There’s a refreshing simplicity to Luigi Ghirri’s 1970s travel photographs that’s also echoed in the work’s titles, either place names or untitled. Small in scale, rather than the back-lit super-sized narratives á la Jeff Wall or even the blown-up still-lifes of Wolfgang Tilmans, the master of mundane. Nothing against either of them, in both cases I’m a fan. But it’s still good to see images left alone, to be unremarkable, or at least largely unremarkable with just a hint of oddness. Drama is all around us, what a relief to be offered a moment’s respite, to stop and have our attention pause, not just on the glossy, the dynamic or the impassioned. In fact even when faced with something spectacular, like the formidable Austrian mountainscape of ‘Gloss Glockner’, Ghirri pictures it cloaked in low-lying mist.
Human life rarely features directly. Images of (mainly female) models from glossy magazines are either ripped or wrinkled or interrupted by layers of stray reflections. These figures are dislocated by their appearance second hand, as it were, in pieces, cropped, reflected in a puddle or mirror, or in a found image. Ghirri’s is never a voyeuristic gaze, however, but is permeated with a wry humour, where advertising is revealed in all its artificiality.
Instead Ghirri’s images speak to the impassive, the thoughtful and the introvert. Off-kilter, almost (but crucially not quite) symmetrical arrangements abound, with large areas of his photographs left awkwardly empty. In ‘Corsica’ two sunbathers (and their neatly paired shoes) lie apart and cropped left and right of the frame. The centre of the image – where we have come to expect the main narrative action – pictures just a sea of sand separating the two bronzed torsos. In Ghirri’s practice, unoccupied spaces and fragments, like empty thought bubbles, thrive.
The repeated motif of frames, in particular stand out. Yet even then the drama of a frame, that promises to draw our attention to something important, something worth looking at, in Ghirri’s hands is often a mere evasion. Arles, for example, gives us a row three large scale empty billboards, bereft of advertising or even a back board. Their ‘empty’ white frames mount the view of the unspectacular landscape behind. In other cases he pictures posters or photographs viewed through shop windows, like Amsterdam in which the photograph of a swan is largely obscured by the reflection of the windows across the street in the glass.
The casual nature of his compositions lends Ghirri’s images an uncalculated air, as if found rather than composed, though of course they’re not. Many are in fact highly filtered through repeated motifs – glass and picture frames and mirrors and door frames and mist – which activate the role that reflection plays through out. This is reflection as both optical and cerebral. Ghirri gently cajoles us to look through and go beyond. He makes you acutely aware of your position as viewer, as separate, by percolating his images through a Russian doll of filters and frames within frames. All of which is suffused with his faded, colour palette that distances still further.