Reggio Emilia

Luigi Ghirri

Chiostri di San Domenico / Palazzo Magnani

Luigi Ghirri, who died unexpectedly in 1992 when he was not yet fifty, occupied a very visible place in the world of photography during his lifetime. The two exhibitions devoted to him by his native province, Reggio Emilia, gathered more than 700 of his images and not only gave well-deserved homage to an exceptional photographer but spectacularly highlighted the change in the status of photography since the '70s and '80s, the decades during which his work developed.

Ghirri's photographs may at first seem extraordinarily contemporary or exquisitely dated, depending on which of his multiple facets one is considering. A number of the early images express relationships to the object that might remind us of a form of Pop Art toned down by often delicate, even tender colors. This is the case, for example, with the vermilion hat, white rubber boots, and various piece of clothing photographed in 1972 in a number of images, all entitled Lucerna. The works that take postcards as their model or play with the repetitiveness of advertising images on billboards, as in the “Modena” series of 1973, mine a similar vein.

On the other hand, from 1973 on, as his Amsterdam photographs magnificently prove, Ghirri sometimes adopted themes—the museum and its visitors, for example and a cold aesthetic that might make it seem as if the pictures had been produced very recently by a photographer under the influence of Thomas Struth. Similarly, certain captivating views of landscapes, such as Rifugio Grostè,1984, or of monuments, as in the “Versailles” series, the results of a commission received by Ghirri in 1985, show a photographer who clearly anticipates the pictorialism of recent works by Andreas Gursky and today's digital processing of photographs, equivalents for which, at the time, could only be obtained through manipulation of the printing process.

The difference is that most of the contemporary photographers whom Ghirri seems to have prefigured aim for the status of artist rather than photographer. Thus they dramatically—and ceaselessly increase—the size of their prints, while often drastically limiting the number of shots they exhibit. Seen and seen again, these few spectacular images end up becoming emblems. Compared to those massive machines, even the largest of Ghirri's prints remains quite modest in size. And, above all, Ghirri—thinking of himself as a photographer more than an artist—had no qualms about letting his images proliferate. This attitude was engendered not only by the nature of the medium as it was generally understood at the time, but especially by the insatiable appetite of his gaze and even more by its idiosyncrasy. Rather than the dimensions of nineteenth-century history painting or the more or less calculated rarity that now seems to define the status of the new photography, isn't it this singularity of the gaze that is likely to lead to a truly artistic vision of the world, especially when, as in Ghirri's case, it remains discernible whatever the subject may be, a service station or a seascape?

Daniel Soutif

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.