The Photographer Who Went to Extreme Measures to Capture America’s Greatest Land Art
The adventurous Italian photographer traveled to the United States by boat in 1968, promising a photo essay about the trip as payment for his journey. He soon integrated himself into the country’s major cultural movements. He visited hippie communes across the country, photographed Woodstock, and settled in New York City. There Gorgoni infiltrated the art world by frequenting Max’s Kansas City, a magnet for the day’s prominent painters and sculptors, where he became familiar with
Gorgoni, born in 1941, always aimed to capture more than artists and artworks; he wanted to celebrate an entire milieu. Famed gallerist Leo Castelli helped fund the photographer’s travels to document the day’s major artistic talents. Gorgoni’s first shoot of the series captured the major Minimalist artist, Whitney Museum of American Art on April 1, 1970.
These images were collected in a book, The New Avant-Garde: Issues for the Art of the Seventies (1972), which features snapshots of work by Robert Smithson, Richard Serra,
Gorgoni recalls a night when he was with Serra, Andre, and Smithson, and Smithson invited him over to his place for a small party (shortly before Castelli agreed to help finance the book). “He was living on Greenwich Street downtown near the meat market,” he told Artsy. “For the first time I saw some of his work with the sand, broken glass. Everything was so new. He said that he was preparing his big piece in Utah.” Excited about the project, Gorgoni offered to travel out west and photograph it on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Serra and his partner at the time,
The work in question was Spiral Jetty (1970), Smithson’s 1,500 foot long coil of black basalt rocks and earth at the Rozel Point peninsula on the Great Salt Lake. From a helicopter that Smithson commissioned, Gorgoni shot in color and black-and-white, capturing the massive work from various angles.
In certain frames he also included a human for scale. In one print, for example, a man stands at the base of Smithson’s work, where the spiral meets the rest of the land. The photograph highlights the landscape’s imposing dominance. Gorgoni reveals that the figure is Smithson himself. The photographer was always alert to the artist’s movements as he checked the small details of the massive piece. These images are about more than a monumental natural sculpture: they document the relationship between a man and his massive creation.
Sometimes, Gorgoni was merely in the right place at the right time. After shooting Spiral Jetty, Gorgoni traveled to see Bruce Nauman in Pasadena, near Los Angeles. On the way back, he stopped by a bar on Sunset Boulevard where West Coast artists congregated (he can’t remember which one). He heard someone calling his name: it was Walter de Maria. The pair had a drink with Michael Heizer, who was also there.
Both artists were preparing to create, or had already created, their own desert artworks, and Gorgoni followed. He captured Heizer’s earthbound “drawings,” for which the artist rode a motorcycle in circles on the desert sand, leaving geometrically precise tracks. For a separate project (executed in 1968), de Maria had drawn parallel, mile-long chalk lines across the Mojave Desert, spotted best by airplane and quickly washed and blown away by natural elements. “This work doesn’t exist anymore. It exists only in my photographs,” says Gorgoni.
Gorgoni didn’t always see eye to eye with the Land Artists whose work he captured. De Maria wanted to own any negatives of pictures of his Lightning Field (1977), controlling how and where they were published. Gorgoni wanted to maintain the rights himself, and lost the opportunity to photograph the piece. Nevertheless, he remains the most prominent documenter of the movement. “The photographs are critical,” says William Fox, Director of the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment. “Most people will not see these projects in person, or they’re projects which have disappeared.”
Nearly fifty years after most of them were made, the major land artworks still resonate through Gorgoni’s photographs. “Land art is one of those key movements that feeds into our understanding of human creative interactions with natural environments,” says Fox. “Gianfranco had been in the thick of that in the early days.” He describes the photography itself as “terrific,” suggesting that it even verges on the experimental; Gorgoni stitched together multiple photographs of the same artworks to create panoramic views. He was also willing to dangle from scaffolds and over large holes in the earth; he once got stuck for hours when he suspended himself in a harness at Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), which consists of two massive cuts in the Nevada desert.
Next spring, the Nevada Museum of Art will mount an exhibition of Gorgoni’s photographs. The institution initially met the photographer when he documented artist
Indeed, Gorgoni’s photographs are often the next best thing to actually trekking out West. “Even if you don’t or can’t go stand inside Double Negative, you still get an idea, and it still gives you a feeling of: Wow, that’s enormous,” says Fox. “How did an artist think to do that? How did they do these projects? How did they make them? They’re excellent provocations.”
Gorgoni’s photograph of
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that an exhibition of Gorgoni’s work would be mounted at the Nevada Museum of Art this spring. The show is slated for the spring of 2019.