A Painter Reconsiders the Photographs of Luigi Ghirri

For Matt Connors, who recently curated an exhibition from the Italian artist’s archive, Ghirri’s photographs are built rather than composed—things rather than images.

Luigi Ghirri, Fenis, 1991, from the series Paesaggio italiano

Before Luigi Ghirri turned to photography, he worked as a land surveyor, an occupation that fostered a way of seeing. Typically taken from a frontal vantage point, his photographs describe the surfaces of what’s before the camera with what at first feels like directness, but upon closer inspection is more akin to a visual puzzle. (He once described his work as a “fresco for our time.”) And with their layers of visual detritus, found image fragments of advertisements and signage, his images speak to their moment while sometimes feeling anachronistic.

Last fall, Matt Connors, a contemporary painter, curated a Ghirri exhibition for Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, titled The Idea of Building. The show argued that Ghirri’s photography grappled with principles of painting. “To me, as a painter,” Connors notes, “the photographs of Luigi Ghirri are built rather than composed, things rather than images.” Connors is now continuing his engagement with the late Italian photographer and, through his own publishing imprint, plans to release a related book this spring.

A relationship between the two artists is visible in how Connors builds layers of color and plays with form on the surface of his vibrant abstract paintings. While there is no obvious illusionistic space in his work, there is a gesture to something outside the painting. “I do feel like I am creating and referencing very real physical and aesthetic presences,” he once remarked. That instinct, perhaps, is what draws him to photography, and to the work of Ghirri, who viewed reality as abstraction, as photomontage, as something to be deciphered in imagistic terms.

Luigi Ghirri, Teatro Valli, Reggio Emilia, 1986
Luigi Ghirri, Teatro Valli, Reggio Emilia, 1986, from the series Paesaggio italiano

Michael Famighetti: The installation for The Idea of Building was quite beautiful and worked so well in the Matthew Marks Gallery space, which has the feel of a modest chapel. How did this project come to be?

Matt Connors: I have been a Ghirri fan for a long time, and a conversation developed with the gallery about me curating a show. The first time they showed Ghirri was in a Thomas Demand–curated show, so I think they were interested in me to see what would happen, because I wasn’t a photographer, but was someone invested in his work. 

Famighetti: Did you work closely with the Ghirri estate on the selection?

Connors: I went to Italy to the archive to meet with Adele, his daughter. Before that, I was buying every Ghirri book. I was freaked out because of how admired and loved he is in the photography world, and I felt acutely aware that I was not a photographer. But I kept digging in on my personal research and wrote a minithesis to send to Adele. And then I went in January 2020, one of my last trips before the COVID-19 pandemic. The archive is in what was once Ghirri’s house; it was an absolute fantasy. 

Luigi Ghirri, Studio Aldo Rossi, Milano, 1989–90
Luigi Ghirri, Studio Aldo Rossi, Milano, 1989–90, from the series Studio Aldo Rossi

Famighetti: What vision of Ghirri did you present to the estate?

Connors: The process of choosing a Ghirri photograph is kind of like a psychological intake, because there is so much, many different bodies of work; it involves confessing what you like.

After looking at many images, I started to dig out a vision of him as a painter. It sounds self-serving, but because I’m making paintings all day, putting color together materially, I started to see that parallel so clearly in his work.

In the book Project Prints (2012), which is about how he would make contact prints and cut them out and make little maquettes to play with, you can see that the materiality of his approach was key. He was obsessed with building, actually building things—like making tables, folders, and containers—and that just seemed so present in the work. That became the paradigm. I think his entry into art-making via the drawing that was part of his cartography and surveying work set the stage for him to use photography in a more tactile, painterly, material way.

Famighetti: Ghirri was also a prolific author of concise reflections on photography, and he wrote about how he didn’t take pictures, or compose pictures, but rather saw himself as creating things from images—your building angle seems to naturally emerge from his thinking.

Connors: Yes, and there was a nervousness that the title—The Idea of Building—would read as if the show was about architecture. (I had just seen a show that was all about his photographs connected to architecture.) But I did use a few photos he took of Aldo Rossi’s studio, and there are a few others included that are focused on architectural frameworks. He would go back and then make photographs based on his surveying work. Architecture is embedded in how he sees. 

Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1970
Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1970, from the series Fotografie del periodo iniziale

Famighetti: You present a wide range of images—fragments of advertising, images that imply sound, mise en abyme, and so on—to communicate this idea of picture-building. And the inclusion of the ephemera and photo-related objects in the vitrines anchored your ideas, especially the wonderful instructional diagrams for making pictures, Prime pitture.

Connors: There was something else that I wanted to bring to New York, but it wasn’t possible. In the hallway to one of his studio rooms, flanking the door, is a children’s instructional poster. On one side, it tells you how to make a painting, and on the other side is this insane poster about making a photograph. They are hung directly opposite each other and are kind of in the style of the Prime pitture book that I included in the vitrine. 

Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1978
Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1978, from the series Il paese dei balocchi

Famighetti: The Prime pitture book functions, in a way, as the key to your show, a guide to building a picture. Was that an object that you also discovered in the archive? 

Connors: We were just having this playtime in the archive. As an idea would come up, Adele would run into the other room and find something, like the original drawing for the book Kodachrome (1978), made by Ghirri’s widow. We kept finding threads that connected back to each other as we used this idea of building as a prism.

Famighetti: I can understand your anxiety in doing this show, because Ghirri is so beloved. But even though his work has been the focus of some excellent publishing in recent years, he’s strangely still a bit under the radar in the States, at least at the institutional level, which is curious, considering that there’s such a close relationship between his work and the history of photography in the U.S. Walker Evans was critically important to Ghirri, and the connection to American color photographers of the 1970s is self-evident.

Connors: When you get so deep into this, you think everyone is a major fan, but then you take a step back and realize how undervalued he actually is. I was a huge Stephen Shore and Eggleston fan, but I’d never heard of Ghirri until pretty late. The 2012 reissue of Kodachrome, the Matthew Marks show in 2010, and an Artforum cover in 2013—those three things made a critical mass for people discovering him at that point, but that’s pretty late. MoMA just published a book, a facsimile of a handmade book that Ghirri gave to John Szarkowski in 1975. That could have come with a show!

Luigi Ghirri, Studio Aldo Rossi, Milano 1989–90
Luigi Ghirri, Studio Aldo Rossi, Milano, 1989–90, from the series Studio Aldo Rossi

Famighetti: I’d also add that Aperture published a monograph and produced an exhibition in 2008, It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It…, which included some of the first English-language translations of his writings. In his texts, he speaks of his work in categories, such as the suburban home and other typologies. Did you feel like you needed to honor those, or break away from them?

Connors: I’m a little itchy with how he can be presented as nostalgic. I think that is shortsighted and not true, and just has to do with his use of color as seen today. In doing research, I began to understand how much he was associated with the Conceptual art that was emerging at that time, and I really wanted to bring him away from a strictly melancholy or sentimental view. But I really didn’t pay too much attention to the categories, because in the end, they are really porous. I think one of things he liked about making categories was not respecting them all the time. Maybe the attraction to Conceptual art could have been its efforts to ignore or redefine traditions of art-making and art objects themselves.

Luigi Ghirri, Maranello, Ferrari Automobili 1985–88
Luigi Ghirri, Maranello, Ferrari Automobili, 1985–88

Famighetti: Right, and you even include some of his commercial work, like this image of the Ferrari factory.

Connors: There had just been a photo fair in Bologna, and someone had done a show about Ghirri’s commercial work, which was for Ferrari, Bulgari, and a tile company. Because of that, those pictures were out in the studio when I was there. They had just been returned, and that one so pictorially linked up with what I wanted to do. That just came as a gift. It was just there.

Famighetti: That picture was positioned near this fantastic image of an all-seeing eye, a painted sign. What was your approach to the installation? 

Connors: I was working in the way I’d install a painting show. It’s very musical, poetic, associational. 

Luigi Ghirri, Lucerna 1971
Luigi Ghirri, Lucerna, 1971, from the series Fotografie del periodo iniziale
All images © the Estate of Luigi Ghirri and courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Famighetti: Do you feel a kinship between your paintings and his photographs? 

Connors: I’m a painter that looks at nonpainting a lot. For me, the context of painting extends much further than painting, and that’s not often appreciated. I don’t take photos, but I use photo in my work, and I collect photography and photobooks. It’s a big influence on me, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain how exactly, and I like that difficulty. 

Famighetti: It’s interesting what you said about the sentimental read of his work. To me, the images are often depictions of these nonspaces, peripheral zones, the kind of landscape you might see in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Red Desert (1964), made a little earlier than Ghirri’s photos.

Connors: Yes, that all lives in the work. If you search the Instagram hashtag for Ghirri, you’ll see that lots of Italians hashtag their own photos “Luigi Ghirri.” It’s a descriptor. It’s really funny. I imagine that, in general, Instagram must be a serious bête noire for photographers, but I also found that interesting in a way.

Maybe the sort of “nonspaces” that Ghirri and Antonioni were finding and even making are not so “non” anymore, as the percentage of people with access to cameras has exponentially increased, and very few corners of the world or human experience are undocumented. Maybe people are actually sentimental for that, when they find what seems to be in-between spaces, or experiences, in their regular lives.

Luigi Ghirri: The Idea of Building was on view at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, from October 22 – December 19, 2020. An online version of the exhibition is available at matthewmarks.com.