Luigi Ghirri

Monday, July 28, 2008

For many years, a card of this photograph of Versailles taken in 1985 by Luigi Ghirri has been pinned up above my desk. I love the scale, the color, the formality, and the relationship to painting. It also looks like it would be a large Gursky size print but in reality the original is snapshot size, which adds to the intrigue.

Luigi Ghirri was born in 1943 and died in 1992, at the age of 49. During his short life he revolutionized Italian, if not European photography, but for a number of reasons he is barely known in the States. However, all this should change now that Aperture have published the first American monograph of his work titled “It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It …”.

An early colorist and a prolific writer, Ghirri’s snap-shot style observations blended conceptualism, surrealism, and topography. His favorite subjects included constructed collage-like still lives, storefronts, and interiors. One of his favorite photographers was William Eggleston and with brilliant initiative, Aperture editor Melissa Harris managed to corral the notoriously word-shy photographer into selecting and commenting on some of his favorite Ghirri pictures. It’s a fascinating insight into both men. Courtesy of Aperture, here are excerpts of the interview accompanied by the photographs under discussion.

Paris (1972)

I happen to like pictures of the rear-view of someone’s head. (My fondness for rear-views of heads culminates in my admiration for Gerhard Richter’s 1988 painting “Betty”.) I made one myself, in Los Alamos, around the same time as Ghirri’s.

Modena (1973)

In general, I ike Ghirri’s use of color and the fact that the work feels empathetic. There is also a sense of place in his photographs, yet they are not a bit regionalistic. Sometimes his work is extremely painterly – the landscape "Modena (1973)" is quite beautiful. The shades of green, from that austere wedge to the fuzzier, yellow tinted grass and shrubs, and then that circular chunk of yellow. Beautiful. I like everything about it. I like the play among reality and mystery, the constructed. Everybody thinks this is new, but Ghirri was doing it more than thirty years ago. And the photograph of maps, such as another titled "Modena", also from 1973, are so simple but exactly right.

Modena (1973)

Lido di Spina (1978)

I keep returning to the word “surprise” with Ghirri’s work. "Lido di Spina (1978)" feels much more surreal and is very unexpected – but he’s still playing with you, and I like that.

Modena (1978)

Trani (1982)

Amsterdam (1980)

"Modena (1978)" is an image I would never make. It’s quite elegant; it reminds me of Irving Penn’s work which I love. "Trani (1982)" is another very elegant picture. And look at "Amsterdam (1980)" just about everything is interesting about this work … the strange plant (I guess it’s a plant) juxtaposed with the Sphinx and the pyramid and more clouds. I’ve always liked the idea of collage.

Near Lagosanto, Ferrara (1989)

I am extremely drawn to the minimal and more sublime aspects of Ghirri’s work, as well as those images that are more confounding – those in which you don’t know exactly what you are looking at, in which he is gently teasing the viewer about what is real and what is not like "Near Lagosanto, Ferrara (1989)". In fact I might just have to copy that one: “Have you seen my Ghirri?”

There’s a lot Ghirri did that I don’t do, and that I probably won’t do – but I’m sure glad he did it!

As I was writing this I realized I did not know what reference the title was making so I e-mailed Melissa Harris and got this reply which is too good not to share:

Dear James,
No reference in the text at all, but here goes...

I was trying to think of a title for the book which would be more interesting than the typical: "Luigi Ghirri: photographs of Italy" or something.

I was sitting at the Empire Diner one morning for breakfast and started thinking about Antonioni's "The Passenger" which I had seen at BAM a few nights earlier (such an extraordinary film -- I had never seen it before) and kept recalling the line that is exchanged 3 times with the Jack Nicholson character--which is something like, "It's beautiful here isn't it" -- sometimes a question, sometimes an observation.... It suddenly occurred to me that this could be a perfect title for the book, albeit odd. My mind was in some mixture of Antonioni and Ghirri land as I left the diner, thinking that maybe, finally, I had a title and saying it over and over in my head (i hope) while picturing Ghirri's images -- and I walked smack into a sandwich board -- it was for NY magazine (i think it was NY magazine) featuring Jack Nicholson on the cover (some new movie he was in)! Of course, I took it as a sign! So, I ran the title by Lesley, Andrea, and Kristian and they loved it, as did Yo (Yolanda Cuomo-- book designer) -- and then I asked Paola Ghirri about it and she adored it. So--that's that! Hope this helps

Best to you,


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