Kodachrome by Luigi Ghirri

©Luigi Ghirri, courtesy MACK / www.mackbooks.co.uk

Review by Blake Andrews

Since the inclusion of his book Kodachrome in Parr/Badger Vol. 1 (Phaidon: 2004), Luigi Ghirri’s photography has achieved a posthumous revival. Aperture’s 2008 retrospective It’s Beautiful Here Isn’t It… offered a glimpse of his talent, inspiring comparisons to the 1970s color snapshots of Eggleston (who wrote the preface) and Shore. The photos were wonderful. The book was great. But all were edited and reconsidered from a contemporary perspective.

Kodachrome’s 2012 republication offers a new twist: photobook as time capsule. These are the photos selected by Ghirri during his lifetime, in the sequence he wanted, published (Punto e Virgola: 1978) in the book form he envisioned. The new edition has some slight alterations to the original. A few words and dates have been added to clarify the different publishing situation. An explanatory text (Titled –I’m not kidding– “The Inner World of The Outer World of The Inner World”) has been added. But Mack has kept Kodachrome intact by adding this an a supplementary pamphlet. Fealty to the original seems to have been the main concern here. In fact MACK’s reprint is a virtually perfect replica.

Perfect replicas are not the norm in the book world. Typically when a photobook is reprinted, things change the second time around. Time has passed. Ideas have been reconsidered. Maybe new photos are added or subtracted, or a new foreword is commissioned. In some cases, for example with the publisher Errata, the entire book is spread on the examining table for dissection. Such a reprint is a replica of sorts, but of course it’s not. It’s a book about a book, not the book itself.

©Luigi Ghirri, courtesy MACK / www.mackbooks.co.uk

But MACK’s Kodachrome is a replica, and the form seems to be a play on its content. Ghirri was interested in many visual subjects, but mostly with Simulacra. I suppose all photographers wrestle with the tension between real and represented, but with Ghirri it bordered on obsession. Over and over in the book he shows pictures of mirrors, paintings, trompe l’ oeils, fake sets, postcards, and the constructed world. These subjects are combined with “real” objects by Ghirri, translated into photographs, and thus achieve even further removal from reality. OK, this is what photos do. We know that. But with Ghirri that realization is the subject itself. At the end of the process, along comes Mack treating the entire book as hyperreal simulation.

If it sounds like I’ve been reading too much Baudrillard, you’re close. Instead I’ve had my face buried in writing that’s even more impenetrable: Kodachrome’s explanatory texts. There are three included, the original introduction and foreword, by Piero Berengo Gardin and Ghirri, respectively. And the supplementary text, written in 2012 by Fracesco Zanot. Normally I would look to such writing to shed some light on the images. But alas, I have poured over each one several times and I’m still not sure they say. Here is a sampling (courtesy of the worst offender, Gardin):

“The cancellation is: presence of doubt, personal conscience examinations, existence-choice, strategy of knowledge. The picture-card of the suburbs with its landscape in cardboard, becomes as a Model of behavior so far from the <> and from the neurosis of the group…It is the explicit, explained ego that perceiving the traps of the removed elements in the presence of the Collective, beats himself for the survival.”

In Gardin’s defense he’s an architect not a photographer. In fact it’s unclear if he knows anything about photography. But I don’t think Ghirri or Zanot can use the same excuse. They work in the field, yet their essays are equally dense. Part of the problem may be that we’re reading a poor translation into English. Perhaps the texts are more legible in their original Italian. Or if not, French or German, which the book also helpfully includes, perhaps knowing that the English wouldn’t hold up. In any case I haven’t seen too many photobooks with internal translations into four languages, and I can’t help thinking that the whole thing is another playful twist by Mack, toying with the tension between real and represented. What could be more a fundamental Simulacrum than a translation, at once reflecting an exact copy and yet something completely different? As an ironic twist, the original publisher Punto e Virgola is long gone, but its name now heads a small translation company in Italy.

©Luigi Ghirri, courtesy MACK / www.mackbooks.co.uk

Ghirri was born in 1943. He died in 1992. His life and photographic oeuvre circumscribed almost exactly the rise and fall of the snapshot aesthetic in photography, and Kodachrome narrows the range even further, covering a period from 1971 to 1978. . He was basically a flaneur with basic tools –F1 and Kodachrome– shooting in a wide range of locations and whatever caught his eye. Although he did not focus on projects while shooting, for Kodachrome Ghirri sequenced his photographs roughly into categories. First sky, then beach, then mirrors, artificial landscapes, screened forms, domestic life. But it’s the final third of the book which seems to bring his vision to life, with pictures of photographs, cards, cutouts, paintings, and visual trickery –sometimes four to a spread– before morphing into a small flurry of pure formal abstractions.

There’s no telling for sure, but I suspect this final third –the consummation of Kodachrome– represents the work which most excited Ghirri. One of the final images (Calvi, 1976) shows a rack of postcards, each one depicting a sunset. It’s a play on many things, the photo within a photo, preconceptions of picturesque, and questions of image size, informality, and the art market. It’s now thirty-five years later and those issues remain unsettled, but the postcard photo now seems remarkably prescient. To me it’s the perfect median connecting Walker Evans’s and Penelope Umbrico. What is worth photographing? What do people like to photograph? How can a photo best express those questions? Evans, Ghirri, and Umbrico all took a stab at it, along with many others. Ghirri’s photo depicts the center postcard –the median, if you will– missing.

Ghirri tried to pack a lot into Kodachrome. This was the only monograph published in his lifetime, and he may have felt some pressure to cover every base. Perhaps too many bases. Ordering subjects X, Y, Z into chapters is not the way most photobooks are now edited. It’s the sequencing more typical of a retrospective than a contemporary monograph. Most monographs are far more calculating. Book-as-art-vehicle is now part of the photographic equation, often from before the point of exposure.

In contrast, Kodachrome has a raw and innocent feeling. Even quaint. Remember, it’s a time capsule. Just as every photograph ever made is a time capsule.

Kodachrome by Luigi Ghirri
104 pages
92 colour plates
20.2 cm x 27 cm
Paperback with booklet insert

©Luigi Ghirri, courtesy MACK / www.mackbooks.co.uk