It is said that we owe the meaning of the word ‘laconic’ to the Spartans. When Philip II of Macedon was planning to conquer Sparta, capital of Laconia, he sent the city’s inhabitants an unambiguous message: ‘If I invade Laconia, you will be destroyed.’ The Spartans replied with one word: ‘If.’
The spare, austere photographs of Luigi Ghirri likewise seem to say: ‘If.’ If someone came down this road (Verso Lagosanto [Serie: Il profilo delle nuvole], 1989); if someone stepped through this pair of doors (Modena [Serie: Catalogo], 1972); if someone wore these rubber boots (Lucerna [Serie: Kodachrome], 1972). Ghirri’s work depicts empty streets, locked doors, unworn shoes and nondescript houses in such a way that his subject matter appears laconically abridged. Ghirri wanted to move away from the ‘decisive moment’ of Henri Cartier-Bresson and also resisted trends for exoticism and folklore (popular then, as now). Instead, he focused on moments of concision, uncertainty or muted suggestions of human action: people sitting around, drinking; trees; windows; a flag; the midday sun; an advertisement.
For this exhibition, curator Urs Stahel, formerly director of Fotomuseum Winterthur, showed Ghirri’s small-format photographs in a compact presentation covering several key series from the late 1960s to the early ’80s. Stahel’s selection (sourced directly from the family-owned Ghirri Archive) was divided into two main areas. On the ground floor, there were unspectacular, nonchalantly shot explorations of regional scenes – including Modena (Serie: Fotografie del periodo iniziale), 1971 – in which Ghirri experimented with colour-transparency film and unconventional framing. The upper gallery showcased Ghirri’s work as an appropriation artist: by photographing advertising posters and magazines, Ghirri – who was engaged with the critical theory of his day – created pictures about pictures, as in Modena (Seria: Topographie Iconographie), 1979. In so doing, he anticipated the spirit of the Pictures Generation artists. Ghirri’s deadpan aesthetic is visible both in the cheap serial prints he used in his early work and the more laboured studies he produced from the late 1970s onwards.
In the late 1960s – inspired by Marcel Duchamp and in direct dialogue with conceptual artists like Giuliano della Casa, Carlo Cremaschi, Franco Guerzoni and Claudio Parmiggiani – Ghirri developed a philosophy of the image that was most strongly reflected in the Zurich show by the series ‘Atlante’ (1973). In the critical terminology of the time, Ghirri’s close-up photographs of the details of atlases and other maps question the link between signifier and signified, referring to a supposedly ‘natural’ environment that has long since become a simulacrum, and revealing the specific aesthetics harboured within ‘objective’ representation. The longevity of this work is evidenced by Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory (2010): the tale of a 21st-century artist who is made famous by his photographs of Michelin road maps.
This semiotic dimension, rooted in the linguistic turn of the 1960s, is not directly evident in Ghirri’s later work (such as ‘Still Life’, 1978–81) with its focus on cities, vases, plants, signs and tiles. Here, Ghirri displays a more complex art-historical frame of reference – including series referring to classical genres, such as ‘Vedute’ (1983–86) – and an increased emotionality. Stahel has spoken in the past of ‘the two Ghirris’: one rational and analytical; the other, irrational and synthetic. The fact that Stahel focused more attention on the 1970s in this exhibition can be read as the curator’s own preference for the rational-analytical, conceptual Ghirri. Yet, the laconic Ghirri is the one I find most compelling.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Main image: Luigi Ghirri, Untitled (Serie: Fotografie del periodo iniziale) (detail), 1970-72, vintage c-type print, 12 x 18 cm. Courtesy: Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich