An exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris traces a prolific decade in the work of the Italian photographer. A pioneer of color photography, Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992) was able to turn photography into an instrument for better capturing “earth writing” and the “architecture of the ephemeral.”
Luigi Ghirri was 27 when he began his career as a photographer in 1970. He had been working for ten years as a surveyor in the Reggio Emilia area in Italy; this professional training can be felt in his early photos, and it continued to assert itself throughout the seventies. This was a decade of high productivity for the artist, as shown in the wonderful exhibition currently on view at the Jeu de Paume. From the outset we are plunged into the photographer’s conceptual universe: there is a balance between the drive to capture a new portrait of the individual and the desire to reveal the simulacrum that our environment has become in the age of consumerism. The first photographs we encounter, elegantly framed with ample borders, directly address these two tendencies. On the one hand, Luigi Ghirri photographs passersby. Whether in Amsterdam, Zurich, or Paris, he captures the elderly plodding along through the street or Sunday strollers loafing in the park: the camera is always distant, which makes it impossible to identify the individuals, making them blend into the world around them. On the other hand, Ghirri immortalizes the surfaces at hand: walls, storefronts, and building façades—all contained in colorful tableaus that play with the boundary between nature and culture.
It is that boundary that, early in his career, made him interested in posters plastered all over the streets in Italy: models beaming with feigned joy, supermarket products flaunted for their qualities, garish billboards painted in bold colors…. The photographer tracks down images of daily life that inhabit public space, and conveys their full aesthetic and political dimensions: aesthetic, because they form astounding swaths of color, reflective of a diffuse dream of security and comfort; and political, because they speak to a social project based on mass consumption and the cult of the market—which is sometimes turned into irony, as in the photograph of deflated bicycle tubes hung next to a billboard advertising tires taken in Modena in 1970, or in the 1976 shot of postcards in Bastia, each representing a sunset. Luigi Ghirri goes beyond gentle humor that elicits a smile, and delves deep into the practices and customs of the European society of the time. In Venice as in Paris, he photographs tourists having their portraits taken in front of landmarks, and he questions the act of photographing as such in an avant-garde mise-en-abîme. Further on, he scours a fairground in Modena, examines dioramas in Strasbourg, and visits the “Italy in Miniature” theme park in Rimini, where he sheds light on the porous boundaries between man-made environments and the natural landscape.
The question of how humans appropriate nature and reshape it in their own fashion is at the very heart of the approach of this surveyor-turned-poet of our habitat. Oftentimes, Luigi Ghirri notes the absurdity of certain types of architecture as well as their ephemeral character: the deserted benches by the seaside or the towels spread on the lawn for human bodies to stretch out upon. At the beach, the photographer immortalizes a folded umbrella or a swing set without children… Poetry of emptiness, an epic of the trace: the artist demonstrates his capacity for observing the invisible and foregrounding the human dwelling. He is very attentive, for example, to the signs of urban life inscribed in the territory: traffic lights, pavement markings on the road… This is vernacular photography in the vein of Walker Evans.
Luigi Ghirri is also fond of daydreams and woolgathering. His cartography is able to map oneiric landscapes accessible to anyone who experiences wanderlust. Ghirri’s series Infinity is a case in point. The photographer documented the sky through no less than 365 images of the firmament populated by clouds and sometimes a passing airplane. The series Atlante has a similar quality. In 1973, Luigi Ghirri photographed the pages of an atlas, letting our imagination conjure up an island lost in the Pacific or a geographic coordinate… “It seems to me that the only journey possible today is through signs, through images,” Luigi Ghirri used to say.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Luigi Ghirri "Cartes et territoires"
From February 12 to June 2, 2019
Jeu de Paume, 1 Place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris