book review Puglia: Tra albe e tramonti Photographs by Luigi Ghirri Reviewed by Brian Arnold “When I teach beginner photography, I try to emphasize the importance of curiosity. I tell my students that an insatiable curiosity is just as important as equipment or tools. This does not exclude no conceptual or critical rigor, but in my mind, this is still the most essential characteristic of any good photographer…”
Tra alba and tramonti
Photographs by Luigi Ghirri
MACK, London, UK, 2021. In English/Italian. 288 pages, 8¾x10″.
“Luigi often stopped in silence… It was not just a place where he could rest a bit, but a place where he felt and perhaps recognized himself finally empty and ready to experience the wonder of to be there in the world, in the world where “there is nothing old under the sun”.
When I teach beginner photography, I try to emphasize the importance of curiosity. I tell my students that an insatiable curiosity is just as important as equipment or tools. This does not exclude any conceptual or critical rigor, but it remains in my eyes the most essential characteristic of any good photographer. Wonder and curiosity are enough to conduct a permanent investigation of the medium, especially when combined with a strong literary, historical, psychological or philosophical sensitivity. A deep love of photographic craft can still make the world startle; a camera in the right hands can also lead to a deeper understanding of the love and humanity that still exist in this discordant and confusing world.
Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri is a perfect example of all that can be discovered if you approach the world with enough curiosity, and Puglia, his new book with MACK, provides remarkable proof of this. My first reading of this book reminded me of my early experiences with John Szarkowski’s books on Eugene Atget, providing a sense of profound photographic discovery and affirmation. Like those Atget books, every page of Puglia feels like a masterpiece of modernist photography – characterized by remarkable attention to formal and technical detail, and a patient, humble and caring approach to the landscapes and people around it.
Located along the Adriatic coast, Puglia is not as well documented or touristy as Rome, Venice, Cinque Terra or Tuscany, but is nevertheless full of a rich cultural history. For almost 10 years, Ghirri explored the whole of Puglia with his cameras, but many photos were taken in Bitonto, a small town or commune in the larger city of Bari. Like many Italian towns, Bitonto is filled with brick streets and buildings that look hundreds of years old. Walking these streets, Ghirri focused on residential and everyday life, looking at people and landscapes that seamlessly integrate the past and present (in the accompanying texts, the phrase there is nothing old under the sun keeps coming back), reminding us that they are one. Ghirri successfully embraces sentimentality without falling for anything sweet or nostalgic, instead representing a place full of love and humanity, simplicity and humility, and existing somehow effortlessly outside of time, being contemporary and full of presence while evoking a rich history that imbues the simplicity of the images with historical grandeur.
All along Puglia, we often see multiple views of the same scene. In one photograph Ghirri shows us a sleepy storefront with a man sitting alone in front, in the next image he is joined by his friends for a chat and a coffee. We see children playing a wedding procession on a street corner, with the next image showing the same empty corner. Other times, he shows us several views of the same architecture, modified by shadows or its movement in the landscape. Collectively, this approach gives the book a delightful cinematic quality, freeing itself from the defining moment and instead showing a livelier take on an ongoing presence. The book provides some quotes from Ghirri in which he shares some of his working strategies and philosophies, confirming this cinematic quality as an essential part of the photographer’s vision:
“My way of interpreting when telling a story is simply to manage to work with stronger images, so that certain points are more obvious and others less so; a method very close to literature, but also to cinema. The cinema has moments of greater overall intensity with more narrative moments or with pauses, yet necessary for the understanding of the film. Translated into photography, it can be a sequence, or shots at different distances, or different moments of approach… Images designed to reinforce another, or counterbalance another, or in contrast with another, so that the narrative is not dull and lifeless.
Coupled with this narrative approach, Ghirri brings an incredible understanding of photographic form, using light and shadow to create photographs that are deceptively simple, truly complex and dynamic arrangements that reveal an incredible understanding of form, of balance, depth and form. Indeed, Ghirri uses an original approach to understanding the play of shadow on architecture that ultimately makes many of the spaces he photographs so much more elusive, all grounded in an incredible sensitivity to light. Page after page of PugliaGhirri demonstrates a remarkable ability to organize images, playing with light, shadow, color and shape in ways that seem simple but are clearly the result of patience, mastery and a love contagious of photography.
The most exciting and innovative aspect of Ghirri’s photographs is his use of color; I can’t think of another color photographer who sees and understands white like Ghirri. The best comparison I can think of is Rauschenberg’s White paints, which offer a remarkable meditation on the degrees. While working with a wider palette than Rauschenberg’s paintings, Ghirri’s images nevertheless have a similar richness in their subtleties and embrace white like no other color photographer.
Puglia is divided into three basic sections. The bulk of the book is made up of images by Ghirri, with around 200 photographs taken between 1982 and 1990, printed one per page. After the photographs come the accompanying texts, three different pieces that help contextualize Ghirri’s images and achievements. The final section is a series of 100 vignettes that show the photographer’s original montage of his photos of the region for a first exhibition of the work. Seeing the original sequencing of Ghirri’s photographs is interesting and exhibits a more narrative approach to images than that offered in this post, and a strong sense of developing visual relationships and ideas.
In the book’s final essay, “Ghirri: Fotografia, Sturttura, Romanzo (Ghirri: Photographs, Structure, Novel)”, is by renowned Italian art historian Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, who offers a rich and insightful look at the work , career and photography of Ghirri. philosophical. Quintavalle breaks down Ghirri’s work by first examining his theories on images and storytelling, citing the photographer’s own writings (early on in his career Ghirri wrote extensively on photography): “I tried to building and designing whole works, and building whole works or projects meant thinking about a form of storytelling through images, rather than a construction of single images. He then looks at the evolution of Ghirri’s visual vocabulary over time, looking at the evolution of works as different and innovative as kodachrome and Cardboard Landscapesall leading to Quintavalle’s remarks on Puglia. He ends this essay with a careful reading of the images, presented with important background information to help contextualize and understand Ghirri’s photographs of Puglia. Quintavelle walks us through the book, almost page by page, looking at the individual images, the sequencing, and some of the ideas behind the book’s design. It highlights the technical challenges and discoveries Ghirri faced in making these photographs (the white walls and harsh southern Italian sun, in particular), explains the sophisticated compositional and conceptual strategies the photographer developed while imagining the people and architecture of the region, and addresses the narrative strategies at play in the book.
For those who already know Luigi Ghirri, Puglia provides incredible insight into his work and career, highlighting a body of work that further solidifies him as a key contributor to the development of photography in Italy. For those unfamiliar with his work, this book is a wonderful introduction to the images, strategies and theories of an innovative, imaginative, disciplined and insightful photographer. With an extensive collection of photographs created through Pugliaand the insight of the accompanying texts, Puglia offers an incredibly in-depth look at Ghirri and how he engaged a landscape and a community.
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Brian Arnold is a photographer, writer and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work internationally and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Scholar and in 2014 was awarded a Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies Fellowship.