Remembering Luigi Ghirri, an Essential Italian Photographer
In 1969, a photograph of Earth was taken from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. The image profoundly affected the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943–92.) “It was not only the image of the entire world,” he later wrote, “but the image that contained all other images of the world.”
Within that photograph of Earth, Ghirri wrote in 1978, he sensed that “the space between the infinitely small and the infinitely large was filled by the infinitely complex: man and his life, nature.”
In the decades that followed, Ghirri dedicated his practice to capturing that infinite space on film. His oeuvre features a vast collection of photographs, spare and cinematic, some focusing on grand architecture, others on quiet interiors, a shadow on a wall, or a subtle gesture. These are the quiet details of everyday life—the everyday life, at least, of Italy in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, before Ghirri died too young, at 49, in 1992. Since then, his work has aged remarkably well. Next year, a selection of his more abstract work, much of it related to cartography and symbology, will go on display in Milan with the gallery Montrasio Arte / Km0.
Ghirri pointed his lens at seemingly everything: empty streets, Roman ruins, ladies’ shoes in a shop window, an Italian flag, a parked motorcycle, a playbill from the theater, a birdcage, a little boy, a woman’s sunlit profile. In some images, the viewer can immediately discern what she’s seeing; in others, there’s little sense of scale or context. You can’t tell if you’re seeing something from close up or far away, from above or below. Indeed, Ghirri was known to compare his creative vision to the effects of distortion in Gulliver’s Travels and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
“The world might appear at first through a telescope, and then under a microscope, or perhaps through a set of binoculars that can be used to both to magnify and minimize,” he once said. “In some photographs we can make out the building blocks of fables, the supporting framework and the scaffolding which props up this ‘land’; and yet, rather than exposing the tricks or taking away the magic, they contribute to the illusion.”
Browsing through Ghirri’s work, it’s easy to see a parallel with American color photographers Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, the latter of whom, in particular, is widely celebrated for his vibrant “snapshots.” Sadly, Ghirri’s own influence has been partly lost to time. While well-known in his native Italy, he is much less known in the rest of the world, particularly after his untimely death. Yet Ghirri’s work has had a ripple effect across contemporary photography and cinematography: Some of his loveliest images call to mind vivid scenes from a Wes Anderson film.
His upcoming show in Milan serves two purposes: It’s a reminder, to Italians who already know his work, of Ghirri’s legacy. For everyone else, it’s a bold introduction unlikely to be forgotten.