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)

Ratings explained here.