Luigi Ghirri: The Impossible Landscape at Matthew Marks
February 25 to April 30, 2016
526 West 22 Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 243 0200
Since the dawn of the medium, photography has been described as fleeting, a moment recorded but now lost. Photography’s instantaneity lends itself to fertile moments that could not be otherwise captured; Henri Cartier-Bresson built a cultural empire upon the revelatory instant, seizing the split seconds when visual harmony emerged out of chaos to create his iconic images. The visual stasis of the photograph preserves the past in unexpected ways: cameras are all-seeing, and at times seem to demolish history even while reconstructing it, forever throwing the acuity of our own perceptions into doubt.
Iconic images serve as documents of people, places now gone, whole eras ended, in effect recording time lost. The slicing of life into the fractional fragments of time recorded by cameras can alter the register of reality, bringing dignity to the inconsequential, wringing permanence out of impermanence. Luigi Ghirri worked in the inexhaustible present, his photographs favor neither the passing nor the seemingly fixed, and often allow the two to collide and conflate. In Ghirri’s photographs, timespans shrink and expand, featuring fads of the day as well as the eternal monuments of his native Italy — an original and its reflection, the false coexisting with the real.
In recent years, Ghirri’s stature has grown exponentially; a collection of his essays is forthcoming, while his work is being widely exhibited with a large touring retrospective planned for 2018. While well known internationally, in the United States Ghirri did not live to achieve the fame of many of his peers, dying in 1992 at the age of only 49. The American representative of Ghirri’s estate, Matthew Marks gallery, has mounted its third exhibition of carefully selected photographs, all vintage chromogenic and Cibachrome prints, allowing for further reevaluation of works long unseen.
A sunbather lounges by a public pool, face masked by an Italian newspaper; in the background, blurred by a shallow depth of field, azure water is punctuated by startlingly vivid towels of yellow, teal and red, draped over railings. A man dressed in a brown suit, his back to the camera, surveys a public garden near the Colosseum in Rome, the composition nearly swallowed by a large planting. In these photographs, Modena (1972-74), from the series “Fotografie del periodo iniziale,” and Roma (1979), from the series “Diaframma 11, 1/125 luce naturale,” respectively, what is being shown? Ghirri’s work shares, at times, the snapshot simplicity of William Christenberry, another prolific autobiographical documenter who for decades photographed and re-photographed his childhood home of Hale County, Alabama. Like another of better-known his contemporaries, William Eggleston, in Ghirri’s photographs, the personal is elusive: places and subjects are revisited, but other than the obvious love for the environments he frequents, little is fixed or concretely familial.
There is great precision to these photographs, and in their consideration of their subjects, there is sometimes startling intimacy. In Ghirri’s images our gaze is often stymied and redirected; while tangible markers exist (the logo of Italian Coke appears several times) specificity persistently slips, a fading away of traditional indication and hierarchy. In Modena (1971-73), from the series “Kodachrome,” a view of a cherry blossom tree is sheared by a concrete wall, pasted with a peeling fragment of a poster depicting lemon trees. At times, Ghirri’s images are filled with images of their own, or we see through glass, or into reflections and other optical abstractions; these are mediations of signs of all sorts, those intended to gain our attention, as well as repel it. Often, there is a reveal, a literal exposure of the constructed or the simulated, and yet there is never judgment rendered in these observations. The palette of the prints skews warm, a result of color photographic paper’s instability, creating tones that seem curiously outmoded to eyes now accustomed to computer-generated perfection. In these photographs, the rosy glow of the past becomes tangible, chemically induced reality.
In one image, Untitled (1975-78), from the series “Kodachrome,” a horizon is bisected by the fading contrail of jet engines, the view partially blocked by boulders stacked, not quite naturally, revealing the drilled blasting marks drilled through them. The picture presents dueling manipulations of the environment, both the rocks cleaved in half for construction and the vapor trailing in sky are alterations to our landscape that largely go unfelt and unnoticed but do have consequences. Ghirri’s vistas are marked by cracks in meaning that so often remain unarticulated, they comfortably reside in the space between the fictional and the documentary that all photography skirts, yet they reconcile little. These photographs are aggregates of the familiar and the strange that our days amount to, in each is a love of the moment and an acknowledgement of the knotted past that accompanies it, always linked in the plurality of time.print