Luigi Ghirri's The Map and The Territory
The Map and The Territory
(Ed. James Lingwood, MACK, 2018)
Disorienting and multi-layered with surrealist sensibilities: not the usual traits of a map, yet these are the mesmerizing qualities of the photographs published in Luigi Ghirri: The Map and The Territory. The catalogue accompanies the first retrospective exhibition, which will tour three locations across Europe, of 20th century Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri since his death in 1992. Ghirri’s underrated work deserves as much. Like the accompanying exhibition, the catalogue focuses on Ghirri’s work from the 70s including nearly 250 photographs ranging from his eminent Kodachrome series to his Still Life series. Ghirri’s images hang between the surreal and the familiar, beautifully produced in muted colors from the Kodachrome days. His color images are often abstract, leaving a wall, floor, or book undistinguishable. “The real world is in colour,” Ghirri once stated, yet he manages to present a world that does not always look real, a world that makes you pause for a moment.
The Map and The Territory includes images of the banal and the ordinary that question what an ‘art’ photograph should be. In Bastia (1976), Ghirri photographs a sand colored wall, filling the frame from left to right, with no external context. Visible in the top third of the image are the edges of a cruise ship and mucky blue sky. At first it seems this cruise ship is sailing past the wall, but on second look you can see the falsity of the image—that it is the remains of a poster. Ghirri describes his photographs of photographs as a “moment of mirrored reckoning, [in which] the two images cancel each other out, thus underlining the material nature of the physical world.”
Curator James Lingwood’s catalogue essay looks at how Ghirri’s transition in the late sixties from trained surveyor to photographer informed his images, detailing his preoccupation with space and his environment—the territory. For Lingwood, the territory can be simple: photographs taken within a three-kilometer radius of Ghirri’s home in Modena. Lingwood argues that Ghirri, within this small radius, focused on periphery spaces and overlooked subjects, as in Modena 1970, which presents shimmering bus seats and a withdrawn figure seated in the background. Ghirri shows the people and man-made constructs that contribute to his “photographic territory.” The title of the work alludes to where this territory is but a recognizable Modena is not needed or desired.
Maria Antonella Pelizzari’s essay contextualizes Ghirri’s work art historically, making comparisons to photographic great Eugène Atget and Italian cinematographer Michelangelo Antonioni. Pelizzari shows Ghirri’s photographs to contain a montage of worlds—where vision and imagination are spliced together. Take his images of advertisement billboards: cropped so they fill the frame, yet with encroaching plants or segments of sky so that it becomes difficult for the viewer to differentiate between the images on the billboard and what superimposes from the ‘real’ world. Alluding to a territory where environmental elements coexist and are subject to the change of time, people, and nature.
But where does this leave the map? In his writing, presented at the beginning of each photo grouping, Ghirri explains, “My aim is not to make PHOTOGRAPHS, but rather CHARTS and MAPS that might at the same time constitute photographs.” Series such as Identikit achieve this; it performs as a personal map of the artist, with tightly framed photographs of books on shelves and letters on a wall. Ghirri claims this self-portrait allows objects to testify to his interests and, “How my vision, in a similar way to all other possible visions, already belongs to the history of images.” In this sense we can understand mapping to be a neutral practice of accumulating images over time. His 70s work demonstrates that Ghirri, in fact, goes beyond merely creating a singular photographic territory. Instead he sketches various territories through the repetition of motifs or themes: in skies photographed again and again, with mirrors or the back of people’s heads recurring throughout his photo series. These reoccurring elements start to form the territory, yet it remains, as Ghirri hoped, incomplete. The images do not allow for a single interpretation but many; like a map with many territories traced on top of it.
One rich comparison not found in the catalogue is between Ghirri’s work and painter Gerhard Richter’s. Richter’s Atlas, started in the ’60s, documents the photographs he took and collected as inspiration for his paintings. Viewing The Map and The Territory and Richter’s Atlas simultaneously shows both artists’ preoccupation with the pre-made image, with order and structure, and both use the same titling format—location, followed by year. Both artists produced a series of works on clouds, taking the images in color and printing them relatively small, in a grid structure. Ghirri explains this series, Infinito, constituted a potential chromatic atlas of the sky, as well as highlighted the limits of photography. Despite having taken an image every day for the solar year of 1974, the year is impossible to categorize or recognize in hindsight. Ghirri’s Atlante looks at the premade elements of maps, with close ups of gradients and star constellation maps. In Richter’s Atlas, we see his 1967 hand drawn tracings of star constellations presented as obvious traces. Ghirri’s close up images of constellation maps seem more mobile and open to different interpretations. Ghirri writes, “The association of ideas and images allows us to look at the map and to automatically imagine the rest.” The intriguing difference between Richter and Ghirri is that the former’s Atlas positions the artist using photography as a tool for his artistic practice, as a means to an end. Richter collects photographs from newspapers or encyclopedias and places them alongside his own images. Ghirri similarly takes photographs of other photographs. However, though Ghirri is also concerned with documentation and the pre-made image, he is primarily interested in photography as a craft. Ghirri develops and deepens our understanding of the photographic medium and the role of photographer: “I believe photographic language to be one that draws sense from its own historicity.” Like a map, a photograph is influenced by what has come before it.
Ghirri had a preoccupation with making the viewer look beyond the photograph, beyond the frame to think about the space not presented. He argued that deleted space is where the image takes on new meanings. Perhaps this hints towards Ghirri’s fixation with maps, grids, atlases, and encyclopedias. A map shows a whole area but never the detail. It represents without being identical: much like a photograph, much like an exhibition catalogue.