Luigi Ghirri – The Map and The Territory

Luigi Ghirri, The Map and the Territory. All spreads courtesy MACK, 2018

Maps and photographs are one and the same; they flatten the world, make it understandable, portable, navigable. To make a map you mark the source of rivers, the peaks of mountains, and the borders of countries with points and lines. You project these points and lines outwards from a globe to gridded paper; on these sheets, the mountains and valleys, cities and deserts of the world are reduced to the size of a pocket. To make a photograph you do the same; the light reflected and scattered by the walls of buildings, the leaves of trees, and the contours of a face must be captured by a lens and projected onto a sheet of film, reduced to 35mm before being projected again onto paper.

How to describe a landscape in flux? Italy in the 1960s was undergoing an economic miracle and Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) was working as a surveyor for a property development company in Modena, while his evenings and holidays were spent in his photography studio, synthesising his knowledge. “My aim is not to make PHOTOGRAPHS but rather CHARTS and MAPS that might at the same time constitute photographs” he stated in the introduction to his 1979 exhibition Vera Fotografia, which presented 14 projects covering the first ten years of his practice. It is this exhibition that marks the starting point of The Map and the Territory, published by MACK to accompany an exhibition of the same name held at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. The result is a large book; 376 pages, with 248 colour plates, a fraction of his original output, alongside Ghirri’s own introductory texts and essays by curator & editor James Lingwood, Maria Antonella Pelizzari and Jacopo Benci.

Ghirri’s images are recognisable for precisely the reason that they all resemble one another. There is a strict consistency to the way he depicts his subjects; always in colour, typically photographed from the front, wholly contained within the bounds of the photograph; the composition of his images emphasise the Euclidean geometry of the flat photographic print and its rectangular bounds; the post of a fence and the horizon of the sea corresponding to vertical and horizontal edges of the print, the pleats of a woman’s skirt perpendicular to the stairs she climbs. It is this precision that led Ghirri’s work to be described by his contemporary Franco Vaccari as “dry, it looks at things directly; it does not allude, it does not hint, it does not seek the complicity of the onlookers”.

Just as each map projection is a distortion of the world, each photograph is a frame that extracts from the world; just as there are multiple projections of maps, there is a multiplicity of ways to view a single subject. Ghirri’s practice is to embrace the multiplicity; he describes his subjects in an oblique manner, attention is paid to the neglected parts of the landscape, the peripheral places often no more than a short walk from his own home. In Colazione sull’erba (1971‒74) Ghirri’s unencumbered lens moves through the edges of towns and cities towards the suburbs, picturing these unremarkable spaces through the wholly artificial nature of topiary, tended lawns, and potted houseplants. The works of Vedute (1970‒79) turns to signs, telephone lines, flags, lamp posts; a series of empty beaches, empty chairs, and empty mirrors. Gates that lead to nowhere and windows that open onto nothing.

The act of looking and the image itself is analysed in Ghirri’s self-referential practice of photographing photographs, particularly those everyday images designed for the public; adverts in shop windows and posters stuck up on street walls. Introducing Kodachrome (1970‒78) he writes of this as the destruction of direct experience, of how it seems ‘progressively impossible to get beyond the immediately visible’ as lives are increasingly mediated through images. In Diaframma 11, 1/125, luce naturale (1970‒79) he photographs people standing in front of images. He sees ‘infinite identities’ contained within these pictures, as the person photographed becomes both a subject and a potential onlooker. In some images, he captures another person in the act of photographing, here the imagination is driven by the ‘unseen image’ that by chance resembles his own, but which will never be identical.

This interest in the gap the between imagination and reality is expressed in Ghirri’s fascination with tourism; tourists being people who travel to other places with a set of expectations, hoping to confirm them. People have travelled to Italy for centuries to experience the art, food, and weather, and in the 1960s, Italy was developing its modern tourist industry. Italia ailati (1971‒79) imagines a journey through this changing country, focussing on the roads and petrol stations between the historic tourist spots. Given that the tourist’s expectations are often not met by reality, is the journey necessary? Atlante (1973) takes this idea to its logical conclusion, comprising macro photographs of the pages of an atlas. A book where “all possible journeys are already described, all itineraries already traced”, where entire mountain ranges can be described with shades of brown and countries’ borders by red dotted lines.

Ghirri summarised his practice as ‘how to think through images’. In some readings of his work, thinking is reduced to the analysis of geometry, how he translated points from one surface to another. With this view, it’s easy to understand Vacarri’s view of the images as ‘dry’, and to see Ghirri as an individual, passive observer of the world around him. But thinking through images also demands an understanding of the emotive and the allusory aspect of images derived from their relation to other images and artists. Jacopo Benci’s essay emphasises that Ghirri was involved intimately in the theory and practice of photography in Italy, he places Ghirri in a world that includes Claudio Parmiggiani, collaborating on photobooks with Franco Guerzoni, Carlo Cremaschi, and Giuliano Della Casa. Ghirri’s influences extended beyond Italy, including artists such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, and Ed Ruscha. Far from Vacarri’s, Benci shows that Ghirri’s work is rich in allusions to these artists’ work, as much as it is guided by his strong sense of order.

The work of the mapmaker and the work of the artist are not too different, both must interpret perception and abstract details in order to produce a better understanding of their subject; a different way of seeing things beyond the immediate and supposedly apparent. It’s important to recognise that Ghirri wasn’t simply replicating perfectly what he found on his journeys, but that he understood the process of placemaking and the historical allusions in his imagery. He was a person aware of his place in space and time, and aware of his role in making space and time, as well as representing it. Aware that the map is not the territory, even though today we may refer to the map more often than the land itself.

But what does Ghirri’s map of Italy look like? Italy has, infamously, been divided throughout its history into perennially contested city-states. In Italy, perhaps more than elsewhere in Europe, locality is important. Yet Ghirri’s Italy is one without fixed borders, where local customs give way to mass culture, the local art is advertising posters, where identity is to be assembled through products and images rather than dialects and patron saints. But he also shows that the former Italy of good food and strong faith was also a fictional place, just one that people had become so accustomed to they didn’t notice they were looking at the map and not the territory.