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Photography is an Enigma: Luigi Ghirri

“I take photographs in colour because the real world is in colour”


In the short novel “The Adventure of a Photographer,” Italo Calvino tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed by photography and its cognitive issues:


“The minute you start saying of something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order to really live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider as photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity, the secondo to madness.” 


Photographer Luigi Ghirri, who used to quote Calvino’s story, had found his own way to steer around the obstacle. He would say that “photography isn’t a problem, photography is an enigma, because a problem has a solution, and an enigma is a problem that doesn’t have a solution”.

Born in 1943 in a small village in Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy, Ghirri grew up in a country that was leaving behind the hardship of war, embracing an unprecedented period of economic growth and a consequent cultural ferment.

In the 1960s, photography in Italy expanded significantly. Ghirri wasn’t even 30 when he left his job as a surveyor to fully dedicate himself to the medium. He started photographing those things that usually nobody pays attention to: the street he would travel along every day, the books he had in his house.

He was attracted by textures and colours – “I take photographs in colour because the real world is in colour”, he would say – and by that feeling of wonder originated by serendipitous discoveries, like the shutter of a milk shop painted in the same orange of some crates left next to it; or the interior of a garage whose walls are covered in Giuseppe Verdi memorabilia because the mechanic who works there is an opera enthusiast.

Ghirri looked at things the same way a farmer inspects the sky to understand if it will rain tomorrow. On board of his rickety Volkswagen, always listening to Bob Dylan tapes, he would take regular trips exploring the countryside nearby his hometown. “Perhaps the countryside is the most typical of all places, a site of devotion and rejection, a stage crossed by love and hate, everything and nothing, boredom and excitement” noted in a short text written in 1981 that ends with: “The province is my place, my home”.  Incidentally, Ghirri’s region gave birth to film-directors Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, two great fabulists who explored Italian vices and virtues, and a main source of inspiration for the photographer as well.

Ghirri spoke with clarity and restraint, a language he shared with some great artists of the Quattrocento: Fra Angelico, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca. He mastered the same narrative skills, the same preference for a central vanishing point, the same hues, even: pastel blues and greens, dusty pinks, and sun-faded reds. It’s not by chance if in 1989 and in 1990 – not long before he got struck by a fatal heart attack – Ghirri photographed the interiors of Giorgio Morandi’s studios, the last heir of such pictorial tradition and arguably the best Italian painter of the XX century.  Ghirri considered his photographs of the little objects used by the painter’s famous still lifes to be a meaningful endeavour, in the way they worked on memory, registering a world that had already been represented by another artist.

Ceramic potery and watery cans over wooden table at Studio di Morandi in Grizzana Emilia Romana in Italy

Visiting Morandi’s studio in Bologna, Ghirri was struck by the story of Morandi feeling lost when he saw an apartment block being built right in front of his studio window, which ended up changing the amount and quality of light entering the studio. Ghirri, who would complain about the electric poles and wires newly installed throughout his beloved countryside because they spoiled his frames, could understand. The ever-changing world was catching up.

The Italian landscape became a recurrent theme in Ghirri’s work.

Some of these images are justly considered masterpieces and are amongst the most renowned by the artist. Over the years, they became an atlas of Italian places… and characters. Because even if in most of them human presence is almost completely rejected, those photographs tell stories about their absent inhabitants. They remind us of the childlike excitement of going on holiday to the seaside, in Summer; of families gathered together for lunch on Sundays; of rural landscapes observed through the window of a car or a train; of trips to Capri, Florence, and Rome. They tell about a country, provincial in the best acceptation, made of countless towns and villages (each with their customs and traditions), that was eventually called to face modernity. 

Probably as a consequence, Ghirri grafted “a deliberate sense of melancholy, […] tempered by a touch of irony” onto his images. While he spent several words about melancholy, describing it as “the feeling of distance which separates us from a world that could otherwise be simple,” he said very little about irony. Talking about the comic essence of his compatriots, screenwriter Ennio Flaiano once noted that Italians are an attempt by nature to demythologize itself. 

Ghirri would have probably agreed.