The Legacy of Luigi Ghirri

By Marina SPUNTA


Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) is widely recognized in Italy (and, increasingly, abroad) as a leading photographer who since the 1970s gave a new impetus to Italian photography and a new aesthetic identity to everyday places, while contributing to founding an ‘Italian school of (landscape) photography’. His photographs (all in color) strike the viewer for their apparent naturalness and simplicity and for being carefully constructed through classic composition (he shunned the use of zooms, filters or lenses); they focus on everyday objects, as if seen for the first time, seek to de-familiarize the gaze and reflect on the nature of representations; they explore nondescript, empty landscapes, as dream-like, vanishing places, raising questions about our sense of belonging and about the role and function of photography in contemporaneity.

Drawing on many different influences, from Italian Renaissance and 17th-century Dutch painting, to Surrealist and Pop art, from American Modernist photography to Neorealist cinema, from literature to music (from Beethoven to Bob Dylan), Ghirri’s multifaceted work reflects on the role of individual experience in a world increasingly dominated by the media, where the human being is no longer the measure for making sense of the exterior (and indeed is often absent), and within a highly codified visual culture, such as Italian culture, dominated by an overpowering historical heritage and art history tradition. While drawing on this very tradition, as emerges in the recurrence of central perspectives, of frames and windows that delimit the view, Ghirri sought to establish a space for photography as a means of seeing things anew, thus as a way of reflecting on, and challenging one’s preconceived ways of seeing. Ultimately, he thought of photography as a way of ‘thinking through images’, of relating to the world, and of finding a magical balance of opposites, between one’s interiority or aesthetics and what lies ‘out there’.

Viewing and writing Italian landscape. Luigi Ghirri and his legacy in photography and literature is a two-year, interdisciplinary research project funded by the British-Academy, and coordinated by Jacopo Benci and this author from the British School at Rome. The first aim of the project is to broaden and better contextualize the study of Luigi Ghirri’s work – as a photographer, curator, writer and cultural catalyst – by investigating a number of unexplored facets of his work, various influences on his photography and many important collaborations in which he was involved, for example with writers Gianni Celati and Giorgio Messori (less known, but no less interesting). In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Ghirri importantly acted as a catalyst for a great number of interdisciplinary and collaborative projects, such as the seminal Viaggio in Italia (1984), projects which connected different artists, writers and scholars, many based in Emilia Romagna but also non-Italian artists, and brought photography more center stage in Italy. The second aim of he project is to explore Ghirri’s legacy in contemporary photography, literature and other disciplines and artistic practices, and to examine further the intersection among photography, narrative writing and the investigation of space, place, and landscape in Italy in the past few decades.

While in Italy, Ghirri’s photography has been exhibited regularly and studied extensively, giving rise to a vast bibliography in Italian, outside of Italy more people are discovering the originality of his art thanks to recent, more visible publications in English and other languages, such as the new English edition of Ghirri’s Kodachrome (2013) and the article by Maria Antonella Pelizzari in Artforum (2013), and thanks to a growing number of exhibitions, including those at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York and Los Angeles in 2011, 2014, namely La città, exhibiting early photographs by Ghirri. Further evidence of the growing visibility of Ghirri’s work is the major retrospective of his work, entitled Luigi Ghirri. Pensare per immagini, curated by Francesca Fabiani, Laura Gasparini and Giuliano Sergio, which was exhibited at the MAXXI museum in Rome from April 23 to October 27, 2013, and later in Brasil (Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) – the first time for Ghirri’s work. This retrospective returned to Italy, precisely Reggio Emilia, home of the Ghirri archive is held, where it was exhibited in the 2014 Festival di Fotografia Europea.

Drawing on and contributing to the recent interest in Ghirri’s work, our research project has already attracted a great number of scholars, photographers, artists and writers whose work has been inspired and influenced by Ghirri’s photography and critical writing, and by some of his contemporaries, in particular by photographer Guido Guidi.

Born in Cesena in 1941, Guidi is one of the most influential Italian photographers of Ghirri’s generation. His work is currently being rediscovered (Veramente, a major retrospective of his work, was exhibited at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris from January 16 to April 27, 2014). Ghirri’s aesthetics has had a deep impact on younger photographers, many of whom Guidi has taught in Venice or in Ravenna. Many of these artists have warmly responded to our project and joined our research network; these include writers Giorgio Falco, Pierluigi Tedeschi and Vittorio Ferorelli; photographers William Guerrieri, Sabrina Ragucci, Sisto Giriodi, Cesare Ballardini, Luca Nostri, Paolo Simonazzi, Pierluigi Tedeschi, Riccardo Varini, as well as New York artist Nancy Goldring and Iranian writer and photographer Mohammadreza Mirzaei. In most cases a generation younger, these artists variously draw on Ghirri’s and/or Guidi’s lesson to shape their own aesthetics, in an effort to explore their everyday reality and tackle issues of place, landscape, identity and belonging.

Ghirri’s legacy in contemporary Italian writing is no less important than his impact on contemporary photography, starting from his seminal collaboration with the writer Gianni Celati in the 1980s, as they both engaged in the exploration and narration of the Po valley. Their collaborative work resulted in projects such as Esplorazioni sulla via Emilia (Feltrinelli, 1986) and Il profilo delle nuvole (Feltrinelli, 1989), perhaps the most striking of Ghirri’s phototexts, where his images are introduced and accompanied by Celati’s writing. Ghirri’s and Celati’s collaborative and catalyst work has given rise to a growing number of explorations of the exterior – both in photography and in writing ongoing.

One of the best examples of these collaborations between photography and writing, and of the legacy of Ghirri’s work, is Viaggio in un paesaggio terrestre (Diabasis, 2007), ‘a libro quattro mani’ by the photographer Vittore Fossati and the writer Giorgio Messori, both of whom deeply influenced by Ghirri. Celati’s work with Ghirri was instrumental in redirecting both contemporary photography and contemporary Italian narrative by steering it towards reportage and towards a greater opening to the visual and the photographic. No less important is the collaboration between Ghirri and Messori (1956-2006) on projects such as Atelier Morandi (Palomar, 1992), Ghirri’s work on Giorgio Morandi’s studios. Both Fossati’s photography and Messori’s writing in Viaggio in un paesaggio terrestre draw on and take further Ghirri’s experimentation with the phototext and his lesson of inhabiting displacement, showing us how to feel at home even in a world that seems alien to us, and how to find peace in images, like Ghirri’s photographs, that at once reconnect us with the past, with our memories, and trigger our imagination.

About the Author

Marina Spunta

Marina Spunta is Senior Lecturer in Italian in the School of Modern Languages, University of Leicester (UK). Her research interests include contemporary Italian literature; cultural studies; space, place and landscape studies; orality and vocality in literature; postwar Italian cinema; literature and photography. She has published on various contemporary writers and issues, has co-edited three volumes of essays, and is the author of two monographs, Voicing the Word: Writing Orality in Contemporary Italian Fiction (Peter Lang, 2004) and Claudio Piersanti (Florence: Cadmo, 2009). Her current research project, Viewing and writing Italian landscape. Luigi Ghirri and his legacy in photography and literature, can be accessed at: and http://staff-