In 1978, Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) gathered 92 of his pictures, taken over the prior eight years, into the self-published book Kodachrome. This show of vintage prints of 25 images from Kodachrome coincided with the publication of a new edition of Ghirri’s book by the art-book publisher Mack.
The photographs, color shots of run-down seaside resorts, shuttered amusement parks, isolated farmhouses and fog-shrouded towns, were largely taken in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, where Ghirri was born and spent most of his life. In their deadpan—not to say flat-footed—approach and vernacular subject matter, they have an affinity with work that was being made at the same time in America by photographers such as William Eggleston and Robert Adams as well as to late-1960s projects by Conceptual artists Dan Graham and John Baldessari. Ghirri’s pictures distinguish themselves from these others’, however, by virtue of their subtle humor and uncanny effects.
Like the Surrealist photographers of an earlier era, Ghirri sought the extraordinary in the everyday, and even as he documented a landscape familiar and fond, he exploited photography’s potential to alter perceptions of scale, distance and relations between objects. A mirror over an outdoor sink at a campground, reflecting nothing but an overcast sky, reads as both object and window. In a photograph of a photograph of a cruise ship, the bottom half of the depicted image has been torn away to expose the cardboard backing underneath; the vessel appears to be sinking into sand.
A leitmotif in Ghirri’s oeuvre is the juxtaposition of reality with its double—a wall mural, photograph, postcard, advertisement or reflection—in the same shallow picture plane. In the foreground of one photograph, two women and a man walk together along a roadway. Behind them is a billboard ad for Sprite featuring a cascading waterfall. And behind the billboard can be seen a real Alpine vista, looking grainier and less substantial than the ad. In another picture, a couple sitting at a café table is oblivious to the painted wave that seems about to engulf them; in a third, of a different couple playing paddleball on a beach, the waves are real but could almost be a painted backdrop.
Despite their obvious age and modest scale (the smallest is barely 4 by 6 inches; the largest only 18 by 12), these pictures seem startlingly contemporary. In part this is due to the way they mimic the visual language of advertising (Ghirri also worked as a commercial photographer). In part it is because of Ghirri’s canny self-reflexiveness: his pictures—like one of an ocean view bisected by a wooden post—often read as photocollages, never letting us forget that they themselves are also only representations of reality.
Most of all, however, Ghirri’s contemporaneity is a result of his apprehension of the world as increasingly awash in images—in his words, “a sum of hieroglyphs”—and of his view of photography as “a great adventure in thinking and looking . . . a continuous journey into the great and the small, into variations, through the realm of illusions and appearances . . . “
PHOTO: Luigi Ghirri: Engelberg, 1972, from the series “Kodachrome,” vintage Ciba- chrome, 103⁄4 by 81⁄2 inches; at Matthew Marks.