New York

Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1972, C-print, 5 1/8 × 7 1/8". From the series “Kodachrome,” 1970–78.

Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1972, C-print, 5 1/8 × 7 1/8". From the series “Kodachrome,” 1970–78.

Luigi Ghirri

Matthew Marks Gallery

Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1972, C-print, 5 1/8 × 7 1/8". From the series “Kodachrome,” 1970–78.

Luigi Ghirri’s photographs of Italy feel like they’ve been developed by the sun. Beautiful women peel off stone walls; the Coca-Cola tomato red that seems to embody an era shows up in signs on a beach and in a shopwindow; a deeply tan man lies on the sand next to a pair of loafers the same color; a bleached-out olive tree grows amid crumbling walls. The sun adds a languid filter; these scenes linger in what Ghirri called photography’s “slowness of vision”—not because they are static (even his still lifes feel transient, part of a road trip), but because they are themselves in the process of turning into photographs.

I was introduced to Ghirri only a few years ago, with an exhibition at Matthew Marks and with Maria Antonella Pelizzari’s feature in this magazine. The cover image for that issue—a mysterious scene in which an older woman dressed in street clothes is walking off the beach, with a child and teenager nearby, in their own reverie—made an appearance in “The Impossible Landscape,” Matthew Marks’s most recent show of Ghirri’s vintage matte C-prints and Cibachromes taken with a 35-mm camera in the 1970s and ’80s. Ghirri is well known in his native Italy, where he worked for more than three decades until his untimely death in 1992. Still, he remains under the radar here. (Someone please mount a Ghirri/William Eggleston exhibition soon.) In fascinating synchronicity, the gallery hung the Ghirri show at the same time it presented an exhibition, just a few blocks north, of Ellsworth Kelly’s never-before-shown photographs. The painter’s stunning black-and-white photos were the winter complement to Ghirri’s summer. The pairing brought out certain elegant understatements within Ghirri’s work, too—the quiet splendor of the ordinary, and a vernacular vision of architecture, shadow, and texture attuned to form and line.

But Ghirri’s images are most invested in the question of distinguishing, as he wrote, “the precise identity of man, things, life, from the image of man, things, and life.” In that pursuit, I think there are two traits that make viewing his work such an extraordinary, and at times uncanny, experience—one in which the pictures become photographs in front of us.

The first is that Ghirri lets symbols become what they represent, a kind of mise en abyme of the semiotic significance of the photograph, which makes an indexical icon of the thing it captures. A book of matches splayed on asphalt, imprinted with a butterfly design, is itself a fallen butterfly; a reflection of shuttered windows in a muddy puddle is also a wet stucco facade upside down; one of three white shirts pinned on a clothesline has a woman’s face printed on it, a proto-photograph hung to dry within the picture.

The second is their collaged reality—their bricoleur’s sense of composition. Any moment is a layer of realities. Most of the exhibition’s images didn’t include actual people, but photographs of people on posters and advertisements—what Ghirri called our “daily encounter” with “surrogates”—and landscapes populated by scaffolded landscape sets, distinctive topiary entwined with architecture, patterned tiles, asphalt, a miniature Italy amusement park. When people did appear, half naked, dotting a beach, or alone in a brown suit in front of an outdoor model of the Colosseum, no one faced the camera. Only the trees posed. Ghirri’s sensitivity to the way we see the world as a series of constructed landscapes allows the disjunction between experience and art to contain a powerful empathy, and so his images are strangely familiar. In Modena, 1972, a supine woman in an advertisement on a wall seems to be tickled by a live, sunlit tree whose branch sweeps over her hand. That overlay of live leaf and printed finger is where the tree turns into an image, too, and where we are touched.

Prudence Peiffer