The Map and the Territory

The Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) hardly ever had to leave Italy to find inspiration. His subjects could be found anywhere.

In the 1970s, Ghirri became particularly interested in the phenomenon of the ‘simulacrum’: an image or object representing something else. An advertisement, mural or postcard may refer to actual places or people, but they’re not quite real – if only because three dimensions are reduced to a flat, two-dimensional object. Instead of the ‘real thing’, what we see is a representation. Simulacra are often regarded as being inferior to the original, yet Ghirri made no distinction between the map and the territory.


In his photographs, Ghirri focused on the ever more delicate contrast between things derived from nature versus cultural productions. His photographs can often at first glance seem like collages: a bush, a fence, a wall come across as somewhat surreal. He also wholeheartedly adopted color, which, in the 1970s, was still considered to belong to the language of commercial and hobby photography. His pictures can therefore look deceptively amateurish and somewhat unspectacular, which creates a contrast with the aesthetics of the more ‘serious’ artistic photographers of his time. He maneuvered cleverly between art and kitsch by appropriating the serious conceptuality of the first while stressing the everyday character and irony of the latter.


As with many true pioneers, recognition for Ghirri’s work didn’t come until much later. In his home country, it was hard enough for any photographer to force a way into the art world, let alone for one with such a new and radical approach. Yet, be it in relative obscurity, Ghirri tirelessly aimed to find a position for the medium of photography, by demanding a place for it as defined by itself. First and foremost, he helped establish the idea that everything in the world can be an image. That is, by photographing existing ‘codes of communication’ (e.g. maps and posters), and by including window frames and mirrors in his compositions, Ghirri consciously addressed how onlookers are guided in their act of viewing.


Ghirri’s photographs prompt an examination of  pop culture: questioning photography as a carrier of the truth. In the several essays that Ghirri wrote in the course of his life, he further noted how photography is not simply a combination of different techniques and materials. For him, everything we see is always to be considered as ‘textual’ – as something intermediated – and in the camera he found the ultimate source for presenting a visual reflection of his world-view, which, in turn, always triggers a critical perception.