The world seen through the eyes of the Pale Man

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Luigi Ghirri_Marazzi Ceramiche_07_© Eredi Luigi Ghirri
Luigi Ghirri began working for Marazzi at a crucial point in his career as an artist.

Ghirri started to take photographs in 1969 and his first exhibitions and publications date from 1972. The Seventies were basically his debut decade characterized by a conceptual approach in which photography is both the medium and one of the subjects of his work. In the Eighties, on the other hand, his recurrent theme is the physical territory, explored not so much in terms of landscape, geographical features or weather, but in a broader sense, embracing the interaction between people and the surrounding environment: how they live there, modify, use, look at and represent it. In 1979, Ghirri’s most experimental period was recorded in a monumental exhibition at the Palazzo della Pilotta in Parma, with over seven hundred works and a catalogue bearing the names of the leading critics of the time. 1984 was the year of his Viaggio in Italia, an “Italian Journey” recorded in an exhibition and book of which Ghirri was both curator and author (together with nineteen other photographers who took part on his invitation). This project, the result of his investigation of places representation, was to inspire a large proportion of Italian photography in the following years. The commission from Marazzi falls midway between these two phases, not only from a chronological point of view (he began to work for the company in 1975), but also in terms of its contents, which cover both linguistic and spatial issues. Ghirri himself implies this in the short text that accompanies his portfolio: “Ceramics has a history that is lost in the mists of time. It has always been considered an “object” on which other objects are placed: the furniture, gestures, images and shadows of the people who live these spaces. When creating these images, I kept all this in mind and tried, by using surfaces in different colours, and superimposing objects and images, to reconstruct a space which was not physical and measurable as a real room, but rather a representation of mental space in a given moment…”. So instead of being, as one might think, detached from the rest of his artistic output, Ghirri’s photographs for Marazzi in fact provide a synthesis of it. Light years away from the standard concepts of marketing photography, this commission actually provided the photographer with a major opportunity to challenge and continue his exploration of a number of crucial points in our relationship with the world. This set of images consists first and foremost of an in-depth investigation of three key actions, all interconnected.

From the general to the specific: seeing, representing, photographing.

Seeing. The most ancient forerunner of photography: you must see before you photograph. It is basis of everything, the foundation plinth of this building. But it is more, because a photographic image is not a record just of the subject on which the lens is trained, but rather of what was seen by the photographer, who looked at it before us. In a photograph, we see something that has already been seen, in the way in which it was seen. When Ghirri places a pair of glasses in the middle of an image produced for this series, he is photographing his own gaze. Like the Pale Man in Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, the photographer removes his eyes and puts them in front of him, before returning them to their place. What’s more, the lenses of the glasses correspond to those of the camera. In another image, we see two carved heads (or rather their reproductions) facing each other. The black-edged space between them identifies their hypothetical fields of vision. We are looking at two faces looking. They are identical. We are looking at their act of seeing.

Representing. This is the next step. Ghirri’s work is grounded in history: not just the history of photography, but the history of art in general. He examines the present on the basis of knowledge of the past. He uses many references, starting from the carved heads already mentioned. A short sequence of images consists of a series of perspective studies that reach back to the origins of the camera oscura. Another photograph shows a reflection in a mirror of a still life painting, the genre also referenced in a series of works that evoke memories of Giorgio Morandi: the same pastel colours, the same space around the subjects, which are not compressed into the frame, and the same preference for a general impression of very dense simplicity (it is no coincidence that Ghirri conducted an in-depth study on Giorgio Morandi’s atelier between 1989 and 1990). There are also a couple of images of an egg, an inevitable reference to the Brera Altarpiece by Piero della Francesca, who produced ground-breaking work on geometry and perspective. It is a matter not just of perfection but also of imagination. Ghirri’s eggs are resting on a spoon and a glass, both drawn.

Photographing. These images make countless references to the act of taking photographs itself. Ghirri draws on his conceptual experience to put forward a complex theoretical argument with his expressive medium at its centre. Ghirri photographs photography. He does so literally, when he points his lens at an old black and white print of a portrait of a child. In front of it, he actually places a miniature camera (photography is, in itself, a form of miniaturisation of the world, enabling us to keep it in a drawer in the form of an image) and a hand that mimes the gesture of pressing the shutter. It’s all there: the photographer, the camera and photography. The photographs with a (clearly reconstructed) rainbow and a piece of paper bearing the word “colori”, or “colours” are also homages to this language: Ghirri is one of the main pioneers of colour photography on the international scale. At a time when almost all his colleagues were describing a universe completely submerged in black and white, he went right to the root of the problem: “I photograph in colour because the real world is not in black and white and because films and paper for colour photography have been invented”. Last but not least, mirrors, close kin to photography throughout its history (Holmes defined photographic images as a “mirror with memory” as long ago as 1840) feature several times. In one image, a mirror is held by a woman and is facing towards the lens, except that instead of reflecting the figure of the photographer it is showing a ceramic tile. This is what photography is: an inextricable blend of reality and illusion.

At this point, there is one last term we have to add to those already examined: living. It is not on our earlier list, but it is central to the theme of places, mentioned above. Here, spaces are ceramic tiles themselves. Tiles’ colours and surfaces constitute the territory within which all Ghirri’s work is created. They form the stage on which his subjects act. Like the theatre, photography is a matter of interpretation and transformation. Paradoxically, without ever lacking realism. In the hands of Ghirri, an inexorable explorer of the infinite ways in which reality may transform its appearance, an object may become a whole room.