s choice, claiming that he had already seen photos like his in America.

Luigi Ghirri published two more volumes on his beloved Italian landscape, and found his dream house — one with many windows — in Roncocesi, near Reggio Emilia. Sometimes, at night, he would turn on all the lights and then go outside and look at it with satisfaction. Roncocesi is also the title of one of his last photographs, taken in January 1992. It depicts a ditch in the middle of a field bathed in fog. Where reality is obliterated, it invites imagination. In his own words, “This dual aspect of representing and erasing tends not only to evoke the absence of limits, excluding any idea of completeness or the finite, but points us to something that cannot be delimited, namely the real.”

Luigi Ghirri died prematurely, in Roncocesi, on February 14, 1992.

His output, collected in many often rare and valued publications, has been made accessible again largely through the intervention of British publisher MACK.

at Micamera we have quite a few of his titles – you need to write ‘Luigi Ghirri’ in the research field, and take some time..

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A special thank you to Mike Slack for helping with the translation