Approaching Luigi Ghirri

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When I look at a Luigi Ghirri photograph, I always think I know exactly why it was taken. I obviously have no way of know what its maker actually had in mind, and the original motivation is likely to have been very different from what I perceive. But for me to see a Ghirri photograph is to see a mind at work in which formal compositions and conceptual approaches were always tuned to very specific settings, with the effect that you recognize a Ghirri photograph when you see one.

Obviously, the same could be said for any other photographer. Few photographers manage to infuse their work with a sense of fluidity to counter what otherwise comes across as a mix of rigour and shtick, with the passage of time tending to tilt the balance to the latter.

Maybe with Ghirri this aspect of photography strikes me so much because I feel a certain affinity for his approach: seeing a Ghirri photograph is very similar to what I experience on many occasions when I find a picture in the world myself, or rather when I recognize how I can make a picture that is new, yet that I’m familiar with. As much as I enjoy those moments, they leave me wanting more.

The moments I enjoy a lot more, the moments that grant me the thrill that photography can offer — those are when I come across a picture I never could have thought about before, in other words when ever so slightly I am surpassing myself as a photographer.

Those moments feel absent in pretty much all of Ghirri’s work that I know. As I said, for sure I’m engaged in an exercise of projection here. We all approach art based on where we’re coming from.

To make this very clear, the above is in no way intended to take away from the photographer’s mastery. For anyone whose mind does not operate the way mine does, Ghirri’s photograph have much to offer, much more than they can offer me. At times, I’m a bit envious of people who can enjoy Ghirri’s pictures more than I do. But then, the tables might be turned for other artists. And how boring would it be if we all enjoyed the very same photographs.

A new catalog entitled The Map and the Territory (produced at the occasion of a touring European exhibition) offers deep insight into Ghirri’s photographs from the 1970s (the catalog is available in English, German, French, and Spanish). It includes no less than fourteen bodies of work: Fotografie del periodo iniziale (1970), Kodachrome (1970-78), Colazione sull’erba (1972-74), Catalogo (1970-79), Km 0.250 (1973), Diaframma 11, 1/125, luce naturale (1970-79), Atlante, (1973), Italia Ailati (1971-79), Il paese del balocchi (1972-79), Vedute (1970-79), Infinito (1974), In Scala (1976-79), and Still Life (1975-79). For each of them, Ghirri’s original thinking is included in the form of the statement he wrote about each one.

The catalog for sure establishes the natural starting point into the Italian artist’s oevre for those unfamiliar with it. Everybody else will benefit from the wealth of information given, whether in the form of the essays and texts or in the form of the visuals in these different bodies of work. It is, in other words, an indispensable landmark survey that ought to find a place in the library of everyone serious about photography, certainly in any educator’s library.

I suspect one could construct a whole class teaching photography out of what is presented in the book. The artist’s words allow for the gaining of insight into the photographer’s thinking, while at the same time allowing for critical access of it, and here “it” means both the words and the pictures. Many students struggle with exactly that, putting words to pictures — how this can be done well is amply demonstrated here.

What is more, Ghirri’s approach to his work isn’t quite as monotonously uniform as William Eggleston’s, say, and his willingness to edit and shape his own work ultimately makes the Italian the greater artist, however much the American might have produced more great individual pictures.

Some of Ghirri’s work recalls, say, Southern Californian conceptualism from around the same era, while other bodies of work mine different territory. Almost all of them, as noted above, are very carefully and stringently composed in terms of their formal qualities, a fact that should allow especially beginning students to find an immediate entry point.

Uncannily, The Map and the Territory foreshadows the photographic world we live in, where everything has already been photographed, yet where there are infinite possibilities to add another picture that nobody has seen before — the widely misunderstood paradox of our times.

Today, Ghirri would probably be very active on Instagram, sharing his observations that way. Whatever one might want to say about the site (and there is plenty aside from its owners’ apparent intent to ruin it as much and quickly as possible), it is perfect for the Ghirrian moment, that quick visual recognition that in part exists so it can be shared.

For the most part, being associated with Instagram is seen as a major negative in photoland, even by many people who think they are opposed to the elitism that has made the history of photography such an incomplete and unfulfilling entity. But Ghirri’s instagrammable pictures are as good as many other gems that, yes, can be found on that site. However, they’re usually not made by photoland’s well known names: I find it nothing short of amazing to see how so many otherwise very good visual artists are so terrible at Instagram.

Whether or not Luigi Ghirri will eventually become part of the pantheon of photography remains to be seen. But then isn’t the pantheon only an old-fashioned term for what we now call a listicle? Hasn’t the internet convinced us by now how useless listicles are? Pantheon/listicle or not, the existence of The Map and the Territory removes all possible obstacles for his work to be seen more widely, allowing a larger audience to gain a deeper understanding of this seminal Italian visual artist.

The Map and the Territory; photographs and texts by Luigi Ghirri; edited by James Lingwood; essays by James Lingwood, Maria Anotnella Pelizzari, Jacopo Benci; also evailable in German, French, and Spanish editions; 376 pages; MACK; 2018

(not rated)

All that Stuff

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In The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski, an extended conversation between Catherine Grenier and the artist, Boltanski addresses his motivations for his Inventoires (1973):  “The Inventoires say nothing about anyone. Their only interest is that anyone who looks at them sees his or her portrait in them, since we all own pretty much the same objects […] At the time I was strongly influenced by ethnology museums […] and by the idea of looking at our everyday life as if it were an uncivilized world.” (p. 72) It is not difficult to observe the state of the world right now and come to the conclusion that it is indeed very uncivilized, becoming ever more so with every passing minute.

That consideration aside, Boltanski’s claim runs counter to what we all would want to believe, namely that a collection of objects will tell us something, possibly a lot, about the person (organization, larger entity, …) that brought them together. Not so, according to the artist: “The Inventoires are based on the idea that the minute you put a pipe into a display case, it stops being a pipe. Everything you try to preserve dies, and as soon as you try to ‘freeze’ something, you kill it. My work with photography is related to the same notion: trying to freeze an image is a process associated with death.” (p. 73) As is obvious — particularly since René Magrittea picture of an object isn’t the object just like a map isn’t the territory.

Still, though…

As a species, we are hardwired to cling to representations if not actual objects that have meaning for us, with that meaning tied to something — usually some form of knowledge — that usually is not visible and/or accessible in any way for an outsider. This is, of course, what makes photography interesting. If photographs really were only the technical artifacts that on a very base level they are, they’d be dreadful entities to deal with — interesting possibly only to scholars and those few dedicated amateurs who somehow find deeper meaning in what the rest of the world considers to be utterly pointless.

After all, why would the city of Amsterdam decide to serendipitously unearth, collect, and preserve 700,000 objects while working on a subway line, have 35,000 of them photographed (by Harold Strak who worked on it two days a week, needing six years), and then have a catalog produced that contains 13,000 of them (in 15,000 photographs) and whose making took roughly four years? That book is called XXX Stuff, and it’s one of the most amazing photobooks I have ever seen – for all the right (Boltanski: nonsensical) reasons.

A quick aside: the “xxx” does not stand for what you might think it does: “The three Xs are actually silver Saint Andrew’s Crosses, also known as saltires”.

With its 600 pages, the book has a lot more pages than, say, Taryn Simon’s Birds of the West Indies, which is a veritable brick of an object. But XXX Stuff relies on a much thinner paper stock (custom made for the book I was told) and a much more refined design. Thus despite its heft it doesn’t necessarily feel heavy or overbearing. Instead, the paper stock has the pages become quite delicate, which forces the viewer to treat them with respect (unless s/he wants them torn right away). In addition, a printing using five inks (there’s an added Pantone blue forall of the text) makes for a overwhelming amount of detail. This is, in a nutshell, how you want to treat such a catalog: you want to overwhelm the viewer with a plethora of enjoyment and not by throwing a brick into their lap.

Photographically, there isn’t much to say about the book. The photography is extremely competent and it was produced with the end result in mind: where an object would benefit from being seen at more than one angle, it is shown accordingly. In fact, each object is fully identified, dated, and added to its own group. On page 408, for example, the viewer gets to see a group of medieval chain mail, which ranges from a single loop (made of brass) to a variety of larger pieces, one of them (made from iron) little more than a clump with some pieces still loose.

Said chain mail sits alongside pottery shards, discarded or lost credit cards, coins, and an incredibly large variety of other stuff, forming… well what? In some way, each and every one of the many items in this catalog at some stage was tied to one particular person (or animal) who (which) for whatever reason found her or himself (itself) in or near the particular spot where later her or his lost belonging (or body part) would be found. Taken together, the objects describe in an incredibly detailed way the history of the place, Amsterdam, a major European metropolis and trading site.

Coming back to Boltanski’s desire of “looking at our everyday life as if it were an uncivilized world,” this sentiment might feel odd — don’t we attempt to do the exact opposite when amassing collections? What other are collections than such eventually futile attempts, based on enlightenment-era ideas that, yet again, have come under attack not by its own internal contradictions but instead by those whose exercising of power is at odds with civilized life (think the current occupant of the White House and his posse)? Are we, in other words, trying to kid ourselves when assembling such collections?

In this particular context, the city of Amsterdam, a place that I should add I am incredibly fond of, there also is the history of the Wunderkammer, in particular the collections of Albertus Seba and Frederik Ruysch (who both sold part of them to Peter the Great who built his Kunstkamera). While many of their ideas have now become established parts of the sciences (that routinely amass their own Wunderkammers), I think we all share Seba’s and Ruysch’s original impetus. Certainly many (most?) photographers do, who, I have found, like to collect things, usually going beyond what one would consider to be reasonable. But then what’s reasonable in this context anyway?

So here we have the Wunderkammer that originated from the construction of a subway line. While many of the items can be seen in their physical form in situ, a representation of them in the form of XXX Stuff is able to travel to the home of anyone interested in it, in all likelihood itself becoming part of a separate, yet somehow related collection.

In Flights, a masterful novel by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk that weaves together a variety of seemingly unrelated topics (traveling, human anatomy, desire, and more) and which itself is a literary Wunderkammer of sorts, Ruysch’s Amsterdam makes an appearance. In one episode, part of his collection has just been sold to the Russian tsar, and his daughter goes to the harbour to watch sailors load vast parts of her own work (that she is going completely uncredited for) onto ships. It’s a truly heartbreaking moment, in which Tokarczuk manages to convey the importance we tie to collections. 

We are left to conclude that a collection, any collection, speaks of our shared human desire to make sense of this world, however senseless and uncivilized it might appear at times. The lavishly produced 600 pages of XXX Stuff thus betray their makers’ attempts to do so as much as the various collections we all have in our homes, the little piles of stones we might assemble on beaches, the stories we tell each other about our lives.

I can’t help but suspect that even a Christian Boltanski would be amazed by what this book has to offer. Highly recommended.

XXX Stuff: Catalogue Archaeological Finds / Amsterdam’s North/South Metro Line; photographs by Harold Strak; concept and execution by Jerzy Gawronski, Peter Kranendonk, Willem van Zoetendaal; 600 pages; Van Zoetendaal/De Harmonie Publishers; 2018

(not rated)

Mind the Gap (or: What is Criticism Anyway?)

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The challenge faced by contemporary art critics is that they have to write from the same disadvantaged point of view as the artist whose work they attempt to discuss: contemporary critics live alongside contemporary artists they focus their attention on. I don’t necessarily view this fact as a major impediment to gaining deeper insight, though. The critics’ words will simply have to be seen against the larger cultural and societal background as much as the artists’. Hindsight can only be had years into the future, and who says that hindsight makes for good criticism anyway.

Criticism, in other words, is thus flawed by construction – much like art. Criticism is produced by human beings — much like art. I don’t believe that this makes criticism art, but for sure there’s a kinship. Critics ought to love artists (if not, obviously, their work without having their skills applied to it), and artists ought to love critics. They’re all in the same boat. The fact that of late the ride has mostly been mostly propped up by the grotesquely rich and morally bankrupt ought to bind everyone together even more (including large parts of the audience).

For a variety of reasons, criticism has lost its standing in the larger world of art. In the not-to-distant past, mainstream magazines and newspapers used to have and support criticism a lot more. Arts and culture sections, though, are usually the first ones to get cut, leaving many magazines and newspapers now as spaces where there simply are no arts and culture any longer.

In parallel, the rise and evolution of the internet has also massively contributed to criticism losing its previous status. If everybody is a critic now, leaving their one to five stars as a reflection of some commercial transaction, it’s easy to think that art criticism is the same thing, namely an expression of some minor or major grievance. It should be obvious that it is not. But it’s hard to imagine the task of squeezing this particular glob of toothpaste back into its tube.

I cannot view Joshua Lutz‘s Mind the Gap without having all that in mind. In fact, when writing critical pieces large parts of my work revolve not necessarily around the item at hand. Instead, I am trying to figure out my particular relation to it: what am I bringing to this book (or whatever else I’m looking at)? How or to what extent is my reaction shaped by that? This is the analysis part. Only when I have this resolved (or when I think I have) I can then move on to trying to bring everything back together to, hopefully, arrive at something that results in some deeper insight. This is the synthesis part. I am not sure proper criticism can do without these two elements, but your mileage might vary.

Vast parts of contemporary photography are of their time, dealing with their time in one way or another. That said, with its laser focus on the state of mind of the United States, Mind the Gap might be the most overt book to do so in a while.

As has become overabundantly clear over the past decade, but especially since a B-list reality TV star has become the latest occupant of the White House, that state of mind is not in a very good spot. Its many internal contradictions, the fragility of its underlying foundational myth (“the American dream”), and an embrace of a mercantilism and outright corruption that will not even stop at destroying the democratic fabric have resulted in a huge spasm, with one of the two major parties (Republicans) embracing illiberalism while essentially living in an utterly perverted Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

In some way or another, all these various issues are addressed in the book through a combination of images and text. Much like in Lutz’s previous book, Hesitating Beauty, there is ample text to be read. But here, the role of the text is expanded, with it playing more than merely a supporting role. If you wanted to, you could consider the text blocks as vignettes in more or less the fashion fashion as the photographs.

I think some of the text is a little bit clunky. But in this particular context, in this particular book, that very clunkiness does work — especially given that in many of the pictures the artist doesn’t shy away from visually depicting the garishness of his subject matter, the United States.

This critic is just as caught up in this maelstrom — the imploding superpower — as the artist. In fact, I doubt any critic alive would be able to approach the book in a fully disinterested fashion. And what would be the point of such an approach anyway? What would there be to synthesize? So of course, I’m seeing the symbolism displayed throughout the book, even though my read might be different than that of someone who was born and raised here. And someone born and raised here might be any person, with even the three standard categories (“Democrats”, “Republicans”, “Independents”) failing to properly cover the variety of people living in the country.

Whatever you want to say about the lack of subtleties in the book, the subject matter does ask for it. Or rather, there needed to be a photographer who would go there and who would relentlessly attempt to unmask a vast variety of his home country’s aspects as exercises in utter phoniness.

The point here  is not so much whether any or all of these aspects are indeed phony. They might or they might not be. But if there is one thing that unites all these various constituencies in the United States, it’s their undiminished belief in their own being unique, in their own being able to judge properly. There’s no room for doubt, and it’s that very fact, that absence of doubt, that has contributed to the current crisis.

So if anything Mind the Gap is an attempt to introduce doubt: to take the book with its collapsing house of cards on the cover at face value would hardly be fruitful. The question ought to be “now what?” Whether it will be able to do that, whether in this particular day and age any piece of art is able to make people question their beliefs I’m not sure. It’s a photobook anyway, a niche product in a niche market that is unlikely to be seen by a large number of people. But then, as that gesture, that futile attempt to have people consider what’s going on, it does succeed.

Mind the Gap; photographs and text by Joshua Lutz; 160 pages; Schilt; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.1