PRINT April 2017


the collected essays of Luigi Ghirri

Luigi Ghirri, Tellaro, 1980, C-print, 9 7/8 × 15". From the series “Topographie-Iconographie,” 1978–81. © Estate of Luigi Ghirri.

The Complete Essays 1973–1991, by Luigi Ghirri; edited by Michael Mack and Izabella Scott; translated by Ben Bazalgette and Marguerite Shore. London: MACK, 2016. 239 pages.

IS IT PARADOXICAL for a photographer to resent modernity? Perhaps, and yet the late Italian marvel Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992) sometimes did, or so he implied. In a newspaper column from 1989, he recounts one of his frequent driving excursions in Emilia-Romagna, a region thick with the then rapidly industrializing rural vistas that populate many of his images. He ruminates on the high-tension wires threading the roads between the quiet towns, wondering “what we’re supposed to do with all this electricity,” which seems to him extravagant. His impression of technological surfeit is confirmed that evening, when he attends a Prince concert in a local stadium festooned with spotlights, a flash-filled, “miserable” spectacle that torments him. Ghirri rails against the event’s energy consumption and the corresponding despoliation of the countryside—the hum of the voltage, the pollution of the rivers, and, above all, the fact that “when you take photographs, the poles and wires always ruin your framing.” If this litany makes Ghirri seem insufferably prim, the posture collapses with his final complaint, for some of his most celebrated pictures highlight precisely that electrified world. The inaugural photograph of his 1978 book, Kodachrome, depicts eight parallel wires stretched across a cloud-strewn sky, perfectly characterized by the opening sentence of his article written more than a decade later: “The cables look like the lines of a sheet of music without notes.”

Despite his hostility to the “horror of the modern,” Ghirri actually sought to tackle the “challenge of the contemporary, of representing the present moment,” a stance he admired in American photographers (Eggleston, Evans) and in Neorealist filmmakers (Antonioni, Fellini). Human-altered landscapes—ring roads, agricultural trenches, oceanfront playgrounds—were among the artist’s chief subjects, those unsightly sites kept out of frame in the Touring Club–guide photos that constituted a visual primer for many Italians of Ghirri’s generation. He also fixated on what he termed the image world’s endless “chain of reproduction,” photographing book pages, peeling billboards, souvenir posters with gilded frames tucked into cardboard corners. Through his lens, the distinctive silhouettes of cypress trees, pervasive in quattrocento paintings, attend a deserted gas station; a still life of cigarettes stubbed out in an ashtray printed with Michelangelo’s David rebukes native kitsch. Ghirri liked to take short trips from home to shoot on Sundays, a day of leisure when “more photos are taken . . . than on any other day of the week,” as he noted in 1979, at a moment when color photography had reached full saturation in the amateur market and permeated fine-art institutions at last. His own use of color did not solely reference the vernacular; though he named a book after Kodak’s high-chroma transparency stock, he later admitted to preferring the mellower hues of negative film, and Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico echo in his sun-faded pinks and blues and his fondness for a central vanishing point. What impelled Ghirri to compose the timely and the timeless, the mythical and the mundane, in such startling counterpoint?

The artist’s extensive writings suggest one possible answer: a touch of ire. Originally compiled posthumously in 1997 under the title Niente di antico sotto il sole: Scritti e immagini per un’autobiografia (Nothing Old Under the Sun: Writings and Images for an Autobiography), his catalogue texts, reviews, course descriptions, and lectures bristle with resistance to what he repeatedly calls the widespread “anaesthesia of the gaze.” Looking, he argues, has become mechanical due to the proliferation of representations in contemporary life, that palimpsest of all previous images that dulls direct experience like a “gossamer-thin sheet of film between us and [what] we observe.” In decorous prose, he elaborates the idea with an abecedary of literary quotations (Borges, Calvino, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Pessoa, et al.) and striking analogies of his present moment: The camera often acts like King Midas, transforming reality into a glittering but inert commodity; today’s nonstop image production is a confetti-strewn Mardi Gras in which “everything is cut to pieces, chopped up and pulverized into a smooth pap of paper or celluloid.” In short, Ghirri disdained much of the postmodern image world as a “monologue between mirrors,” and most eyes as suffering from acedia induced by boundless cliché.

And yet people and things, he writes, are “waiting for someone to look at them, to recognize them without contempt, without relegating them to the shelves of the endless supermarket of the outside world.” With accelerating globalization homogenizing the municipalities around him to appear “as if they were anywhere in the Western world,” Ghirri’s essays oscillate between censure and sympathy for modernity’s serried emporium, this “bewildered Babel” in which he yet finds cause for awe: A cement factory “could be a medieval castle,” service stations are “luminous islands.” Ghirri wrote as a bit of a scold, but he always saw—and therefore photographed—with affection, and frequently with deadpan wit. His humor surfaces periodically in interviews, included in the original compilation but omitted in this volume: In one exchange on photographic technique, when asked what equipment he would bring on a trip to the mountains, he quips, “Headphones that play music, so I can’t hear the guide.” Ghirri hoped that all of us might learn to perceive the world unaccompanied by received ideas, as a set of staves awaiting a new arrangement of harmony.

Claire Lehmann is an artist and writer living in New York. She is a coauthor of Artists Who Make Books, forthcoming from Phaidon/PPP.

Read Maria Antonella Pelizzari’s feature on Ghirri, introducing a portfolio of his work (April 2013), and Prudence Peiffer’s review of a recent show in New York (June 2016).