Luigi Ghirri’s pho­to­graphs are sim­ple yet com­plex, and their elu­sive magic never palls, writes Teju Cole

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

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;

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