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Luigi Ghirri and the Indefinable

Aperture is deeply saddened by the loss of the Italian art historian Germano Celant (1940–2020). Here, we revisit an excerpt from Celant’s introduction to Luigi Ghirri’s 2008 Aperture monograph.

Relating real copies of urban landscapes to real human beings, Ghirri’s photographs always produced an element of surprise.

By Germano Celant

Luigi Ghirri, Lucerne, 1971–72, from Paesaggi di cartone (Cardboard Landscapes)
Courtesy the Estate of Luigi Ghirri

Photography expanded in the 1960s, as photographers sought to imbue it with philosophical meaning, underscoring its connection to the worlds of thought and existential experience. It was to be considered not a secondary, incidental medium, with an almost parasitical relationship to reality, as many still then thought, but an affirmation of interrogative vision and of the principle of bearing visual witness. The camera could record countless phenomena, could produce a potentially infinite flow of images, yet the artist who reflected on the meaning of making photographs could compose them out of elements that might be disparate but were nevertheless ultimately unified. Pleasure or censure, conscious awareness or unconscious impulse, might inform the images that reflected his or her perspective on the world; the realism and naturalism that had come to dominate the understanding of the medium gave way to an interpretation of the photograph as an evaluation or assessment of reality rather than a description of it. The objectification of a perception that moved between the living and the material, the organic and the historical, the animate and the inanimate, the photograph was intellectual in intention, the result of an action that was mental and emotional yet was fused with an appreciation of reality. Even as one was allowed access to something presented as external and objectified, one’s attention was transported elsewhere.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985, from Paesaggio Italiano (Italian Landscape)
Courtesy the Estate of Luigi Ghirri

“Artist” photographers from Ugo Mulas to Duane Michals made this transition from work that was documentary, and often took advantage of accident, to an understanding of the photograph as involving an intentional meaning of their own making. Their approaches relied not just on cropping and montage, or on the duration of a sequence of images over time—this is still a simplification—but on the intrinsic, logical value of the experience of seeing. Here was an alternative to the idea of the photographic document as indifferent and neutral; instead it was an act of the imagination, something with an autonomy like that of language, analyzing the continuity of language and contributing to an emerging understanding of the representational surface. From Giulio Paolini to Ed Ruscha, photography was transformed from a practical pursuit into a study of the linguistic devices involved in the construction of the image. It took possession of itself, becoming a vital philosophical elaboration, less an attempt to record reality than the product of a free activity of the mind. Photographic images are “unreal” in that they are “imaginary.” As “unreal” syntheses, they subtend an “elsewhere” that exists only in the eye of the photographer, and of the viewer who observes the photograph, scrutinizes it, analyzes it, interprets it. The experience of making photographs consequently implies a detachment, a suspension, in the confrontation with reality, in favor of an increasing absorption in the photographic process—a subversion of fact in favor of feelings and thoughts that “speak” through the language of images. The photographer moves away from the habits and customs of photographic convention and engages instead in the creation or visualization of a social and cultural communication involving pictorial display. This makes available a concept of space and time, of life and idea, that is interwoven with the persona of the artist/photographer, so that existence and technique enter into an essential relationship.

Luigi Ghirri, Rome, 1979, from Diaframma
Courtesy the Estate of Luigi Ghirri

In the early 1970s, then, photography asserted its autonomy. Surrendering its naturalistic function as a reproducer of facts, insisting on a relationship with reality that was less mimetic than creative, it transformed itself into an “apparition” that put inner aspects of a situation on view, a mirror that “made” details of the world and brought them to attention, that echoed reality yet revealed in it something unknown. Since photography documented preexisting conditions in the world, it could not be wholly new or invented, but it extended the real into the unreal, the true into the false, the original into the simulation. Indeed, photography exists at the threshold between these polarities, for it counterposes perception and “vision”—a vision made up of dreams, impulses, illusions, hallucinations. It brings to the surface events that are personal and therefore unreal, since they are not shared by others, and it makes them real—in fact puts the real and the unreal on the same level, and defines their relationship as the communicative process. Whether printed on light-sensitized paper or projected with a movie or TV screen, it makes visible an inaccessible reality with which we desperately seek to fix some parameters of certainty. But since the camera can produce an infinite flow of images, that certainty wavers, and the distinction between illusion and non-illusion remains undefined; we can only communicate.

Luigi Ghirri, Capri, 1981, from Paesaggio Italiano (Italian Landscape)
Courtesy the Estate of Luigi Ghirri

This is what Luigi Ghirri began to attempt in 1970. He had lived through the “desubjectification” of photography in the era of Process art and Conceptual art—the liberation of the photographic image from its aestheticisms and heroisms—and had seen there a danger of nullification. So he threw himself into affirming the grandeur and power of photographic language as a territory in which extremes—of the conscious and the unconscious, the real and the unreal, the physical and the metaphysical—could be maintained and preserved. Surfaces sensitive equally to lived experience and the linguistic nature of human perception, his pictures both stimulate and question the differences between true and false. A collector of surveys or maps that describe being and nonbeing within a single image, he produced a photography of both action and thought, rooted in history and the past but with its origin in the present, locating something there that occurs only within its frame, while the world flows by.

To continue reading, buy It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It… Photographs by Luigi Ghirri, edited by Melissa Harris and Paola Ghirri, and originally published by Aperture in 2008.

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