By all rights, these two books should be reviewed separately. Sadly, though, they arrived in the same box and I unboxed them together, so here we are.
Kodachrome is MACK’s 2013 reprint of Ghirri’s 1978 classic. From what I understand, it’s a facsimile of the original, albeit with the inclusion of a pamphlet containing a new essay by Francesco Zanot and translations of the original introductions into French and German.
The Complete Essays 1973-1991 is, as the title suggests, Ghirri’s complete essays. This English translation was published by Mack in 2016.
Kodachrome opens with an incomprehensible translation of an essay by Piero Berengo Gardin, side by side with the original Italian. Why MACK chose to include the original, 1978 translation, rather than commissioning a new, competent one, I’ll never know. Probably something about remaining true to the original, but the translation of Gardin’s Introduction (and Ghirri’s Foreward) are shockingly bad.
GUP calls the text “academic word salad” and while this is in some sense accurate, I think it does a disservice to academic word salad. I’ve read mille plateaux and a bunch of Mearleau-Ponty and Foucault in translation, and appreciate difficult academic texts. The translations included in Kodachrome are simply incomprehensible. I’m thankful to have far more legible translations of Ghirri’s “Forward” in The Complete Essays 1973-1991 (as “Kodachrome — Introduction”) and It’s beautiful here, isn’t it (as “Kodachrome: Introduction”) and would really like to find a competent translation of Piero Berengo Gardin’s Introduction, as I expect there are some interesting concepts in there.
For example, section 3 of Gardin’s Introduction is titled “Progetto libro: ipotesi di un linguaggio iconico futuriblile” and the translation included in Kodachrome reads “Plan-book: hypotesis [sic] of an iconographic, futuristic language.” I plugged the Italian original into Google Translate and got “Book project: hypothesis of a futuristic iconic language.” Substantially the same, but Google’s translation is easily comprehended, and the original remains gobbledygook. I’m tempted to run the whole introduction through Google just so I can maybe understand what Gardin was trying to say. Surely he wanted people to be able to read and understand the text.
But once you get past the shockingly bad translations, the pictures… Oh my God, the pictures. Ghirri’s Kodachromes, shot around Italy in the early and mid 1970s, are incredible feats of vision and persistence. You can see him working at ideas, finding the answer, then looking again. As Francesco Zanot writes in his new introduction:
…Ghirri examines the history of photography, its ontology, its material presence, as well as its influence on thought and society as a whole. It is a matter of depth, not breadth. Ghirri’s approach proceeds along these lines, assuming that everything is the result of a process of stratification. This means digging away at his subjects like a bulldozer burrowing into the ground. At that point, however, he does not stop to stare down giddily to the bottom of the pit he has created, but rather he sifts through the heap of material that has piled up during the excavation process and which contains everything that was inside and that has now been drawn out.Zanot Francesco. “The Inner World of the Outer World of the Inner World.” Insert in Luigi Ghirri, ‘Kodachrome.’ Mack Books, UK, 2013.
In almost every image, Ghirri places a window, or a frame, anyway, playing with the viewer, flattening the plane and drawing us through the scene simultaneously. A couple plays a sort of tennis or ping pong on the beach; the ball sits on the horizon, looking for all the world like a ship way out in the sea. Two walls, one grey, one yellow, look like a color field painting, each with mirror that forms yellow and grey squares. It would just be an homage to Albers, but for the blue sky and mountain that appear at the top.
Every shot has something that makes me pause, stutter, look again. Kodachrome is a book to either flip through quickly, giving everything a quick glance, shrugging your shoulders, and lumping the work into the vernacular landscape genre that was rather common in the 1970s, OR, taking your time with, studying, searching, scanning, pausing to quiver and marvel at the timing and sight over and over again, becoming exhausted and having to take a break partway through.
It’s an incredible body of work.
The Complete Essays 1973-1991
If I initially didn’t get Kodachrome (and I didn’t… it took multiple viewings over several years: I unboxed these in 2016), I took my time with The Complete Essays, reading one or two short essays per week, underlining, making notes, pondering on his words. I don’t make much time to read during the week, but Saturday and Sunday mornings, I sit for an hour or two, sipping coffee and reading theory (or history). In this way, I spent almost three full months with The Complete Essays.
A couple of ideas have more or less stuck with me, though I’m ashamed to say my photography doesn’t (yet) reflect it.
The little man on the edge of the ravine
Ghirri talks about his childhood love of atlases and maps, and especially the images that included a little man somewhere in the landscape, there to indicate size and distance. He likes the idea that the photographer wasn’t there alone, but had a friend with him, to share the grandeur of the place.
I never managed to see the face of the man, to give him an identity; the little man remained a stranger, and yet he accompanied me through the most enchanting and uncharted locations, looking, contemplating and measuring. When, later in life, I began to take photographs, I continued to study images of the landscape but the little man was no longer there.Ghirri, Luigi. “Photography and Representing the Outside,” in The Complete Essays 1973-1991. Ben Bazalgette, trans. p. 115 Mack, UK, 2016.
I also had a loving relationship with “the little man on the edge of the ravine” and it’s true that he’s gone now, and to be honest, other than the deep sadness of it, I’m not sure what grabs me or how to include it in my photography, but it continues to rattle around in my brain, and maybe I’ll figure it out one day.
On photography road trips
…[The] road has acquired a dimension of anonymity, in the sense we can now find literally all kinds of things in it: like an endless emporium of modernity, full of signs, signposts, shops, people, cars and buildings, which nevertheless are unable to conceal the spaces, the flashes of landscape, towers, churches, apartment blocks, frontyards, gardens and graveyards. Yet, strange as it may seem, the local inhabitants always attribute a precise character to these places in which they live – despite knowing that the nearest town, village or city to the east, west or wherever, appears almost identical.
… in order to photograph it, we need to discover the simple value of slowness, which does not simply mean stopping or going slow, but paying close attention while moving along…Ghirri, Luigi. “How to Look at It. From the Road…” in The Complete Essays 1973-1991. Ben Bazalgette, trans. p. 121 Mack, UK, 2016.
I wonder what Ghirri would make of twenty-first century cities and towns, with their borders of big box stores, rings of tract homes and McMansions, and endless corporate sameness. There remains flashes of landscape, etc., of course, but I believe something has changed, now, with the ascendancy of the corporate.
If we are to describe the ceaseless, daily movement of the road, we cannot simply capture a repetitive sequence of factory walls, warehouses, supermarkets, bars and schools; but rather, we need to go into the buildings, or wait for the children or workers to come out, or wait for the light to strike the facades in a certain way so we may take their portrait. We need to wait for the sun to go down and the dusk light to pierce through the gloom…
Or else, we need to seek out that atmosphere just before a rainfall, or right after it…. In fact, we need to forget all about those ‘passing landscapes’ so that this road does not remain a Land of Babel – the zero degree of history and geography, or the locus where all possible histories and geographies merge – and so, we must establish an affection for these places, spaces and faces, in order for them to become recognizable, familiar and inhabitable; or perhaps so that we may simply look upon them with new eyes.Ibid. p. 122.
When I drive through the endless sameness of the Metroplex, I often catch glimpses of things that make, say, Hurst or Frisco special, home for some. I lack the affection, not for the faces so much, but for the places and spaces; they are familiar to the point of misidentification, but I don’t find them particularly inhabitable. (Hurst, with its older neighborhoods and shopping plazas, maybe; Frisco with it’s unending newness, not at all.) And if I want to make portraits of the Metroplex, I’m going to have to work hard to find this affection.
Or maybe it’s just that, since corporations have won, even Frisco citizens no longer identify with or feel affection for their hometown either, maybe they see it as just just an extension of Allen, Plano, Richardson, a moving-into-the-future as one follows, say, Greenville Ave, from its beginning in the gentrified, well-to-do M Streets, with the upscale dive bars and tattoo shops, all built in the 1940s and 50s, fallen into disrepair, and subsequently remodeled, updated, or torn down and replaced with the New, through the expansions northward in the 60s and 70s, past SMU, getting now newer and shinier, now older and decrepit, through Richardson, Plano, Allen, McKinney, moving further into the future with each cross street, each strip mall newer and more corporate than the last.
Of course, once Greenville (after a half-dozen name changes) becomes SH 5, you suddenly find yourself in the country, the yet-to-be or the not-yet. I imagine developers searching or the next opportunity becoming suddenly giddy. I imagine 5th generation residents of Melissa or Howe or Anna suddenly realizing they’ve been priced out of their history, seen the general store where Grandma bought her groceries and fabric paved over and now a melange of big-box-style grocery stores and casual restaurants. And we wonder why so many hate globalization.
How does one stop and look closely, develop an affection for yet another gas station in the parking lot of a strip mall? Yet another donut shop next to an insurance office next to a Hallmark store next to a Thai noodle house? Yet another Kroger or Tom Thumb or Walmart Neighborhood Market?
And this is why I can’t manage to stop and get out of the car. One, it all looks the same and even the dusk light can’t pierce through the gloom. And two, all the land is private property, and I’ve had too many security guards yell “NO PHOTOS” or chase my car around a parking lot as I photograph.
Yet there must be some way to decipher this Land of Babel, and Ghirri’s thoughts give me some things to think about and try to work towards (or out).
Kodachrome is an incredible body of work, and if you have the slightest interest in vernacular landscape or the way the camera can be made to render the landscape, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.
The Complete Essays 1973-1978 is, I think, essential for anyone thinking about photography. Ghirri is as much a theorist as a photographer, and his writing is easily as full as his photography.
Both are highly recommended and remain available direct from Mack, and at other new and used booksellers. They’re pretty cheap too (Kodachrome has a list price of $40; The Complete Essays runs $25), and for so much excellence, they’re easily worth it.