Luigi Ghirri is born on January 5, 1943 in Scandiano, near Reggio Emilia. Life in the province of Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s economic revival, the postwar climate, and the cultural ferment of the 1960s are all elements that significantly influence his development as an artist. Growing up, Ghirri is sensitive, intelligent, and profoundly curious; he is driven to expand his understanding of the world both through everyday experiences and through his sense of connection to the work of film directors such as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Cesare Zavattini. His technical studies are accompanied by a passion for reading and music, a fascination with the Italian Renaissance and art history, and an interest in found objects and images; all of these features will have bearing on the path that leads Ghirri to photography as a tool for looking at the world around him.
Ghirri moves to Modena, where he encounters and interacts with a group of conceptual artists, and begins to pay close attention to international trends in contemporary art and photography. Soon he develops a strong attraction to the work of particular photographers, such as Eugène Atget, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and August Sander, and starts to conceive of his own photographic work as a great project of expressive investigation, in which the purpose of each image is gauged primarily in terms of its content. In 1969, the image of the Earth photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft arouses intense emotions in Ghirri. That first photograph of the world as a whole contains, he states, “all images of the world.” Ghirri’s response to the image inspires him to begin formulating his own photographic project, which he describes as a “grand adventure of gaze and thought. The voyage into the inextricable hieroglyph of reality through PLANS and MAPS that are simultaneously PHOTOGRAPHS.”
Ghirri creates his first photographs during vacations and on weekends, assembling them into a body of work he will later call Fotografie del periodo iniziale (Photographs of the initial period), and from which originate numerous subsequent projects. The work consists of images of places and people captured in the act of daily rituals. At the same time, Ghirri also creates images of inanimate subjects, frequently utilizing “readymades” or found objects—posters, signs, objects, fragments found by chance on the street. He titles these early studies Paesaggi di cartone (Cardboard landscapes). Ghirri makes occasional trips within Europe, but for the most part has no need to go far to find this universe of stimuli; indeed, he often locates his subjects in the anonymous urban periphery close his own home in Modena, in the landscape most familiar to him. Ghirri’s decision to photograph in color is a natural part of the same intention: “I photograph in color because the real world is not in black and white,” he says. In April his first child, Ilaria, is born.
Ghirri meets the artist Franco Vaccari; together, they delve into fundamental ideas about the role of photography in contemporary art. In 1972 Vaccari creates the seminal Esposizione in tempo reale n. 4: Lascia su queste pareti una traccia fotografica del tuo passaggio (Exhibition in real time no. 4: Leave on these walls a photographic trace of your passage) at the Venice Biennale. Ghirri’s focus shifts from the artist’s manual skills to the coincidence between the work of art and the reality recorded by the camera—a concept that parallels Marcel Duchamp’s notion of the readymade and the automatic writing of the Surrealists. Ghirri thus concentrates on his work’s content, centering his research on “the gaze,” or the simultaneously rational and emotional ability to decipher information collected through perception, and to transform that information into a visual concept. Ghirri begins to structure his first series, which are inspired by the urban landscape. He creates Colazione sull’erba (Luncheon on the grass), a work that focuses on the relationship between nature and artifice, looking at condominium gardens and single-family row houses on the urban periphery. His first solo exhibition, Luigi Ghirri: Fotografie 1970–71, is presented in the hall of the Canalgrande Hotel-Sette Arti Club circle; the work is selected by the artist and Vaccari, who contributes an introduction to the exhibition catalog.
Ghirri conceives his Catalogo (Catalog) series, which will occupy him through the rest of the decade. By sampling and sequencing surfaces and details that are part of the built panorama—walls, doors, windows, and shutters—he analyzes the repetitiveness that characterizes contemporary culture: “The significance lies in putting down information,” he states, “to make distinctions and connections, to emphasize relationships, to disassemble mechanisms.” Ever inspired by the theme of the surface, he creates Km 0.250, the photographic reduction (at a 1:10 scale) of the outer wall of the Modena racetrack, covered with advertising posters. In the same year, with his Atlante (Atlas) series, he creates an “imaginary voyage” within the walls of his own home. Here, through photography’s capabilities of abstraction, the pages of a simple geographic atlas lose their merely descriptive function, and the work takes on the potential to penetrate the world of signs. “In this case,” Ghirri says, “reality and its conventional representation seem to coincide, the formulation of the problem shifts, from signification to imagination.”
The innovations and significance of Ghirri’s work are noted by critics, who mention him in numerous reviews. He meets Paola Borgonzoni, who will be his longtime companion in work and life. Ghirri abandons his early career as a surveyor to turn fully to the world of art. “My work as a surveyor taught me many things about space, the landscape, the stone-by-stone construction of a space, beginning with a plan. The plan is a given that allows you to structure the work of an individual. It is necessary to have a plan, both for the construction of a house and, above all, for the creation of a work of art... It is only within this that the risk and freedom of the gesture is allowed.” Over the course of this year, Ghirri creates a new work, Infinito (Infinity). It consists of 365 images of the sky, taken one day after another, and mounted at the end of the year, not in chronological order—the piece may be recomposed in an infinite number of ways. “It was my intention to work on a project that did not stick with a rigid scheme,” he notes, “but was open to the intuitions and chance occurrences I encountered while making the work.” At the invitation of gallerist Lanfranco Colombo, Ghirri shows Paesaggi di cartone at Il Diaframma gallery in Milan; the show is accompanied by a catalog edited by Massimo Mussini. Ghirri participates in the group show Atlante at the Neikrug gallery in New York City.
An exhibition about the U.S. Farm Security Administration is presented in Parma, and Ghirri has the opportunity to encounter in person the American photography he esteems so highly. He discovers points of connection with his own work: “I found that [we] spoke about the same things. The analogy was profound, the motivation and inspiration similar: to understand, transcribe, describe our visible horizon, to speak about what exists. For me it was the challenge of contemporaneity and the present.” Ghirri is hailed by Time-Life in the United States as a “discovery” of the year, and an extensive portfolio is published in Time-Life’s Photography Year 1975. He participates in the group show Art as Photography—Photography as Art in Kassel; the show travels during this same year to Chalon-sur-Saône in France, where his work is also featured in the group exhibition Photographie Italienne at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce. He creates the exhibition Luigi Ghirri: Colazione sull’erba at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna in Modena; the catalog includes texts by Massimo Mussini and Roberto Salbitani. He has another solo show, Il Sistema dell’assenza, at the Canon Photo Gallery in Amsterdam; Arturo Carlo Quintavalle contributes a catalog text. Atlante is exhibited in a solo show at the Documenta gallery in Turin.
Ghirri is increasingly interested in the theme of landscape: in particular, the interpretation of lesser-known places in Italy, off the tourist path; this project seems to correspond to a search for his own identity, both as an artist and as an individual. “What I did between 1970 and 1975,” he later notes, “photographing the edges of ancient cities, or predominantly towns without historic and geographic dignity, was a sort of recomposition of my and our external family album.” He begins the series Vedute (Views) and Italia ailati (“ailati” is “Italia” [Italy] spelled backwards), to which he devotes a solo exhibition at the Fotogalerie of the Forum Stadtpark in Graz, Austria, in collaboration with Il Diaframma gallery in Milan (the show’s catalog includes a text by Arturo Carlo Quintavalle). Ghirri has another solo show, Luigi Ghirri, at the Canon Photo Gallery in Geneva; the catalog includes a text by Gad Borel-Boissonnas. He exhibits at a group show, Acquisitions 1975 du Musée Réattu, at the Musée Réattu in Arles. In Rome, at the Galleria Rondanini, he has a solo show titled Cancellature, his first show on a significant scale, where he exhibits more than two hundred photographs from his overall body of work. Toward the end of the year, Ghirri moves in with Paola Borgonzoni in an apartment in the historic center of Modena. At this new dwelling, he begins his Identikit project. In the natural dim light of his home, he photographs his own possessions, records, and the books in his library, creating a statement about identity, and at the same time an intimate chronicle of a period and a place.
Wandering amid the stalls of the antiques market in Modena’s Piazza Grande near his home, Ghirri discovers a path that is still new in the world of images and signs—it leads him to create his Still-Life series. Paintings, framed photographs, catalogs, manuscripts, piles of old things all present themselves to his gaze and are transformed into “places” that contain possible stratifications—“even objects that seem to be entirely described by sight can be, in their representation, like blank pages in a book not yet written.” During this period, he also begins to follow two other lines of investigation, with Il paese dei balocchi (Toyland) and In scala (In scale). With these works, Ghirri’s voyage into the “real world” takes on the dimension of fable—he interprets both the fiction of the amusement park or the “wax museum,” and the amazement generated by the leap in scale of the “Italia in miniature” theme park in Rimini. “From the beginning,” he says, “I have seen in photography a large magical toy that succeeds in bringing together the large and the small, illusions and reality, our adult awareness and the fairytale world of childhood.” Encouraged by his friend Claude Nori, founder of the Contrejour gallery and publishing house in Paris, Ghirri, Paola Borgonzoni, and Giovanni Chiaramonte establish the publishing house Punto e Virgola, with the idea of producing works that focus on Italian photographic culture. Ghirri exhibits in a group show titled L’occhio, la macchina, la realtà at the Italian Institute of Culture in Tokyo. This exhibition, which juxtaposes the work of Italian and Japanese photographers, then travels to the Italian-Japanese Cultural Center in Kyoto. Ghirri participates in a group show of young Italian photographers, Foto-grafia, at the Galleria Rondanini in Rome; the exhibition and catalog are organized by Arturo Carlo Quintavalle. He has a solo exhibition, Fotografia e natura, at Il Milione gallery in Milan, and another solo show in England, at the Photography Gallery at the University of Southampton.
Punto e Virgola publishes Ghirri’s first book, Kodachrome, which includes a critical text by the photographer. The monograph is conceived in narrative form; the images derive from projects developed during his first eight years of work, above all from Paesaggi di cartone, but also from Fotografie del periodo iniziale. With Kodachrome, Ghirri begins to use his archive as a “reservoir of images.” “I concluded this series with fragments of images found while walking along the street; it is no accident that the last image contains a phrase in a newspaper crumpled on the pavement: ‘come pensare per immagini’ [how to think through images]. This phrase contains the meaning of all my work, as does a phrase by Giordano Bruno: ‘Thinking is speculating through images.’” The book is copublished by Contrejour, which presents an accompanying exhibition of the work. Ghirri makes his first trip to Arles, to participate in the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie. Here he meets critic Michel Nuridsany, to whom Ghirri submits the maquette of Atlante in book form. Nuridsany is intrigued by the work, and describes Ghirri in Le Figaro as “one of the most passionate photographers working today.” . Ghirri also exhibits Kodachrome at the Musée Réattu in Arles in a group exhibition of Italian photographers; the show travels to the Festival de la Photographie in Besançon. At Salzburg College, Ghirri participates in a group show organized by Roberto Salbitani: The Naked Environment: Young European Photography. At the 1978 Venice Biennale, Ghirri exhibits in the group show L’immagine provocata.
Ghirri’s work and reputation take a decisive turn with an important retrospective exhibition, Vera Fotografia, at the Università di Parma, organized by Arturo Carlo Quintavalle and Massimo Mussini. It is an ambitious undertaking that brings together all the projects Ghirri has created thus far, presenting the public with approximately seven hundred photographs, organized into fourteen narrative sequences: Fotografie del periodo iniziale (1970); Kodachrome (1970–78); Colazione sull’erba (1972–74); Catalogo (1970–79); Km 0.250 (1973); Diaframma 11, 1/125, luce naturale (Diaphragm 11, 1/125, natural light, 1970–79); Atlante (1973); Italia ailati (1971–79); Il paese dei balocchi (1972–79); Vedute (Scenes, 1970–79); Infinito (Infinity, 1974); In scala (1977–78); Identikit (1976–79); Still-Life (1975–79). The accompanying book, Luigi Ghirri, includes a preface by Quintavalle, a text and critical entries by Mussini, and, for each section, one of Ghirri’s own texts. Ghirri’s work is now definitively structured around monographic projects, which often stem from one another—as with his early Paesaggi di cartone, which undergoes a name change and, supplemented by new photographs, becomes part of Kodachrome. Similarly, the series Diaframma 11, 1/125, luce naturale—created on the occasion of the Parma exhibition, regrouping photographs of people, often caught in the act of “looking”—contains much work from Fotografie del periodo iniziale. Certain projects are completed in very brief time; others go on for long periods, with images migrating from one series to another, following new connective possibilities. As Ghirri notes: “I consider reality complex and supple and not reducible.” The Parma retrospective leads to a second trip to Arles, where Ghirri meets Charles Traub, director of Light Gallery in New York. Traub is very enthusiastic about Ghirri’s recently published monograph, and invites him to exhibit at Light the following year. He is also asked to participate in an international group show about new photography held at the Symposion über Fotografie at the Forum Stadtpark in Graz; the show and catalog are organized by Manfred Willmann and Christine Frisinghelli. During this period, Ghirri begins to work intensely as a curator of exhibitions and editorial projects. With Claude Nori, he organizes the exhibition La fotografia francese: Dalle origini ai giorni nostri, which opens at the Galleria Rondanini in Rome, and later travels to the Galleria Civica in Modena. For the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Ferrara, he curates the exhibition Iconicittà: Una visione sul reale, a reflection on the urban landscape that presents some young emerging photographers. The catalog, edited by Ennery Taramelli, is published by Punto e Virgola.
After producing some dozen books, Punto e Virgola ceases publishing autonomously. La Fotografia Francese by Claude Nori and Fotografia e Inconscio Tecnologico by Franco Vaccari are its final publications. Punto e Virgola’s projects are absorbed by Jaca Book’s Fotografia series, edited by Giovanni Chiaramonte. Ghirri completes work on Still-Life and, after a brief period spent on the Geografia Immaginaria (Imaginary geography, 1979–80), he begins a new project, Topographie-Iconographie (Topography-Iconography). The “conceptual” aspect of Ghirri’s approach leads him to a new expressive period, in which he concentrates on the idea of photography as a “language” that can interpret the symbolic value of places. He states: “The places and objects that I have photographed are truly ‘zones of memory,’ localities that demonstrate... that reality is transformed into a grand story.” Responding enthusiastically to Charles Traub’s invitation, Ghirri has a solo exhibition at New York’s Light Gallery, where he presents Still-Life and Topographie-Iconographie. Ghirri’s show Vera Fotografia is presented at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, with a selection of works exhibited the previous year in Parma. In collaboration with Punto e Virgola, he curates the exhibition Robert Doisneau: Tre secondi di eternità at the Galleria Civica in Modena. Ghirri’s work appears at the Photokina in Cologne; and the exhibition Glanzlichter der Photographie includes his work in the section Das Imaginäre Photomuseum—Die Landshaft, in which he shows Kodachrome; the exhibition and catalog are organized by Beaumont Newhall. At the Musée Carnavalet in Paris Ghirri participates in the group exhibition Paris-Rome, curated by Paris Audiovisuel; the show travels to the Centre Culturel Français in Rome. Again in Paris, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, his work is included in the group show Ils se disent peintres, ils se disent photographes, curated by Suzanne Pagé and Michel Nuridsany. This important exhibition explores the boundaries between art and photography, and includes internationally renowned artists such as Christian Boltanski, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Gilbert and George, Giuseppe Penone, and Cindy Sherman.
For two decades Ghirri’s conceptual investigations have been focused on the relationship between art and photography; he now begins to work with a new sense of freedom, allowing himself to be guided by the emotional weight of the image, open to new possibilities of interdisciplinary relationships. His inspirations are wide ranging: “Even I can’t say which enlightened me more, Dylan’s musical and poetic landscapes, Oldenburg’s sculptures-architectures, Robert Frank’s or Friedlander’s visions, Evans’s ethical rigor, Breughel’s cosmogonies, Fellini’s fantasies, the Alinari brothers’ views, Atget’s silences, the Flemish artists’ precision, Piero della Francesca’s purity, or Van Gogh’s colors.” In keeping with this all-embracing approach, Ghirri establishes relationships with various intellectual figures with whom he can share his ideas. He gets to know architects, planners, and philosophers, and is convinced of the need to create a new iconography of the Italian landscape, with growing attention to the contemporary habitat, and the complex union of tradition and modernity. Invited by architect Vittorio Savi to participate in the group exhibition Paesaggio: Immagine e realtà at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, Ghirri creates his first interpretation of a “post-urban” landscape, that of Italy’s Po valley. He titles this work Introduzione (Introduction), and in the show’s catalog discusses the impossibility of maintaining a sense of detachment from the things he photographs; he emphasizes the encounter that has taken place with the “biographical” landscape: “These places are also my place, my room,” he says. Ghirri receives his first public commissions, providing him an opportunity to develop new areas of exploration. The Young and Rubicam Agency in Milan hires him to photograph Naples for the regional tourism board, an advertising campaign meant to bolster the territory’s image. Given this opportunity to work with well-known sites—but seeking results beyond the stereotypes of tourist illustrations—he looks for signs in the landscape, traces of history, “zones of memory.” With these photographs, he gradually begins to build the large series Paesaggio Italiano (Italian landscape, 1980–92). Ghirri is invited to exhibit Topographie-Iconographie at the Symposion über Fotografie at the Forum Stadtpark in Graz. An introductory text by him is published in the show’s catalog. He participates in the group exhibition Erweiterte Fotografie/Extended Photography, in the Farbfotografie/Color Photography section of the fifth Vienna International Biennial; the exhibition and catalog are organized by Peter Weibel and Anna Auer. Ghirri exhibits in the group show Das Imaginäre Photomuseum at the Photokina in Cologne; Beaumont Newhall, Leo Fritz Gruber, and Helmut Gernsheim are the exhibition’s curators; the accompanying catalog is published by DuMont. Manfred Heiting, director of Polaroid International, invites Ghirri to work at the company’s Amsterdam studio in 1980 and 1981, to use the large-format Polaroid. Numerous works, particularly from Ghirri’s Still-Life series (1975–81), are acquired for the Polaroid Collection.
Ghirri is invited to the Photokina in Cologne, where, in the context of the exhibition Photographie 1922–1982, he is presented as one of the foremost photographers of the twentieth century. Even amid increasing commitments and growing recognition, he continues his investigations. In Christian Norberg-Schulz’s 1979 essay “Genius loci: Paesaggio Ambiente Architettura” Ghirri identifies interesting points of contact with his own ideas. He delves into the concept of “genius loci,” or “spirit of place,” and the meaning of habitation, addressing the ambiguity and complexity of existence, in an effort to establish a new way of looking. His aim is to find “a photography that may establish new dialectical relationships, and that may also be a method for organizing the gaze, so that it is no longer static before an increasingly incomprehensible and complex external world... to search for a photography that is capable of constructing images and figures, so that photographing the world is also a way of understanding it.” After completing Topographie-Iconographie (1978–82), Ghirri focuses on a systematic investigation that will occupy him for the rest of the decade. He returns to southern Italy to interpret the landscape there for an assignment from the Puglia region. Working with Expo Arte in Bari and the Spazio Immagine gallery, he mounts the exhibition Luigi Ghirri: Tra albe e tramonti—Cento immagini per la Puglia. The photographs from this project Tra albe e tramonti (Between dawn and dusk, 1982–83) constitute a defined group of works, although some of the individual images cross over into his Paesaggio Italiano series. He exhibits Topographie-Iconographie at the Studio Marconi in Milan and at the Galerie Viviane Esders in Paris; Objets trouvés at the Pol Galerie in Munich; and Luigi Ghirri—Polaroids 50 x 60 at the Galleria Rondanini in Rome.
Ghirri continues to receive commissions, and he begins a specific exploration into architecture. Vittorio Savi introduces him to Pierluigi Nicolin, Alberto Ferlenga, and the editorial staff of the magazine Lotus International, which commissions him to create a photographic interpretation of Aldo Rossi’s San Cataldo cemetery in Modena. The project is given prominent coverage in Lotus International. Ghirri will later return to the subject, inserting part of this work into the Paesaggio Italiano series. This project has a substantial impact on Ghirri’s understanding of the relationship between photography and architecture: “Rossi’s architecture fills me with wonder,” he says. “In the end what fascinates me about his work... are the memories, stories, connections, inventions, and appearances that constitute the various layers of making things and of our perceptions.” In the realm of landscape work, Ghirri’s photographs of Capri, made in 1980 and 1981, are published in Cesare de Seta’s Capri (ERI). He participates in the exhibition Four Italians at the Santa Fe Center for Photography, curated by Bernard Plossu. Ghirri organizes and promotes the group show Penisola, una linea della fotografia italiana a colori for the Symposiom über Fotografie at the Forum Stadtpark in Graz. His work is discussed in several important publications, including Achille Bonito Oliva’s Critica ad Arte: Panorama della Post-Critica (Giancarlo Politi); Giovanni Chiaramonte’s Immagini della fotografia europea contemporanea (Jaca); and Arturo Carlo Quintavalle’s Messa a fuoco: Studi sulla fotografia (Feltrinelli). The Gruppo editoriale Fabbri publishes a monograph on Ghirri’s work as part of their “Grandi fotografi” series.
Ghirri has a strong commitment to teaching, a means through which he attempts to transform photography into a tool for renewing perception itself. In pursuit of this goal, he considers it of utmost importance to share his ideas with other artists and intellectuals; such collaborations result in joint projects of great significance. He teaches a course in the history and technique of photography at the Università di Parma. The success of the exhibition Penisola, una linea della fotografia italiana a colori encourages Ghirri to consider a broader project dedicated to new Italian landscape photography. With Gianni Leone and Enzo Velati, he organizes Viaggio in Italia, a book and exhibition that travels from Bari to Reggio Emilia and includes both Italian and foreign artists. The project’s focus is on the image of Italy following the country’s profound transformations during the 1960s and ’70s. Supporting the premise that photography is a new narrative tool for the Italian landscape are a text in the book by Arturo Carlo Quintavalle and an essay by Gianni Celati: “Verso la foce: Reportage per un’amico fotografo.” On the occasion of Mois de la Photo, Ghirri is invited to deliver a lecture, L’oeuvre ouverte (The open work) at the Sorbonne in Paris. “We need to move on from the photography of research to the research of photography... and hence the idea of an ‘open work.’... The image thus assumes less defined, categorical, precise outlines, to be part of a large organization, one in continuous motion.” Ghirri is invited to the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, where he holds a workshop titled À la recherche de l'original perdu (In search of the lost original). He has two solo exhibitions in Canada, Still-Life and Topographie-Iconographie, both curated by Soel Cohen, at the Optica gallery in Montreal and at the Mercer Union in Toronto respectively. Photographs from his Kodachrome series are included in a exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, La photographie creative: Les collections de la Bibliothèque Nationale—15 ans d'enrichissement; the exhibition and catalog are organized by Jean-Claude Lemagny.
Ghirri continues to explore the themes of architecture and landscape. At the invitation of the French Ministry of Culture, he photographs the palace and gardens of Versailles; this series of images marks a clear development toward his mature period. Light and color are essential elements in his interpretation of these sites and are integral to his theoretical reflections. He writes: “Light is the real substance that gives form to my images.... For me, light is the true ‘genius loci.’... Through my work I have discovered that there exists... a particular moment when, through light, even something that is apparently invisible ends up being revealed on the surface of the world.” Ghirri’s concept of landscape is thus conveyed through delicate balances of light and color in his photographs—both recalling the suspended atmosphere of landscape painters, and suggesting a new investigative path within contemporary photography. Ghirri is commissioned by Paolo Portoghesi to photograph and interpret the architecture of Marcello Piacentini at the Città Universitaria di Roma La Sapienza. Aldo Rossi invites the photographer to interpret a selection of sites related to the culture of the Veneto, the theme of the international competition for the Venice Biennale’s architecture section. Vittorio Savi commissions him to photograph the Florence train station, designed by Giovanni Michelucci. Ghirri participates in The European Iceberg: Creativity in Germany and Italy Today, a multimedia international exhibition organized by Germano Celant at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, in which the photography section is curated by Arturo Carlo Quintavalle. Ghirri is invited to Graz, to the Symposiom über Fotografie; the theme is Europa—America e reciproche influenze (Europe—America and reciprocal influences). Here, Ghirri meets Robert Frank and William Eggleston (the previous year, Ghirri wrote an article titled “Welten ohne Ende/Worlds Without End” on Eggleston for Camera Austria.
With the success of Viaggio in Italia, Ghirri proposes to the municipality of Reggio Emilia and the region of Emilia-Romagna a project on the ancient Via Emilia. It is to be an extensive and complex undertaking, comprising not only photography, but literary, cinematographic, planning, economic, and environmental aspects as well. The concept of the project (partly inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “Highway 61 Revisited”) is to reinterpret the Via Emilia, Roman in origin, and the territory it passes through, to capture the transformations wrought by urbanization and industrialization. In addition to developing the project as a whole, Ghirri coordinates the photographic research, which involves a number of Italian and foreign artists. The exhibition, Esplorazioni sulla via Emilia: Vedute nel paesaggio, curated by Giulio Bizzarri and Eleonora Bronzoni, opens in Bologna and then travels to Reggio Emilia and Ferrara and is circulated by the Italian Cultural Institute to venues in Utrecht, Edinburgh, Moscow, Heidelberg, Hamburg, Munich, Brussels, Strasbourg, and Paris. The exhibition catalog is accompanied by the book Scritture nel paesaggio—accounts by the writers involved in the project, with an introduction by Italo Calvino. As with his earlier projects, Ghirri regroups his photographs in a series he calls Esplorazioni sulla via Emilia (Explorations on the Via Emilia, 1983-86)—and some of these works also find their way into the series Paesaggio Italiano. Ghirri participates in an Italian-French group show, Trouver Trieste at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He takes part in 50 Jahre Moderne Farbfotografie/50 Years of Modern Color Photography, 1936–1986 at the Photokina in Cologne; here he shows works on the theme of the urban landscape; the exhibition and catalog are organized by Manfred Heiting. At the Milan Triennale, for the exhibition Il Progetto domestico, he develops a body of work devoted to installations by architects, including Aldo Rossi’s photographs of the Teatro domestico. Ghirri travels to the United States for the first time, visiting Boston and New York City. During this trip he creates numerous photographs that become part of his larger body of work.
Ghirri completes his work for the large Aldo Rossi monograph, where his artist’s eye “describes” the work of the architect. In Reggio Emilia, he curates the exhibition Jacques Henri Lartigue, and contributes one of the catalog texts. At the Milan Triennale, he participates in the group show Le città immaginate: Un viaggio in Italia—Nove progetti per nove città, curated by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani and Vittorio Savi. Along with Ghirri’s photographs, the catalog includes his text “Un cancello sul fiume” (A gate over the river), an intensely personal discussion of his interpretation of place. Here he says: [Cesare] Zavattini writes that melancholy is endemic to the Po region, and that elsewhere it is only an imitation; he maintains that as soon as he arrives in this region, he feels as though he has crossed over a frontier into grayness, or entered something imprecise. Melancholy is imprecision. I believe that these are precisely the right terms. Melancholy is the road sign for an effaced geography; it is the feeling of distance that separates us from a potential simple world.... Because the horizon nearly always mingles earth and sky, because the countryside also inhabits city and villages... because streets seem always to head toward the same point—and thus nowhere.
Ghirri is invited to curate the photography section of the Milan Triennale’s international survey Le città del mondo e il futuro delle metropoli: Oltre la città, la metropoli; Germano Celant curates the art section. Titled Atlante fotografico sulla metropolis, the show includes representative photographs of the urban scene, past and present, including work by Ghirri and many others: Diane Arbus, Andrea Cavazzuti, Giovanni Chiaramonte, William Clift, Robert Doisneau, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, André Kertesz, Klaus Kinold, William Klein, O. Winston Link, Joel Meyerowitz, Ugo Mulas, Nicolas Nixon, Stephen Shore, Art Sinsabaugh, Joel Sternfeld, George Tice, and Fulvio Ventura. Ghirri takes the project as an opportunity for theoretical reflection. In his introductory text for the exhibition catalog, “Lo sguardo inquieto: un'antologia di sentimenti,”, he probes the relationship between photography and the space-time dimension of the city and the metropolis. Again acting as curator, Ghirri organizes two photography exhibitions for the municipality of Reggio Emilia. The first, Strand, Luzzara '54: Inediti, is an important collection of previously unpublished photographs by Paul Strand, produced during the American photographer’s sojourn in Luzzara and resulting in the book Un Paese, created in 1954 with Cesare Zavattini. The second, Giardini in Europa, is a group show that includes, along with Ghirri’s own work, photographs by Italian and foreign artists. For the exhibition catalog, he contributes the text “Un piede nell'Eden” (One foot in Eden)—his 1984–92 series of the same name is focused on the theme of gardens. Ghirri participates in L'arc Lemanique: Vingt et un récits sur le lieu, a project that again brings together literary and photographic interpretations of a place, Lake Geneva. The exhibition is first installed at the Place de l'Île museum in Geneva then travels to the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne. Ghirri continues his work interpreting architecture through photography, and in this arena has numerous publishing projects. He travels to Ljubljana to photograph the work of architect Jože Plečnik for a monograph that is published by Electa in 1990. In the meantime Ghirri works increasingly with architecture and design magazines. Fabbri publishes Il Palazzo dell'arte (The art palace), based on Ghirri’s 1980–88 series of the same name, which features his interpretation of various museum spaces in Italy. The photographs in this body of work complete his personal investigation of museum spaces, created during the course of the 1980s. Ghirri meets Wim Wenders in Bologna, at the home of Lucio Dalla.
Ghirri continues his search for a new vision, both artistically and existentially. He conceives the project Paesaggio Italiano (Italian landscape), a monograph and an exhibition presented first in Reggio Emilia, and then traveling to Mantua and then to various Italian cultural institute venues in South America. This project is a fundamental expression of his philosophy and poetics. He writes: “I would like this work on the Italian landscape to seem a bit like . . . an imprecise cartography, without compass points, more about the perception of a place than its cataloging or description, like a sentimental geography where the itineraries are not marked and precise, but obey the strange confusions of seeing.” This “sentimental geography” is essentially an innovative reinterpretation of landscape photography; in the book, he juxtaposes his photographs with other images, some of his own texts, and a variety of critical contributions, providing an extremely important interpretive key. The book includes such elements as a 1936 snapshot by Walker Evans; a still from the final sequence of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times; the cover of the 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; a reproduction of Breughel’s Tower of Babel; and some picture postcards and children’s drawings. Ghirri juxtaposes a photograph he took in the bedroom of his friend the writer Daniele Benati with the rooms of Vincent van Gogh and René Magritte. Ghirri’s intention with this “artist’s book” is to explicate the mechanisms of vision on which his work is based, drawing upon layers of memory for associations and ideas, and thereby triggering new imaginative possibilities, “as if a chance and disconnected narrative were to mysteriously find its logic.” Beyond this project, Paesaggio Italiano (1980–92) is also the title of one of his most important groups of works, in which, as usual, numerous pieces are brought together. Ghirri finishes the series Il bollettino per i naviganti (The sailors’ bulletin, 1972–89), a major work about his vision of the Adriatic Sea. He also completes Strada provinciale delle anime (Provincial road of souls, 1988–89), a group of photographs that interpret the environment of the Po delta, following the hypothesis of a film by Gianni Celati. Ghirri creates the photographs for another monograph on the work of Aldo Rossi. He photographs design projects by contemporary artists for Meta Memphis and has a solo show of these works at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice. He develops a new course of study on photography and teaches at the Università del Progetto in Reggio Emilia. He makes a second trip to New York, to photograph the Bulgari showroom.
With a commission from Gruppo Riello, at the beginning of the year Ghirri creates another book and traveling exhibition: Il profilo delle nuvole: Immagini di un paesaggio italiano (The outline of clouds: Images of an Italian landscape). The publication, conceived as an “artist’s book,” concerns the landscape of the Po valley through the Veneto, Emilia, and Lombardy. Retracing his path to places he has photographed, Ghirri follows an itinerary guided by associative memory. This interpretation of the landscape is developed with Gianni Celati, whose text accompanies the photographer’s images. The overriding feelings evoked by these landscapes are melancholy, ungraspable memory, suspension, and enchantment. The photographs also inspire Ghirri to create a new group of works, which will become part of the series Il profilo delle nuvole (1980–92). During this period, in keeping with the spirit of similar projects that bring him ever closer to a personal interpretation of places, he develops two fundamental works on the theme of the “interior landscape.” He photographs the studios of Giorgio Morandi and Aldo Rossi; these images are profound analyses of the existential life of a space: Atelier Morandi (1989–90) and Studio di Aldo Rossi (1989–90). He has a solo exhibition, Luigi Ghirri, at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône. Ghirri purchases a large house in Roncocesi, in the countryside just outside Reggio Emilia, where he lives with his wife, Paola. In December their daughter, Adele, is born.
Ghirri puts together a selection of images by contemporary photographers for the book Atlante Metropolitano, which also includes his own photographs of New York and Boston. He publishes a project (with Cesare de Seta) on the Reggia of Caserta with photographs he had made the previous year. He also creates the publication Viaggio dentro un’antico labirinto (Voyage within an ancient labyrinth), an interpretation of the Italian landscape through the history of art and literature; this is his last book. Ghirri shows his photographs in the exhibition Aldo Rossi par Aldo Rossi, architecte at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Meanwhile, Ghirri begins working on a project for a book on Giorgio Morandi’s interiors—the artist’s Bologna atelier and the studio in his house in Grizzana—which fascinate Ghirri, he says, “because of the extraordinary atmosphere, their magical immobility.” Following this idea, he plans two projects: one devoted to the still life, the other to “scattered houses,” the isolated houses that dot the horizon of the Po valley. The last image on Ghirri’s final roll of film is of the fog in the countryside: Malinconia e imprecisione (Melancholy and imprecision). He dies suddenly at home in Roncocesi, on February 14, 1992.
Chronology by Elena Re, from “It’s beautiful here, isn't it…”, Aperture New York, 2008