“Taking photographs is above all restoring a sense of wonder—like observing the world through an adolescent eye—reversing the saying from Ecclesiastes [‘there is nothing new under the sun’], since in fact ‘there is nothing old under the sun.’”
—From There is Nothing Old Under the Sun (2) by Luigi Ghirri, 1988
From the age of 27 right up until his untimely death at the age of 48, Luigi Ghirri was devoted to photography—in the fullest sense of the word. By the end of his first decade of working as a photographer, he had created a vast and unparalleled body of work that documented the changing shape of Europe, caught between old and new. For him, the very act of making a photograph was a means to contemplate the nature of photography itself, its increasing presence in our landscape, considering the irrevocable way it was transforming our society. The Map and The Territory, a retrospective currently on view at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, re-stages an earlier survey of his work held in Parma in 1979 entitled Vera Fotografia, made up of hundreds of photographs taken over the course of the 70s.
Ghirri’s vision of the world unfolds across 14 series that inhabit multiple rooms of the building, forming a labyrinthine map that immerses us in what he called the “great adventure into the world of thought and the gaze” that photography afforded him. The twinning of these two acts were the centre of the Italian photographer’s philosophy (beautifully preserved in his short essays, which are brought together in Luigi Ghirri: The Complete Essays, published by MACK). In face of a world steadily being encroached upon by visual material, where images were beginning to destroy direct experience, Ghirri cultivated a highly sensitive and “active” gaze on his surroundings; not only on the world around him but also on the way we try to construct, delineate and represent it.
Originally trained as a surveyor, Ghirri was no stranger to describing space—a concise vision, attention to detail and a pull towards finding frames and borders within the image played a strong role in shaping his elegant photographic style. But rather than working towards the precise classification and measurement of the landscape, it was the limits of description that this self-described “sentimental geographer” was driven by, and the enigma that lay in their gaps. Indifferent to the decisive moment, Ghirri collected fragments of the everyday world—in colour, of course, because the “real world” was in colour. Together, these photographic shards acted as pieces of a “puzzle,” forming a new alphabet to capture the mutating landscape of 1970s Europe, infiltrated by signs and symbols, pointing to the bigger picture of what was left out of the frame.
Finding kinship in American photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Adams and William Eggleston, Ghirri’s European subjects belonged to the everyday. From his studies in and around his hometown of Modena, to the photographs taken on holidays around the continent, Ghirri came across his subjects in his ordinary field of vision; things that we look at passively on daily basis. In Colazione sull’erba, it is the subtle variations between the preened suburban gardens of his hometown that become his object of attention. With an uncritical eye, he registers the uniformity of these stylings while paying attention to their individual differences. Elsewhere, the marginal corners of the Italian landscape are mapped in Italia Ailati and Vedute. Away from the monumental sights of Italy, the tug between modernity and entrenched traditions, between nature and artifice, between the conflicting ideologies of the time, is tended to in a quiet, reflective and tender manner.
In the series Atlante, made in 1973, Ghirri escapes his close surroundings and makes an impossible journey through a series of atlases. Using a macro lens to zoom in on the oceans, mountains and deserts of its pages, abstracting them from their wider environment. In the atlas, everything the earth has to offer has already been accounted for and represented; every possible odyssey is contained within its maps and charts. All that was left for this new generation of photographers, then, was the idea of “re-discovery”: of travelling within the images and symbols that have morphed into our landscape. Ghirri’s attraction to photographing photography—or the image-world that co-exists as part of our own, and the way we interact with it—shaped a lot of his output.
Cardboard Landscapes, and the bigger body of work it later was submerged into, Kodachrome, observes the images living in our public space, creating micro-stories where pictures evoking faraway places graft themselves onto local scenes. A preoccupation with the physicality of these layers of images—how they are born, multiply, travel and age—is present too. Some images bear the tired scars of living outdoors on a billboard; others are shiny and new, waiting in their shop carousel to be purchased, inscribed, enveloped and transformed into a shared memory. Though few people are present in the Italian photographer’s muted frames, the human activity that shapes photography is everywhere. A nod to the golden rule extolled by amateur photography groups, f/11, 1/125, Natural Light pictures fellow observers from the back, causing us to imagine what their own images of the viewpoints they are gazing upon might look like.
While the photographer saw the everyday as brimming with overlapping fictions and truths, the interplay between illusion and reality was most stark in places where make-believe reigns. Ghirri was drawn to tourist and leisure sites where features of our world are replicated. In Scala takes us on a voyage through an amusement park in Rimini that he described as a “three-dimensional atlas.” A world of deceptive scale and simulations, nothing is quite as it seems, each image drawing us in for closer inspection. The sum of Ghirri’s 14 series presents a paper version of our world, both meticulously described (and in colour, just like our own) and yet somehow elusive, gesturing to an infinite mass located outside of the frame. Engaging in a gentle war with what he called the “senseless gaze”—an apt prognosis for our own age of distraction—his attentive approach is one to pay heed to in the flood of images that have come to define our day and age.
Editor’s Note: The Map and The Territory is currently on view at the Jeu de Paume in Paris until the 2nd of June 2019.