It all began in Cesena. Wedged between national route E45 and the fertile plains along the Adriatic shore, this city is just one hour by train from Bologna. In the morning, it is swaddled in thick fog which makes it look like Irish countryside. Once the fog lifts, the city bares its many faces and shapes. Amid sprawling urban architecture, there is an elegant fifteenth-century library, a working-class canteen, a sports center, and even a family farm… At the end of an apple-tree-lined alley, we find a modest low cottage—Guido Guidi’s home.
This is where, for nearly forty years, he has been collecting his photographs, meticulously filing them into boxes organized according to date and place. The boxes are casually stacked next to a book on the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, a first edition of the American photographer Walker Evans, and a family album. The walls are bare, except for innumerable notes in pencil, which are both discreet and enigmatic: a veritable codex spread out in plain sight. In the corner of the room, wrapped in warm fleece, glisten the keen, lively eyes of Guido Guidi. And this is where the journey begins.
This vast photographic enterprise on Veneto was launched in 1984 as part of scientific research into the character of the new Italian landscape. In the early 1970s, this formerly poor, rural region experienced unparalleled economic growth. While many companies decided to build new plants in the region, seaside towns staked their livelihood on budding tourism. These rapid changes led to unchecked, senseless urban sprawl: endless housing developments, resorts, a road network, and Kafkaesque infrastructure. The once-rural, agricultural Veneto gave way to a new kind of urban planning.
While his contemporary, the photographer Luigi Ghirri, sought to capture the traces of a bygone era, Guido Guidi deployed his observation skills to portray a world that was rapidly transforming right before his eyes. Trying to record the imperceptible changes taking place in every corner of a region he knew intimately meant accepting the impossible challenge of portraying himself in the process of aging: skin that begins to sag ever so slightly; wrinkles that grow deeper; and eyes that grow dimmer. This is what he soberly calls “the in-between.”
The book opens with a piercing blue eye staring at us from a poster pasted onto an abandoned storefront, and which seems to be inviting us to look. Look at what precisely? A car parked in a parking lot; the door of a residential building; a man painting a post; a mannequin on display; a rusty shop sign; laundry hanging on a clothes line; the back of a house… — little details gone unnoticed by careless passersby. Guidi snatches these insignificant, fleeting moments typical of the quiet life of a mid-sized town. “Nothing is without importance; everything is worthy of attention,” concludes the photographer in his interview for Aperture. Rather than Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment—a crucial moment the photographer strives to capture to obtain an exceptional image—Guidi prefers the margins of an eventless territory with no history.
Where there seems to be nothing to attract the eye, the photographer knows that perception, thus thrown into confusion, will start searching for something to look at. Gradually, one begins to see: the vivid red of an iron guardrail, the bright blue of a pair of pants; the shadow cast by a bell tower. Guidi shows not only the urban expansion in this northeastern region known to geographers as Third Italy, but also the wealth of quiet, inexorable life.
Why are these images so spellbinding? Is it the beauty of the setting, seemingly so austere and impersonal? Most of all, it’s the sense of the composition. Guido Guidi uses a view camera—Deardorff 8×10. This type of camera demands a long attention span. Framing must be well thought out and meticulously composed. As Guidi puts it, “photography is above all about attentiveness.” In other words, it’s observation, understanding the reality around us. It’s an art that harks back to the early days of photography, to the camera obscura used by Renaissance painters to reproduce perspective. It is a curious coincidence that the word perspective derives from perspectus, meaning to look attentively.
Representing the world in perspective involves reproducing three-dimensional spaces on a two-dimensional surface. For Italian Renaissance painters, this was more than an artistic challenge; it was a whole philosophy, since perspective gave us a more faithful representation of reality. It meant an improved understanding of the world. Guidi’s photographs are like those Renaissance paintings: by drawing our attention to things we would not normally care to look at, he offers us knowledge of a region removed from the limelight—his own territory.
Therein lies the genius of Guidi’s photography: in his ability to make us see differently, take the time to look, pay heed to what is right under our noses, and try to understand the world. He calls it the “insistence of the gaze.”
It’s five in the afternoon and it’s already growing darker. We leave Guido Guidi’s studio with renewed vision. Suddenly, the workers’ canteen passed along the way seems as charming as the fifteenth-century library. One thing is certain: we will never look at Italy in quite the same way.
By Coline Olsina
64 pages, $45