TRICKS OF THE LIGHT
Luigi Ghirri’s photographs are simple yet complex, and their elusive magic never palls, writes Teju Cole
Ilook at Luigi Ghirri’s work daily: there’s a postcard reproduction of one of his photographs on my fridge. It depicts four women, turned away from us and towards a mountainous landscape. They could be taking in a vista — the perspective is correct — but the mountains and their intervening lakes have text superimposed on them, and so we realise the women are standing before an image of a landscape, either a poster or a mural. Ghirri took the photograph in Salzburg, Austria, in 1977. I find it reassuring, amusing (that slight stutter in parsing it), simultaneously simple and complex in ways that are difficult to explain.
Ghirri was one of the outstanding photographers of his generation. His work was largely made in Europe, and most of it focused on a small area of northern Italy, the region of Emilia-Romagna, where he was born and where he died, in 1992, of a heart attack at the too-young age of 49.
Today, his work is in a peculiar posthumous phase, both celebrated and elusive. Perhaps no Italian photographer of the 20th century was more influential: there are traces of his gentle, lucid, cerebral style all over contemporary photography. As of a few years ago, I had seen his images in articles and exhibitions, but information about him was hard to come by. I bought several books dedicated to his work that were in Italian, a language I don’t read. An English-language collection, published as It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It ... was in print but scarce.
Ghirri’s pictures are calm and mysterious — just out of reach, like his books. His constellation of favoured themes is distinct: maps, landscapes, windows, still lifes, interiors, fog, the seaside, the objects in artists’ studios, people obscured in some way, and many images that test the divide between the world and an image of the world (murals, miniatures, postcards), often bearing an ironic gleam. You feel that in each picture there’s more than meets the eye, but the feeling remains unresolved.
Ghirri’s work is in full colour, like that of William Eggleston, the American photographer with whom he has the strongest kinship and who admires him greatly. But Ghirri does not share Eggleston’s intense hues, the angry reds and livid greens that Eggleston hunted down in unspectacular everyday subjects. Ghirri’s favoured palette is pale, soothing, often tending towards pastel, as if the images did not wish to speak too loudly or overassert their presence. Contrary to the current trend in art photography, his pictures are printed small, sometimes no bigger than the size of a snapshot. On a gallery wall, even at such modest scale — or because of the scale — they are remarkably effective. In a group show, they stand out like brilliant individual lines of poetry amid the undifferentiated prose of much larger pictures.
The recent publication of Luigi Ghirri: The Complete Essays 1973-1991 (Mack) enriches and complicates our sense of Ghirri’s achievement. Right from the beginning of his career, he wrote frequently and with great intelligence about his own work and the work of other photographers. The Complete Essays comprises 68 texts, most of them brief, in which he presents an allusive, fragmented and recursive account of his photographic philosophy.
Some of his arguments can be abstruse, and rarely does he give interpretations of individual pictures. But at several moments, he produces lines of epigrammatic clarity that echo the lucidity of his photographs. “Every part of the landscape, from the roofs of houses to signs on walls, seems to await recognition via his loving eye.” The sentence, which appears in an essay on Walker Evans, applies very well to Ghirri himself.
The world, as Ghirri sees it, is full of images, and a picture of the world must also contain many images of images. His pictures often seem like fragments of something too complex to assemble into one coherent whole. He writes: “A key element in this work was perhaps the fondness I’ve always had for places and objects that seem to contain everything: encyclopedias, museums, maps.” There is the defamiliarisation of scale that comes with such views. Ghirri compares his vision to that in Gulliver’s Travels or Alice in Wonderland, an imaginative space in which it’s hard to tell what’s very large, or what’s very small.
Curiously, within the dreamlike logic of his pictures, the difference hardly matters. “The world might appear at first through a telescope, and then under a microscope, or perhaps through a set of binoculars that can be used both to magnify and minimise. In some photographs we can make out the building blocks of fables, the supporting framework and the scaffolding which props up this ‘land’; and yet, rather than exposing the tricks or taking away the magic, they contribute to the illusion.”
When we see, in a picture by Ghirri, a railing that spells out the word MARE (“sea”) overlooking the sea, the feeling of being in a fable is intensified, not lessened. The photo contains two islands, one closer to us and seen only in part, the other misty in the far distance. There’s a tiny ship, toylike, just under the R in MARE. The horizon line is indistinct, evanescent. And in the foreground, the railing, where it curves at the M, has been dinged. These little touches, these grace notes, testify to the intensity of Ghirri’s seeing and his love for the muted but multidimensional drama the world contains.
In another photograph we see the printed image of a ship, torn so that the curve of the rip is like a huge wave that the ship peeks over, and we enter a strange little dream: the ripped paper is both a ship and a photo of a ship. Things in Ghirri’s pictures are rarely simply themselves;