Revered for its bright colours and naturally high contrast, Eastman Kodak’s iconic Kodachrome film remained a favourite amongst professional and amateur photographers alike for decades after its introduction in 1935. As Steve McCurry said of the now-discontinued film after shooting the last roll to come of the assembly line a few years ago: “Kodachrome had more poetry in it, a softness, an elegance.”
Perhaps it was that soft elegance that inspired the legendary Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s unique style when he first began taking pictures of his surroundings in the early 1970s. Born in Scandiano in the northeastern part of Italy in 1942, Ghirri moved to the city of Modena in his twenties, where he put on his first exhibitions and developed a deep passion for the medium. He would spend the rest of his life on a quest to analyse his environments through the complex language of the camera, pioneering Italian colour photography in the process.
While Ghirri became increasingly absorbed in his craft during the 1970s, colour photography – especially in Europe – was still struggling to find its way into museums and art galleries. This helps to explain why it took almost 20 years after his untimely death in 1992 for his work to garner significant attention beyond Italian borders. “Back then, an unknown European photographer – no matter how great his work was – was really going to struggle to have his work seen and heard in a broader, American cultural context”, says Michael Mack, founder of the London-based publisher MACK Books, which recently reissued a facsimile of Ghirri’s self-published first book, Kodachrome. “It was hard enough for people like Eggleston and Sternfeld because of the medium they were working with, but it was even more rare for an outsider to find a way in.”
In his home country, however, Ghirri quickly developed a strong and influential voice. Part of a group of photographers specifically immersed in exploring the medium of photography within their own contexts, Ghirri’s photographic practice was simultaneously a commentary on contemporary Italy; a parallel conversation on both locality and medium, in which he dissected the way Italy saw itself through a device that inherently threw into question the very act of looking. In 1977 he founded the small publishing house Punto e Virgola with his wife Paola Borgonzoni and fellow photographer Giovanni Chiaramonte, filling an important gap in the landscape of Italian art institutions by committing to support the growth of photographic culture. By focusing on publishing artists’ monographs and theoretical essays, Ghirri hoped to both spread the artistic value of photography and also educate a barely photo-literate audience.
It was with a scrap budget and basic means that Kodachrome, Punto e Virgola’s first publication, went to print in 1978. It collated 92 of Ghirri’s personal images taken in and around Italy in the early seventies, spread across one hundred roughly textured, low-budget paper pages. “One of the things that mark out his books from the 70s, is how restricted they were by the technological possibilities of the time,” says Mack. “Reprographics, printing, inks, paper – it was all really limited. The quality of the images in the original weren’t fantastic, they often looked quite murky, but that was just what was available in that day and age.”
With modern technology the long overdue second edition has however helped revive the powerful simplicity of Ghirri’s Kodachrome images. Often verging on the surreal, his sharply composed and chromatically compelling images feature people mostly in a secondary capacity, primarily capturing landscapes and urban environments in a tightly cropped, almost geometrical system. “He had a very acute eye when it came to combining image construction and graphic elements of colour,” Mack explains. “His work was extremely precise – you can almost see some of them as line drawings laid out on a computer. He was a true genius at extracting two-dimensional sculptures from the manmade land.” Much of his brilliance also came down to a certain warmth in his images, emanating from his not-too-serious approach and propensity for deadpan humour. “People often compare Ghirri with for instance Eggleston, but there is an important cultural difference there,” Mack points out. “He had a unique lightness of touch, a quality which feels really evident to me as something quite Mediterranean, something very distinct from the loaded imagery that Eggleston was making in America.”
But beyond just functioning as a harmonious-looking memoir of Ghirri’s photographic movements, Kodachrome was also his mission statement – anchored in a heavily conceptual approach to the craft. “In a sense, this was his manifesto for photography,” Mack says. “Not only did he have an extraordinary capacity for making simple-looking images that were incredible in their intensity. When you start understanding his relationship to his locality and what he was saying about the medium of photography, you see that his work was also imbued with a relevance and significance far beyond the supposed simplicity of a landscape or the detail of a tree.”
Ghirri was a prolific writer, and in hindsight, both his theoretical and visual ideas can often appear astoundingly prescient. In the foreword to Kodachrome he stated: “The meaning that I am trying to render through my work is a verification of how it is still possible to desire and face a path of knowledge, to be able finally to distinguish the precise identity of man, things, life, from the image of man, things, and life.” With the advent of photography as a commercial product, Ghirri predicted an emotional inertia on the part of the receiver created by the large-scale arrival of images in public spaces. Highly conscious in his decisions of how to crop his images, he saw the photograph as a space to observe and reflect upon “an analogy of reality”, forcing his viewers to sharpen their eyes and consider the content both included and excluded from the frame. As photography critic Francesco Zanot noted in an accompanying essay to Kodachrome: “His works are powerful devices for the re-education of the gaze.” Bombarded as we now are with ceaseless streams of imagery, it might serve to explain why – over twenty years after his death – Ghirri’s work feels more relevant than ever.