The meaning of a fine, intense Luigi Ghirri exhibition at Rome’s MAXXI lies in its title “Pensare per Immagini” (translated as “Thinking Images” or “How to think in pictures”): in order to immerse ourselves in his world of unnatural colours, we need to have the willpower to put the photographs themselves on the back burner and concentrate on the thought conveyed. It seems strange to say this about a photographer's work, but the most enriching part of this exhibition is Ghirri's personal construction of an annotation system made up of fragments. Seemingly, Ghirri's are travel photos. They might come across as casual snapshots, but they conceal a strongbox of thought, a desire to comment on the world around us by means of the way the images are constructed. Nothing is random here. Part of the evolution of Ghirri's language is given by the words, books and friends that influenced Ghirri as a man before they influenced him as an artist. This is why each section of the exhibit is accompanied by a word. That word is then dematerialised by becoming photography more than photographs in themselves.
"The atlas is the book, the place where all the signs of the earth — natural and cultural — are represented according to conventions: mountains, lakes, pyramids, oceans, cities, villages, stars and islands. In this totality of writing and description, we are able to find where we live, where we'd like to go, and the route to follow."
—in Atlante, 1973
Divided into three separate categories — Icons, Landscapes and Architecture — the pictures continuously fit these different subjects back together. In the landscapes, architecture is always present, or its absence is obvious; and landscapes are always the background to the architecture. Ghirri gathers his thoughts by hiding complex meanings behind apparent plainness. He does this by means of layering and framing.
"Many people see and take these pictures for photomontages. I would call them photo-dismantlings. Extensively, gradually and increasingly, reality is transformed into a colossal photograph and the montage has already taken place at that very moment."
— in Kodachrome, 1978
Ghirri is never all too close to people. They are observed from a distance even when they are right in front of his lens. His gaze is respectful towards those who are looking. The human presence is often seen from behind, or fleetingly, never assailed, but made into a substitute for the photographer, who is ready to exchange viewpoints. This Emilian photographer is a versatile artist, a teacher and a curator who chose to observe reality by means of photography, to think about it by means of pictures, and then write about it by means of words.
At the MAXXI, the exhibition showcases photographs, fragments of texts, brochures, books and prints — documents from the life of an art-lover who was able to transform his passion into the study of different fields of knowledge and culture — from architecture and literature to music. Ghirri and his camera sought and found a place in the atlas that had always been elusive, never intentionally grasped. Human figures are seen from afar, even when distance wasn't really necessary, because Ghirri uses this space to make room for a different viewpoint, trying to stand in another person's shoes in order to see the world with new eyes.
"Pensare per Immagini" does not only show Ghirri as a photographer, but also as a maturing curator and editor. Books, catalogues and artists' publications show what an all-round man he was and how his forte was his curiosity to explore. He understood that work is just "a departure point for the next adventure".
Among the many photos, three remain impressed on the mind's eye. The first is the picture of a woman sitting on a bench in Paris. Her eyes are covered by the smoke from her cigarette. The scene is suspended, we don't know rightly what to focus on, but we feel her thoughts and the questions she is asking herself — questions that neither she nor we have an answer to. And so, we remain thinking of her and ourselves, lost in time and space, waiting for the smoke to dissipate by dint of staring at her.
The second one was taken in Lucerne in 1971: a family sitting behind the window of a café is interrupted by the photographer. This is one of the few photos where looks cross between Ghirri and his subjects. There is no construction, but inversion. Each is thinking the same thing, the same question is repeated, and the four subjects and Ghirri are together inside the same scene. The last is from 1979: a map strewn with photos, telling of an infinite search, different routes across one territory, the memory of a trip that ended too soon. Luca Galofaro
"With my story I followed precisely this itinerary, continuously relating to the external world in the conviction of never finding an answer to the questions, but with the intention of continuing to pose them. Because doing so seems already to be a kind of answer."
—in Lezioni di fotografia, 2010
Through 27 October 2013
Luigi Ghirri. Thinking Images
MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo
Via Guido Reni 4A, Rome