“My aim is not to make PHOTOGRAPHS, but rather CHARTS and MAPS that might at the same time constitute photographs,” writes photographer and prolific writer on his craft, Luigi Ghirri, in his 1973 essay, Fotografie del periodo iniziale.
Trained as a surveyor, the iconography of maps and atlases prevail Ghirri’s photography. “But what if you map his work?” asks curator James Lingwood. “He was, in a way, mapping the changing topography of modern life in Europe in the 1970s, and also the change in the relationship between people and images.”
The Map and the Territory – which showed at Germany’s prestigious Museum Folkwang last year before moving on to the equally renown Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, and is now opening at Paris’ Jeu de Paume – is a large but focused exhibition honing in on the first decade of Ghirri’s work. Ghirri captured 1970s Europe in landscapes, people, and still-lifes, but all the images share a soft and lucid elegance. His work is tightly cropped, yet sparse and economical – in contrast with contemporaries such as William Eggleston, says Lingwood. “They have a beautiful sense of space about them,” he adds.
Widely credited as the European pioneer of colour photography – which at the time was struggling to find its way into museums and galleries – Ghirri was unphased by the medium’s association with tourist snaps. “I take photographs in colour because the real world is in colour, and because colour film has been invented,” he wrote.
According to Lingwood, curator of the exhibition, Ghirri is “one of the most significant figures in the history of photography in the last 50 years”. He has been quietly influential, he adds, but until now, “there has never been a chance outside of Italy to see a substantial body of his work”. Now, more than 20 years after his death in 1992, he’s gaining wider recognition, championed by artists such as Thomas Demand over the last ten years, and his writings published in English two years ago.
The Map and the Territory will subdivide the photographs into the 14 initial groupings from Ghirri’s defining exhibition of the 1970s, Vera Fotografia (1979) in Parma. “We were very keen to show his work in the particular grouping that he thought about,” Lingwood explains. “He thought of these groups being in themselves works, like open works.”
To accompany the show Lingwood has compiled a book of the same name, which includes every photograph from the exhibition plus all of Ghirri’s writing from the 1970s, and which is published by MACK. “There was no-one else who built a body of work in colour, in such range and depth, in 1970s Europe,” says Lingwood.