In Wim Wenders’ 1974 film Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities), a German photojournalist sits alone on an American beach as the sun sets, taking pictures of the view and humming ‘Under the Boardwalk’. It is the myth of America seen through credulous European eyes. The Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s Bretagne (1972) shows a banner on a sandy beach at sunset, with a car parked by the surf. It might, at first glance, be one of Wenders’ itinerant photographer’s snaps, until we notice the car parked by the sea is not a Buick but a decrepit Fiat and the banner – a gateway onto the sand and into the image – is written in French. The American connection has more to do with the vacant lots and abandoned petrol stations that crop up in Ghirri’s work – as they do in the work of his better-known US contemporaries such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, both of whom shared the Italian’s sense of observing something that most people would not care to notice. In this way, Ghirri can be seen as a fellow practitioner of a modest, urban photography that liberates the documentary tradition from the demands of function.
But Ghirri’s interests also anticipated and overlapped with a later photographic tradition, that of Jeff Wall and the so-called Düsseldorf School, for example, who aspired to create large-scale art objects to rival painting’s greater market value and subvert the glossy blandness of the reproducible photograph with self-reflexive artifice. Ghirri’s work sometimes hints at these possibilities, even as he remains a flâneur, capturing the contingencies of modern cities. Fittingly, the passage of time has also made unique objects of his colour prints by fading them to muted, delicate off-shades. He died in 1992.
Ghirri’s photographs are small, singular and unpredictable, but his tendency to group them in series that bear literary and metaphysical titles, and to exploit the ambiguity between reality and its representation, is redolent of analytical Conceptual strategies, while anticipating the 1980s Pictures generation of Laurie Simmons and Cindy Sherman, as well as Thomas Demand’s trompe l’oeil still lives. Ghirri, however, avoids the airlessness of the totally artificial or rational image. The view begins to close down when he photographs letters and pictures, but it usually opens up again onto newly mediated space. In Reggio Emilia (1972), a cardboard cut-out of a girl in a bikini with a camera strung over her shoulder stands against a corridor’s dim olive light. We have to look twice to confirm the figure’s artifice. Ferrara (1979) depicts a photograph of Sigmund Freud over his name in block capitals, and a plump arrow pointing away; all three elements are arranged behind the diagonal iron bars of a shop shutter. Different orders of signs are played off against each other, with the shutter itself a sign for closure. If this sounds arid, the details make it vivid: old sellotape tacking the arrow’s corners and stray reflections of the shutter in the window constituting yet another level of illusion within the extremely shallow space.
Cultural recollection is another type of sign that comes in and out of focus, although the solipsism of art about art is always evaded by precise observation. Lucerna (1972) shows a mannequin dramatically lit to resemble an ancient Egyptian female bust, while the woman smoking cinematically in Parigi (1972) might be a character in a Michelangelo Antonioni film, but these associations are minor ingredients in a mysteriously revealed world. Ghirri’s punning between image and ground can be eerie, even macabre – reminiscent of the surreal Italian scenes in W.G. Sebald’s novel Vertigo (2000), in which history, imagination and rumour gather and overwhelm the present. Modena (1973) is bisected vertically, a blonde wig hung on a red board beside a few blurred passers-by. The wig pronounces a sinister malediction on the shoppers’ innocent passage: it is a startling embodiment of the connection between photography’s stoppage of time and death. In Lucerna (1971) dumbbells are attached to a poster of a woman ascending a cobbled street, as though shackling her ankles. It may be a harmless joke on the way photography has already immobilized her, but there is something unsettling about the absolute denial of movement within an idiom that is essentially concerned with arresting fleeting sensations, even if we already knew she was going nowhere.