June/July/Aug 2008

It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It . . .

Albert Mobilio

In one of Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s better-known photos, a woman stands on a tile map of southern Italy, her sandal-clad feet atop Capri and the Bay of Naples. Of this gentle Colossus bestriding sea and craggy coast, we see only green shoes, bare ankles, and the hem of a dress. Picture taking may be a bit of magic, but geography is also just another trick of the eye: The actual world’s always bigger than we can physically embrace but not bigger than we can show. Subverting traditional landscape photography’s heroic impulse, Ghirri prized representational antics over the mere grandeur of volcanoes and dizzying cliffs. During his brief career (he died in 1992, at the age of forty-nine), he invigorated the tropes of (interior as well as exterior) landscape imagery. Drawing on the Conceptual practices of the late ’50s and ’60s and on influences such as de Chirico and the Surrealists, Ghirri developed a visual grammar both witty and gymnastic. His stock-in-trade was to flip the frame of reference, to confuse the real and the representational: Restaurant diners who sit in front of a slapdash mural of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe appear to be joining the painting’s picnickers; a souvenir ashtray depicting Michelangelo’s David is shot in close-up so that the stubbed-out cigarettes, ashes, and matches form an architectural niche for the sculpture; a netted bag of toy houses and windmills dangles in front of a painted sky. While Ghirri photographed book pages, drawings, and other photographs to further blur this boundary, he also had a knack for the serendipitous scene: A view from inside a Parma hat shop looking out toward the plaza catches an array of hats suspended in midflight, like miniature flying saucers about to harrow the streetscape. Ghirri sparks the moment with storytelling, and the tableau grows large even as it shrinks within his viewfinder.