Luigi Ghirri and the Photography of Place

Interdisciplinary Perspectives

by Marina Spunta (Volume editor) Jacopo Benci (Volume editor)
Edited Collection LVI, 308 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 27


The photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992) was one of the most significant Italian artists of the late twentieth century. This volume – the first scholarly book-length publication on Ghirri to appear in English – introduces his photographic and critical work to a broader audience and positions Ghirri as a key voice within global artistic debates. It breaks new ground by approaching Ghirri’s œuvre from a wide range of interdisciplinary perspectives, in order to take account of the breadth of his interests, the variety of his projects and the far-reaching impact of his work as a practitioner, writer, theorist and curator, both in the field of photography and beyond. Drawing on different approaches from disciplines including art history, theory of photography, literary and cultural studies, architecture, cartography, and place and landscape studies, the essays in the volume show how Ghirri redefined contemporary photography and helped shape the «spatial» or «landscape» turn in Italy and further afield.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Re-siting Luigi Ghirri (Marina Spunta and Jacopo Benci)
  • Part I: Luigi Ghirri’s Photography in Context
  • 1 Luigi Ghirri, Minimal Journeys: Icons, Landscapes, Architectures (Giuliano Sergio)
  • 2 Between Reality and Representation: The Souvenir Function of Luigi Ghirri’s Photographic "Trompe-l’œils" (Nicoletta Leonardi)
  • 3 Luigi Ghirri’s Photography from the 1970s to the 1980s: The Working Image, the Artistic Language (Paolo Barbaro)
  • 4 Luigi Ghirri between Research and Curatorial Activity (Laura Gasparini)
  • 5 On Some Hitherto Overlooked Sources of Luigi Ghirri’s Work, 1972–1982 (Jacopo Benci)
  • Part II: Luigi Ghirri’s Photography in an Interdisciplinary Dialogue
  • 6 Luigi Ghirri’s Cartographic Portrayals: A Review through Map Theory (Tania Rossetto)
  • 7 Words, Image, Architecture: Vittorio Savi and Luigi Ghirri (Matteo Cassani Simonetti)
  • 8 Landscapes in Music: Luigi Ghirri and Record Covers (Raffaella Perna)
  • 9 Of Fireflies and Photography: Pasolini, Didi-Huberman, Ghirri (Anna Botta)
  • 10 Narrating the Experience of Place: Luigi Ghirri and Literature (Marina Spunta)
  • 11 The Photographer and the Painter: Some Observations around the Things of Giorgio Morandi and Luigi Ghirri (Epifanio Ajello)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


Figure 1.1:     Luigi Ghirri, Lucerna, 1971, from Fotografie del periodo iniziale (1970–2).

Figure 2.1:     Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1978, from the series Still Life (1978–81).

Figure 3.1:     Luigi Ghirri, cover image of the portfolio Paesaggi di cartone (detail), 1975.

Figure 6.1:     Luigi Ghirri, Padova, 1975, from the series Italia ailati (1971–9).

Figure 8.1:     Luigi Ghirri, cover image for J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Nos 1, 2, 6, Festival Strings Lucerne, cond. Rudolf Baumgartner (RCA Gold Seal, Digital, Eurodisc, 1986).

Figure 9.1:     Luigi Ghirri, Bologna, 1985, from the series Il profilo delle nuvole (1980–92); titled Bologna, via Stalingrado, in Il profilo delle nuvole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1989).

Figure 10.1:   Luigi Ghirri, Pomponesco, 1985, from the series Il profilo delle nuvole (1980–92), in Il profilo delle nuvole (1989).

Figure 11.1:   Luigi Ghirri, Atelier Morandi, from the series Atelier Morandi (1989–90), in Luigi Ghirri Giorgio Morandi – Il senso delle cose (Reggio Emilia: Diabasis, 2005). ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


First and foremost we wish to thank the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust for supporting the research project Viewing and Writing Italian Landscape. Luigi Ghirri and His Legacy in Photography and Literature (2013–15), of which this volume is an outcome. We would like to thank the University of Leicester, the British School at Rome and the Society for Italian Studies for their support, and, for offering their patronage, the Italian Cultural Institute in London, the British–Italian Society, the MAXXI in Rome, the Panizzi Library in Reggio Emilia, the Comune di Reggio Emilia and the Regione Emilia Romagna. Our sincere thanks to the Eredi di Luigi Ghirri, Ilaria and Adele Ghirri, and to Maria Fontana, keeper of the Ghirri photographic archive in Roncocesi, for encouraging the research project that led to this volume, attending its conferences in Rome and in Leicester, and for granting permission for the reproduction of Luigi Ghirri’s photographs. A special thanks to Laura Gasparini, director of the Ghirri photographic archive in the Panizzi Library in Reggio Emilia for her support over the past few years. We are grateful to all the scholars, photographers and artists who enthusiastically welcomed our research project and who contributed to it in various ways, by delivering papers, attending our conferences, writing for the project blog or by agreeing to show their photographic work in the virtual exhibition that accompanied the conference in Leicester, currently hosted on the project blog. Our sincere thanks go to a number of people who contributed to the project at various stages with scholarly advice and practical help: Professor Robert Lumley for supporting the project throughout and for his many helpful suggestions; Oliver Brett for all his work as a research assistant to the project; Silvia Stucky for her help with the graphic design and video recording in Rome; and many other colleagues in Leicester, Rome and elsewhere. Last but not least, our thanks go to Helmut Schmitz and Silvia Stucky for their continuing support. ← ix | x →

← xii | xiii →


Introduction: Re-siting Luigi Ghirri

Re-siting Luigi Ghirri: Context and aims

The photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943–92) is one of the most significant Italian visual artists of the last four decades. The term ‘visual artist’ is meant here not to distinguish and separate him from other photographers, but to point out that, although Ghirri always worked exclusively with the medium of photography, his art was not confined to the specific technical field of images created with the photographic apparatus. Ghirri drew on a variety of sources – encompassing painting, architecture, literature, as well as geography, cinema, music – refashioning them in his vast body of work. This comprises more than 180,000 negatives and 150 vintage prints stored at the Fototeca Panizzi of the Municipal Library in Reggio Emilia, over 800 prints stored at the CSAC in Parma, and other materials stored at his last house in Roncocesi, as well as over thirty photobooks and catalogues published during his life.1 Thanks to his prolific output, and because his approach was a holistic one, Ghirri has left an important legacy for his contemporaries and for younger generations of photographers, visual artists and other practitioners, in Italy and abroad.

In the early 1970s Ghirri undertook a rethinking of photography, both as self-reflective analytical practice and as a detailed investigation of the minute, mundane aspects of the everyday. He was among the first ← xiii | xiv → practitioners – alongside Stephen Shore and William Eggleston2 – to use only colour photography, which until shortly before had been deemed unsuitable for professional practice. From the late 1970s until his untimely death at age forty-nine in 1992, besides his own work as a photographer, Ghirri was extremely active as a curator, writer, publisher and catalyst of interdisciplinary initiatives that gave a new orientation to Italian photography. By the early 1980s Ghirri turned his attention to urban and natural landscape, primarily though not exclusively in Italy, and engaged in a dialogue with architects, writers, geographers – a dialogue that manifested itself in a number of groundbreaking collaborative endeavours, such as the pivotal exhibition Viaggio in Italia [Journey through Italy] (1984).3 This and other projects led by Ghirri considerably promoted the growth of the photographic culture in Italy, giving rise, in Claudio Marra’s words, to ‘a long wave with very positive outcomes, which has managed to attract and stimulate many other authors’.4 Moreover, Ghirri’s work was instrumental in establishing a fruitful dialogue between photography and other arts and disciplines, and in giving rise to a renewed attention to landscape in Italian photography,5 thus contributing to positing place and landscape at the core of the artistic practice and critical debate in those years.

Twenty-five years after his passing, Luigi Ghirri is increasingly being recognized as one of the leading photographers of the late twentieth century, in Italy but also abroad, where more artists and scholars are discovering the originality of his art thanks to a growing number of exhibitions and some recent publications in English and other languages. These include ← xiv | xv → the volume It’s beautiful here, isn’t it …, published by Aperture in 2008, the reprint of Ghirri’s 1978 book Kodachrome (2013) and Maria Antonella Pelizzari’s April 2013 article on Artforum.6 Publications in other languages comprise a French translation of some of Ghirri’s essays, Voyage dans les images, and a Japanese translation of Ghirri’s 1989–90 lectures, Lezioni di fotografia [Lessons in photography], originally published in Italy by Quodlibet in 2010.7 Recent publications also include The Complete Essays 1973–1991, the English translation of the collection of Ghirri’s texts, Niente di antico sotto il sole [Nothing old under the sun], edited by Paolo Costantini and Giovanni Chiaramonte,8 which brings Ghirri’s writings to the attention of a broader audience and presents a more thorough image of his work. Alongside these publications, the most recent wave of interest in Ghirri’s photography was triggered by a number of international exhibitions, such as those at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York and Los Angeles in 2011, 2013 and 2016, and the major retrospective of Ghirri’s work at the MAXXI in Rome, Luigi Ghirri. Pensare per immagini. Icone Paesaggi Architetture [Thinking in images. Icons Landscapes Architectures], ← xv | xvi → curated by Francesca Fabiani, Laura Gasparini and Giuliano Sergio (23 April–27 October 2013), which later toured to Brazil.9 A selection of Ghirri’s photographs was also included in the exhibition La carte d’après nature, curated by artist Thomas Demand at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco (18 September 2010–22 February 2011), which explored the ‘surrealist’ aspects of Ghirri’s work, and in the 2014 exhibition Constructing Worlds. Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age at the Barbican in London, which presented Ghirri’s photographs of three projects by Aldo Rossi.10 These recent publications and exhibitions testify to a growing international interest in the work of Luigi Ghirri, an interest, however, that has not been matched to date by an adequate amount of critical work; no extended study of Ghirri’s work has been published in English, nor in any other major European language.

Luigi Ghirri and the Photography of Place seeks to redress this obvious lack and to contribute to the current (re)discovery of Ghirri’s work outside ← xvi | xvii → of Italy. As the first book-length collection of scholarly essays to appear in English, this volume introduces Ghirri’s photographic and critical work to a broader public outside of the confines of Italy and the Italian language, thus positioning it more firmly within the worldwide artistic dialogue. No less importantly, the book intends to add depth to the critical and scholarly reflection on Ghirri, challenging some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding his work. The present volume aims to break new ground in the study of Ghirri’s photography by approaching it from an interdisciplinary perspective, in order to contextualize it within a broader cultural context, accounting for the breadth of his interests, the variety of his projects and the far-reaching impact of his work as a practitioner, writer, theorist and curator, in the field of photography and beyond.11 Drawing on different disciplinary and theoretical approaches – including art history, literary and cultural studies, cartography and architecture – the chapters in this book investigate key aspects of Ghirri’s photography in order to show how his multifaceted work belongs in the current international artistic debate and fully engages in dialogue with a number of disciplines and practices and with a variety of topical issues. In the following pages we will introduce Ghirri’s work and assess his critical reception to date, consider the interdisciplinary nature of his work in particular with respect to place and landscape studies, and illustrate how the present volume contributes to Ghirri’s critical reassessment. ← xvii | xviii →

Luigi Ghirri: A bio-bibliographical sketch12

Luigi Ghirri was born in Scandiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia, on 5 January 1943, and lived in the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy, in the towns of Sassuolo, Modena, Formigine and Roncocesi, where he died on 14 February 1992. Although he spent his life in a rather circumscribed area of Italy, he travelled and photographed throughout Italy and abroad, in Europe and later in the United States. Ghirri studied and then worked as a land surveyor until the early 1970s; from 1973 he worked as a graphic designer alongside Paola Borgonzoni, who later became his second wife.13 Ghirri had been taking photographs as an amateur since the early 1960s, but his proper photographic practice started around 1969, when he became acquainted with a group of conceptual artists based in Modena, including Franco Guerzoni, Claudio Parmiggiani, Giuliano Della Casa, Carlo Cremaschi and Franco Vaccari, and began taking photographs for their artists’ books and documenting their works and performances.14 In December ← xviii | xix → 1972 Ghirri held his first exhibition at the Canalgrande Hotel in Modena, where his work was noticed by art critic Massimo Mussini, who worked with Arturo Carlo Quintavalle at the University of Parma, in what would later become the Centro Studi e Archivio della Comunicazione (CSAC).15 As Mussini later pointed out, Ghirri’s early photographs drew on many different influences with the aim of blurring the gap between ‘reality’ and ‘representation’ and revealing the commodification of everyday life; these influences spanned from the above-mentioned Modena conceptual artists to Ghirri’s interest in surrealism, Dada and Duchamp,16 as evidenced in the ‘ready-made’ use in his photographs of (images of) signs, inscriptions and placards.17 In 1975 he was included among the ‘discoveries’ of Time-Life Photography Year 1975 (Time-Life Books, New York) and participated in the exhibition Kunst als Fotografie – Fotografie als Kunst [Art as photography – photography as art] in Kassel; he also had a personal exhibition, Luigi Ghirri. Colazione sull’erba, at Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna in Modena.18 From 1975 he started to work more consistently on a series of monographic projects, which were associated thematically and often merged into each other, as he did not catalogue his images according to ← xix | xx → strict chronological order, but rather by analogical associations.19 In the series Vedute [Views] (1970–9), Italia ailati [lit. Italy on the margins] (1971–9) and In scala [In scale] (1977–8) he questioned the tradition of vedutismo by focusing on a ‘marginal’ Italy of petrol stations and derelict restaurants and bars, thus constructing an image of the country that was far removed from the monumental or tourist view which is part of the collective imaginary of Italy – an approach that in some ways referred back to the way neorealism had broken with an official, sanitized image of Italy and its landscape. This ‘canonical’ view is challenged in the latter series, In scala, which is set in the ‘Italia in Miniatura’ theme park in Rimini, where tourists enjoy walking around small scale reproductions of Italy’s main iconic views and monuments.20 Between 1977 and 1979 he co-founded and co-directed a small publishing house, Punto e Virgola, specializing in monographs and books on the theory and history of photography, including Franco Vaccari’s Fotografia e inconscio tecnologico [Photography and the technological unconscious] (1979).21 Although short-lived, this important experience, which was shared with Paola Borgonzoni, testifies to Ghirri’s role as a cultural catalyst in the growing debate on photography in those years. In 1978 he published (with Punto e Virgola) his first photographic book, Kodachrome, encompassing images taken since 1970. Kodachrome had a reasonably good reception in Italy and abroad, mostly in France, where Ghirri was already known and where the book was published in the same year by his friend Claude Nori’s publishing house, Contrejour; Ghirri was also invited to exhibit his series Still Life (1975–9) at the Light Gallery in New York in January 1980.22 Between his participation in the exhibition L’immagine provocata, at the Venice Biennale in the summer of ← xx | xxi → 1978, and the exhibition Venezia 79. La fotografia a year later, Ghirri had his first retrospective exhibition, curated by Massimo Mussini in Parma in the spring 1979; this gave Ghirri the opportunity to take stock at all his work until then and to (re)define himself as an artist.23 Other projects at the time include Diaframma 11, 1/125, luce naturale [f/11, 1/125, natural light], (1970–9), Geografia immaginaria [Imaginary geography] (1979–80) and Topografia – Iconografia [Topography – Iconography] (1980–1); all these projects, as their titles reveal, address his main preoccupation with seeing, with photographing and with the symbolic representation of space, such as through topography.

While continuing to engage with his main aesthetic interests, in the early 1980s Ghirri focused more insistently on an exploration of place and landscape, both at local and national level, through many individual and collaborative projects, such as Viaggio in Italia (1984) and the series Paesaggio italiano / Italian landscape which engaged him for more than a decade until his death in 1992. His photography was increasingly noticed outside of Italy: in September 1980 he was invited to exhibit his work in the landscape section of a major exhibition curated by Beaumont Newhall for Photokina in Cologne; in 1982 he was included in Photographie 1922–1982, again in Cologne.24 Throughout the 1980s his work appeared in a number ← xxi | xxii → of group exhibitions in Europe (mostly France, Austria and Germany) as well as in the United States.25 From 1980 to 1981 he was invited to work at Polaroid in Amsterdam and in 1985 he was commissioned to photograph Versailles, which he chose to represent in a slightly overexposed light, to convey the unreality of the place.26 In Italy in 1981 he participated in the major exhibition Paesaggio: immagine e realtà [Landscape: Image and reality] curated by Tomás Maldonado at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM) in Bologna, which brought together many artists and scholars, including art/photography historians, cinema scholars, architects, geographers and literary critics.27 After being commissioned by Cesare De Seta to photograph Capri and Naples in 1981,28 Ghirri was invited by the photographer Gianni Leone to exhibit in Bari (Still Life, 1981; Tra albe e tramonti [Between dawns and sunsets], 1982), starting a collaboration which eventually led to the exhibition project Viaggio in Italia, jointly curated by Ghirri and Leone with Enzo Velati.29

Possibly the most influential endeavour in contemporary Italian landscape photography and the most important exhibition that Ghirri organized, Viaggio in Italia (1984) brought together twenty photographers and a writer, Gianni Celati, in order to rewrite the ‘journey to Italy’ through a documentary-style gaze that sought to rediscover everyday, ‘marginal’ places, ← xxii | xxiii → as the ‘unaccounted-for in-between’;30 this exhibition had a long-lasting influence among contemporary photographers, writers, scholars and practitioners from different disciplines. In his later projects Ghirri continued to focus on the Po Valley landscapes – which however stand for any-places-whatsoever – such as in Esplorazioni sulla via Emilia [Explorations along the Via Emilia] (1986),31 which, like Viaggio in Italia, brought together a group of photographers, but also writers, geographers and economists. This is one of the many instances in which Ghirri successfully turned to the cultural departments of local administrations, which, as Vaccari reminds us, ‘were starting to get interested in photography at the time for promotional and economic reasons’.32 Perhaps the peak of Ghirri’s later work was the photobook Il profilo delle nuvole [The outline of clouds], published by Feltrinelli in 1989, which explored the Po Valley and included a preface and accompanying text by Celati, who worked closely with Ghirri throughout the 1980s. One of Ghirri’s late projects was a commission to photograph the studios of the painter Giorgio Morandi (in Bologna and in Grizzana), which was first published in Atelier Morandi (1992). This project, which is analysed in Epifanio Ajello’s essay in this volume, reveals Ghirri’s perceptive reading of Morandi’s art and his fascination for an aesthetic based on subtraction that Morandi himself saw as photographic. ← xxiii | xxiv →

Luigi Ghirri’s reception: a critical reassessment

Ghirri’s work has been increasingly exhibited and studied in Italy, particularly since his death in February 1992, giving rise to an extensive literature in Italian, which includes a few monographs and a large number of essays, articles and catalogue texts written mostly by Italian art and photography historians and critics, such as Massimo Mussini, Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, Laura Gasparini, Claudio Marra, Roberta Valtorta, Paolo Barbaro, Anna D’Elia, Ennery Taramelli, Elena Re, Giuliano Sergio, Nicoletta Leonardi, Antonello Frongia, and others. Their work has greatly contributed in promoting and enhancing knowledge of Ghirri’s photography in Italy, and, for the most part, has celebrated Ghirri as a unique artist, whose work was central to a renewal of Italian photography, as the mainstay and theorist of a ‘cultural front’ that would find one of its direct precedents – hence a stamp of validation – in neorealism.33 This position, however, has recently been questioned by some photography historians, giving rise to a critical diatribe between supporters and critics of Ghirri. While his supporters have tended to portray Ghirri as the leading photographer in those years, lionizing his contribution at the expense of his contemporaries and collaborators, the opposite party has sought to dismantle this portrayal, criticizing Ghirri and his work, in turn, for its ‘postmodernist’, ‘aesthetic’, nostalgic, or less experimental character.34 Those critical of Ghirri have put forward other contemporary photographers, arguing for their more radical approach, such as Franco Vaccari, who engaged with experimental photography as well as ← xxiv | xxv → visual poetry since the mid-1960s, or Guido Guidi and Mario Cresci, who in the 1980s collaborated with Ghirri on a number of projects, but who had started their investigations and questioning of the photographic apparatus in the late 1960s. Guidi, in particular, although less widely known than Ghirri,35 has exerted an important influence on younger photographers, as did Gabriele Basilico, another photographer of the same generation, who left an important legacy on urban and landscape photography in Italy and elsewhere.36 In some ways, this kind of controversy echoes the late 1990s debate in which the figures and approaches of Pasolini and Calvino were put in contrast, or the more recent one in which the usefulness of the concept of neorealism in order to understand Italian postwar cinema and culture has been challenged.37 This book does not intend to flatly adhere to one or the other position, nor to remain ‘neutral’ in this debate – a position that we recognize is impossible to maintain. Our goal is to contribute to a more balanced understanding of the work of Ghirri and its reception in Italy, alongside that of other contemporary photographers, through different and sometimes conflicting readings of his work, meant to shed light not only on his photography, but also on the modes of construction of his images and of his own image as a visual artist.

Broadly speaking, Ghirri’s scholarship to date can be divided in two main phases – before and after 1992 – and in four main periods, each ← xxv | xxvi → covering approximately a decade: from 1972 to 1983; from Viaggio in Italia (January 1984) until Ghirri’s death in February 1992; from 1992 to the mid-2000s; and the latest decade. Though far from self-contained, these periods coincide with seminal occurrences in Ghirri’s life and in the critical reception of his main projects. In the 1970s the discovery and initial appraisal of Ghirri’s photography was mainly due to two art historians who taught at the University of Parma, Massimo Mussini and Arturo Carlo Quintavalle. Mussini discovered Ghirri accidentally, coming across his first exhibition in Modena in December 1972; he subsequently wrote several times on his work, curated his first major survey exhibition in Parma in 1979 (which presented a selection of several hundred works) and wrote the monograph that accompanied Ghirri’s retrospective in Reggio Emilia of 2001, which includes the essay ‘Luigi Ghirri. Attraverso la fotografia’, offering a detailed, diachronical overview of Ghirri’s work and its context. Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, founder of the Centro Studi e Archivio della Comunicazione (CSAC) at the University of Parma, provided a critical framework and helped divulge the work of Ghirri, presenting it in various exhibitions in Italy and abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, and continuing to engage critically with his work until recently, through a number of influential essays that place his work at the pivotal centre of contemporary Italian photography; for example, in the book Muri di carta. Fotografia e paesaggio dopo le avanguardie [Paper walls. Photography and landscape after the avant-gardes], which accompanied the exhibition by the same title in the Venice Biennale of 1993, Quintavalle positioned Ghirri as a key reference point for contemporary photography, in particular with respect to landscape.38 Similarly, in a later essay, he argued that ‘Ghirri was a protagonist of photography, the only Italian, after Ugo Mulas, to propose models that have become commonplace for dozens of other photographers in Italy and abroad’.39 Although this position is shared by much Ghirri scholarship, ← xxvi | xxvii → little work has been done so far to substantiate this claim and to examine this legacy, particularly outside of Italy.

In the 1980s the relevance and innovative character of Ghirri’s photography was increasingly acknowledged by critics,40 as his work began to be featured in publications aimed at the wider public of photography, such as the volume on Ghirri in the popular series ‘I grandi fotografi’ [The great photographers] published by Fabbri Editori in 1983; it was included in histories of Italian photography, such as Italo Zannier’s Storia della fotografia italiana [History of Italian photography] (1986), and analysed by distinguished critics in leading photography journals, such as Progresso fotografico [Photographic Progress] (Roberta Valtorta, 1983) and Fotologia [Photology] (Paolo Costantini, 1986).41 As mentioned above, a turning point in the reception of Ghirri’s work was the exhibition Viaggio in Italia and its accompanying book, as Ghirri himself acknowledged in a 1985 interview with Claude Nori:

For many the book Viaggio in Italia was a reference point in comparison to the void left by creative photography. […] The book Viaggio in Italia brought together a group of photographers with similar interests and sensitivities. It was a huge success, which made it possible to create new links with cultural institutions because it revealed the possibility of an iconography of contemporary Italy. (Niente di antico, 292–3)42 ← xxvii | xxviii →

In line with Ghirri’s own appraisal of the project, most of the subsequent critical literature on Ghirri celebrated Viaggio in Italia as a watershed both within his work and in contemporary Italian photography at large. This ‘moment of collective verification’, in the words of Mimmo Jodice,43 was later read by Roberta Valtorta as an ‘act of “foundation” of the “Italian school of landscape [photography]”’, an approach that further contributed to establishing a ‘canonical’ image of Ghirri and his work, forging a distinct legacy and foregrounding the landscape agenda, which at the time was receiving increasing interest across different disciplines and regional administrative boards.44 Viaggio in Italia – and the Ghirri and Celati collaboration which led five years later to Il profilo delle nuvole – opened the way to a plethora of collaborative projects on (regional) landscape in the late 1980s and 1990s, ‘a myriad of small experiences of public commissions’ across Italy;45 according to Uliano Lucas these culminated in the Milan-based commissioned project led by Roberta Valtorta, 1987–97. Archivio dello spazio [Archive of space], which appropriated Ghirri’s idea of the ← xxviii | xxix → survey of a regional landscape while ‘translating’ it from Emilia Romagna to Lombardy.46

After Ghirri’s death in 1992 his photography has continued to be primarily associated to the debate on landscape, an appropriation that has grown in parallel with the establishment of a ‘scuola ghirriana’ [Ghirrian school] and of a ‘scuola emiliana di fotografia’ [Emilian school of photography]. Indeed, it is the ‘second’ Ghirri – that of the open, empty, atmospheric views of the Po Valley of the 1980s – that has to date attracted most of the critical attention and has exerted the greatest impact on contemporary artists and writers.47 Alongside the work of Valtorta and other scholars on Italian landscape photography,48 since the 1990s art historian Claudio Marra, based at the University of Bologna, has posited Ghirri as a ‘reference point for many young authors’ and as ‘the key figure of the New Wave of Italian photography of the 1980s’, while warning against the slavish appropriation of his legacy, that already at the time was turning into a ‘maniera’, a ‘manner’, as Paolo Barbaro notes in his chapter.49 In collaboration with critics/curators such as Ennery Taramelli and Elena Re, Paola Borgonzoni Ghirri played an active role in the reappraisal of her husband’s work after his death, when she took it upon herself to organize a series of exhibitions and ← xxix | xxx → publications, starting from the seminal Vista con camera. 200 fotografie in Emilia Romagna [A view with a room/camera. 200 photographs in Emilia Romagna] (1992).50 Her commitment has been paralleled by that of Laura Gasparini, curator of the Ghirri photographic archive at the Panizzi Library in Reggio Emilia, who has curated a number of exhibitions on Ghirri in Reggio Emilia and elsewhere, and has written extensively on Ghirri’s work, his curatorial activity and his photographic archive.

Parallel with the work of the above critics and curators, after Ghirri’s death a number of projects, many of which commissioned by the Regione Emilia Romagna, sought to connect Ghirri more closely to his native land, inscribing his photography within the landscape iconography of the Po Valley and at times celebrating him as a local ‘hero’.51 While it is undeniable that Ghirri gave a key contribution to the reassessment of landscape photography and contemporary landscape in Italy and to the establishment of a ‘school’ in the loose sense of the word, his work should not be reduced to a single, albeit central aspect of his output, nor should it be pinned down to a specific location such as the Po Valley. As Quintavalle pointed out in his 1998 introduction to Luigi Ghirri Polaroid, ‘to close Ghirri in the context of a Padania roughly limited to Emilia is really unthinkable, although many have attempted this solution, or rather dissolution, of his ← xxx | xxxi → figure’.52 This approach risks reducing Ghirri’s photography to a ‘localist’ phenomenon, rather than presenting him as an all-round artist who contributed to the advancement of Italian (photographic) culture by engaging with American and European photography, art, literature and cinema. It is this reductive – though by now rather widespread – view of Ghirri and his photography that this volume intends to question and redress, through a series of in-depth investigations written by scholars from different cultural backgrounds, offering a closer reading of less studied aspects of his work. Our aim is to re-evaluate his work of the 1970s and the 1980s and to set his photography within a broader national and international cultural context by adopting an interdisciplinary perspective that assumes that, to quote Quintavalle’s words, Ghirri ‘cannot be read in a single direction’.53

The most recent phase in Ghirri’s critical reception coincided with the twentieth anniversary of Viaggio in Italia (2004), which stirred a new wave of interest in, and novel appropriations of Ghirri’s work through a number of exhibitions, conferences and publications in Italy, including the exhibition Racconti dal paesaggio. 1984–2004. A vent’anni da Viaggio in Italia [Tales from the landscape. 1984–2004. Twenty years since Viaggio in Italia], curated by Roberta Valtorta at the Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea in Cinisello Balsamo near Milan.54 Exemplifying the celebratory tone of some of the literature on Ghirri, in recent essays Valtorta has put forward Ghirri as the ‘maestro for many, perhaps for all’, whose ‘influence continues to be enormously felt still today’.55 This renewed attention to Ghirri and his legacy was paralleled by the institutional interest that underpinned a series of projects funded by the Directorate General for Contemporary ← xxxi | xxxii → Architecture and Art (DARC) of Italy’s Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities, such as Atlante italiano 2003 [Italian atlas 2003] and Atlante italiano 2007. Rischio paesaggio [Italian atlas 2007; landscape in danger],56 both presented at the MAXXI – a fact interpreted by Roberta Valtorta as evidence of the direct legacy of Ghirri’s 1980s’ work, testifying to the institutionalization of Ghirri’s image.57 The continuing significance of Viaggio in Italia was also marked, in 2013, by a commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the project in the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi.

Alongside these institutional commissions, over the past decade independent scholars and curators, such as Elena Re, have sought to illuminate less explored facets of Ghirri’s work, such as his early photography, and bring it to a wider audience by including English translations in their publications.58 Ghirri’s photography has been approached from a variety of critical perspectives, such as architecture (Pippo Ciorra), literary studies (Marco Belpoliti), aesthetics (Tonino Griffero) and semiotics (Paolo Fabbri), complementing art historical approaches such as those of Anna D’Elia (1999) and Ennery Taramelli (2004), who explored Ghirri’s aesthetics of seeing and his ‘art of memory’. Marco Sironi’s monograph, Geografie del narrare. Insistenze sui luoghi di Luigi Ghirri e Gianni Celati [Geographies of narration. Insistence on places in Luigi Ghirri and Gianni Celati] (2004), paved the way to a series of investigations on the collaboration between Ghirri and Celati, both leading authors in their respective fields, and on the interactions ← xxxii | xxxiii → between photography, literature and a sense of place.59 In line with Uliano Lucas’s reading of Ghirri as a champion of a ‘poetics of inner landscape’, in his influential L’immagine fotografica 1945–2000 [The photographic image 1945–2000],60 some of these recent studies have tended to approach Ghirri’s photography from a ‘poetic’ perspective, sanctioning the canonical reading of Ghirri as the photographer of vanishing places. Following the publication of Ghirri’s Lezioni di fotografia in 2010, the reissue of Kodachrome in 2013 and the 2016 publication of the Complete Essays 1973–1991, his work has been made accessible to a broader public and has achieved a hitherto unprecedented recognition on the international art market.61 More work, however, is needed to explore in further detail various facets of his art and to debunk the ‘myths’ surrounding Ghirri’s image, at a moment in which his work is finally achieving a wider recognition outside Italy.


LVI, 308
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. LVI, 308 pp., 8 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Marina Spunta (Volume editor) Jacopo Benci (Volume editor)

Marina Spunta is Associate Professor of Italian at the School of Arts, University of Leicester. She has published various essays on contemporary Italian fiction and photography and is the author of two monographs: Voicing the Word: Writing Orality in Contemporary Italian Fiction (2004) and Claudio Piersanti (2009). She has co-edited three volumes of essays, including Letteratura come fantasticazione. In conversazione con Gianni Celati (2009). Jacopo Benci is a visual artist who works across media, primarily in photography and video/film. He has exhibited in Italy and internationally. He is Senior Research Fellow in Modern Studies and Contemporary Visual Culture at the British School at Rome. He has published essays on the works of Antonioni and Pasolini.


Title: Luigi Ghirri and the Photography of Place