Nothing old under the sun: Gianni Leone on Luigi Ghirri’s 'Puglia'

Gianni Leone: I had been taking photographs for around a year and perhaps that’s why it seemed very clear to me that Ghirri’s work explored new realms. These were far removed from the photography, especially Italian photography, that up until the 1970s had continued to produce repetitive and stereotyped depictions of the country: from Alinari — an Italy of pretty postcards — to Neorealism, portraying Southern Italy at the height of its decay and poverty from the post-war years to the 1970s and ’80s, with an undeniably scientific basis to its ethnographic aspects. Strange and contradictory although it may seem, the country remained distant and unrecognisable outside an ideologically conditioned culture and view. Ghirri clarified this with greater lucidity and awareness when he spoke, if I remember rightly, of a metropolitan aesthetic that conditions us.

Rosalba Branà: What was the world view that Ghirri wanted to recount?

GL: His was a complex view, the tale of a remaining world that does not elude him. Indeed, while apparently recording the visible, his photographs and images — from the conceptual to ‘magic realism’ — on the contrary reveal a plurality of languages. Putting us face to face with reality, that which our eyes encounter, and seeing it with the astonishment of those viewing it for the first time: this is the challenge that may ultimately suggest a new way for us to read and interpret everything we encounter, right down to the most hidden roots.

RB: You’re talking about a reality that has a great deal to do with the identity of places. 

GL: Luigi would often stop in the silence and coolness of a church. It was not just a place where he could rest a little, but one where he perhaps felt and acknowledged himself finally empty and ready to experience the wonder of being there in the world, in that world where ‘there is nothing old under the sun’.

RB: Talk to me about the ‘Still Life’ exhibition and what it meant for the history of photography in Puglia.

GL: The wind really changed with the ‘Still Life’ exhibition. In November 1981, Ghirri finally accepted the invitation from Spazio Immagine. He wasn’t familiar with Bari or Puglia, and I didn’t know Modena, where Luigi lived with his wife Paola Borgonzoni. I had never seen Ghirri, even in a photo, but he described himself to me over the telephone — ‘glasses and a green Loden coat’ — so that I’d recognise him at the exit to Bari station. He was greeted by a gentle north-westerly wind, a blue sky, and a mild late-autumn temperature that felt to him like our land caressing him. The photographs had already been put up in our little gallery the previous evening. It was thrilling for me, and for all of us at Spazio Immagine, to stand there and look at them, examine them, in silence, without offering comments or tentative critical allusions, transported (at least in my case) to a dreamlike dimension. There were so many people there on the evening of the vernissage: journalists, critics, photographers — Bari’s intelligentsia, basically. Can I call it an event? Yes, and not only because Mario Cresci and Mimmo Jodice came rushing to Bari from Matera and Naples respectively, but because of everything the three of them said and clarified that evening at the gallery, driven principally by the questions that many of us hastened to ask, un po’ per celia e un po’ per non morir (partly to tease and partly so as not to die). Ghirri in Bari? Yes, Ghirri in Bari. It marked the start of something new in the history of photography and the visual culture, and it commenced right then in Bari, in southern Italy.

RB: How did you get to the Cento immagini per la Puglia (One Hundred Images for Puglia) project? Or rather, Tra albe e tramonti (Between Dawns and Dusks)? 

GL: The morning after the inauguration of ‘Still Life’, I noticed Luigi’s surprise and satisfaction at the welcome, enthusiasm, and interest that his exhibition and his words describing its genesis had aroused in the many visitors at the vernissage. I remember we were sitting at a table on the first floor of the Riviera bar, with several cups of coffee, cigarettes, and a pipe. We were talking whilst watching the sea in front of us. The Adriatic Sea, the sky, the narrow line of the horizon, the intense but not dazzling light. I describe it like this, with words that fail to give it the right cadence, because I clearly remember how Luigi was enraptured and fascinated that November morning by a landscape that was perhaps unexpected for him. I told him, ‘It would be good if you took some photographs in Bari, perhaps in Puglia. Why not leave your own visual testimony of our region, so as to cast it loose, free it from a false iconography that hides it and insults it?’ He didn’t answer, and I said, ‘I’ve got an idea, but now we’ll go for a drive, following the shore, as far as Torre a Mare, a neighbourhood a few kilometres from the south coast, and then I’ll tell you what I have in mind.’ Who knows, I said to myself. This is what I had in mind: to announce our presence, mine and Ghirri’s, to the secretary of the President of the Fiera del Levante, Annamaria Cislaghi, who had always been sensitive to events related to art and culture. On our way back from Torre a Mare I talked about it to Luigi, hoping that a project for a photography exhibition of Puglia, from the Gargano peninsula to Salento, by Luigi Ghirri, might arouse the interest of the Fiera, an important institution, and the entire region. And that’s what happened.

Excerpt from Rosalba Branà and Gianni Leone’s conversation published in Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti by Luigi Ghirri.

Printed paperback with jacket comprising pre-dyed paper with tipped in image
Bilingual: English / Italian
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ISBN 978-1-913620-35-6
February 2022
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