“Per strada,” by Guido Guidi

Per Strada Guido Guidi

By Luca Fiore

Borello, Cannuzzo, Gambellara, Forlimpopoli, Macerone, Martorano, Meldola, Montaletto, Metellica, Sorrivoli, Piavola, San Giorgio, San Martino, San Vittore. This rosary of locations along the via Emilia is comprised of villages not dissimilar to Ronta, in the municipality of Cesena, where Guido Guidi lives. Of the masters of Italian photography, notably the generation of Gabriele Basilico, Giovanni Chiaramonte, Mario Cresci, Luigi Ghirri and Olivo Barbieri, Guidi (class of 1941) has travelled the least distance to find what he has been seeking for 50 years.

It is not obvious what he is seeking, this man who speaks and photographs a little like a medieval pilgrim, or a Buddhist monk. At a 2014 retrospective exhibition at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, the curator Agnès Sire described him as an artist who wishes to “shed light on a changing reality that we do not wish to see, where we think there is nothing to be seen”. For his part, Guidi loves to quote a phrase from the Talmud whenever he can: “Wherever you look, there is something to see”. Elevating his discipline to a lay religion, he adds: “For me, taking photographs is an act of devotion”.

Per Strada Guido Guidi

His latest book, released in September by Mack and already sold out, is titled “Per Strada”, and collates the fruits of his wanderings between Rimini and Ravenna in the 80s and 90s. 285 photographs, almost all in colour, divided into three volumes. Unknown villages, worn gates, broken walls, side streets, road signs, shabby town cars, street lamps. Guidi tells us that one day, he showed these images in Bologna to a group of architects from Emilia Romagna: “The then President of the Regional Association of Architects spoke, saying that he was unsettled by seeing my images. He stated that I photographed with great care objects and buildings that he would have pulled down”.

Some photographers head out after having studied maps of the local area, like urban planners. Guidi smiles, saying that for him, the via Emilia is a road like any other: “My journey started in my own neighbourhood, near my home. The via Emilia is a road that takes you from one place to another. It was not the only road I travelled on: I also shot on the Romea and the B.1, from Russia to Santiago de Compostela. I leave my home and my map is the road itself. I follow it and see where it takes me. Even when I worked with urban planners I would happen to deviate, to go outside the set route. What is important to me is travelling, and seeing what I come across. And discovering. Discovering oneself. To get to know more, to grow richer. To learn to be less afraid of the unknown”. Guidi, to explain his attitude towards the things he sees, quotes Ezio Raimondi, the great philologist, who wrote that the experience of reading should be that of the pilgrim, not that of the tourist.

What is striking in Guidi’s choice of subjects and method of shooting is the absence of rhetoric: “This is to do with the fact that it was photography that chose me, in a sense. I did not choose; I was attracted by this discipline. As a child, I liked to draw; then, at university, I came across a book by Siegfried Kracauer, “The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality”, which analysed the difference between cinema and theatre. In cinema, as in photography, there is no need for emphasis to simulate reality. In fact, this is damaging. I do not seek rhetoric; I attempt to return to a zero degree, to what Roland Barthes called “intractable reality”.

The theologians of the High Middle Ages who dictated guidelines to painters, Guidi explains, maintained that figures of saints should not “represent” real people, but should “present” them. In Piero della Francesca, a peasant must appear as such to the viewer. Thus we find ourselves in front of the ‘peasant’, of “Sigismund Malatesta”, or the “Madonna” who is, first and foremost, a woman. They are, first and foremost, real people; then they are also metaphors. They are presented to us like concrete apparitions.

Guidi’s images may initially appear to a superficial viewer as snapshots of insignificant locations, taken without any sort of “technique”, or, to put it badly, without any “artistry”. This is not at all the case. For almost 40 years now, the photographer from Ronta has carried around a heavy large format camera which produces 20x25cm negatives, which he prints without enlarging them. It is a precise poetic choice, just as significant as focusing on locations far from historic centres, void of any “monumental dignity”, as he puts it. He seeks that free zone where man has built spontaneously, where urban language would be seen as a “peripheral, vulgar dialect”. The photographer tells of the time he attended a conference by the poet Franco Fortini: “He said that only by writing a poem in dialect can one talk about bread without falling into rhetoric. Dante used the vulgar, not Latin. Is that nothing? Thus, in contrast to painting, sculpture, or architecture, which are courtly languages, photography is a vulgar language. If I place a piece of paper with a photograph on it in front of your eyes, you will have an object in front of you which elicits far less reverence than an oil painting. Walker Evans said that for those who know, there is a particular pleasure in using a language disregarded by the majority”.

For Guidi, the focus is a way of looking at the world. “We must be cultured, provided that visual culture does not make our eyes too combative. A combative gaze is negative.” It is necessary, he argues, to rediscover a simple approach to seeing things, to deconstructing an image, to reading an image. “But one cannot deconstruct without culture. I do not believe in a naïve attitude, or the presumption of those who claim they were never taught. Beato Angelico was a cultured man; he lived in the library of the San Marco Convent, which was full of ancient volumes. As well as reading, one must learn to ‘see’. Yet no one teaches this. As children, we are told that, before crossing the road, we must look left and right. But then our mother tells us: “Don’t look around, walk!”. Or: “Don’t stare, its rude.” This is all the opposite of what we should do. Barthes, in an open letter to Michelangelo Antonioni, defined the ‘insistence of the gaze’ as one of the virtues of the artist”.

Guido Guidi’s journey began long ago. At the end of the 70s, in the halls of the Industrial Design course at the University of Venice, he met masters such as Italo Zannier and Carlo Scarpa. With Zannier, he recalls, “I carried out very precise exercises with a camera on a tripod; exercises that would then have been dubbed in some way “conceptual”, or even “minimalist”, based on their methodical repetition. For instance, we photographed an object from two metres, three metres, four metres, and so on. We then mounted the photographs onto panels, creating series”. In Laguna, a few years prior, in 1964, Pop Art had arrived. His favourite artist from that time is Jasper Jones, but he admits, more or less directly, to having been influenced by many others.

In 1984 Luigi Ghirri includes Guidi, with his images from the preceding decade, into the group of artists selected for the project “Viaggio in Italia”. In the same year, they embark on a project together: “Two photographs for the Teatro Bonci”, some photos of which re-emerge in “Per Strada”. Yet his work, and that of the other photographers of his generation, offered something undeniably new, and different to what Italian photography had produced until then. It created unease. “They said to us: ‘You want to be American’. This was because we photographed ‘stuff of vagabonds’ [‘robe da barbun’], as Jannacci would say, or ‘cose da nulla’ [nothingness], as Pasolini would call them.”

“I never managed, or never wanted to, use irony”, Guidi explains, returning to the register of his lay religion: “If photographing is like praying, how can I be ironic?”. Irony is often used in photography, mocking the form of the photo card which, according to Guidi, appeals as much to the ordinary people as the intellectual. In this sense, from an editorial perspective, a book by an author toying with the form of the photo card certainly has more commercial appeal. “But the risk is that you end up mocking everything. I instead use photography like a prosthesis, like the blind man’s cane mentioned by Descartes: an instrument with which to engage in a relationship with reality, with which to touch it. For me, art is a method of getting to know the world. I am thus not able to introduce irony in the mediums which enable me in this difficult adventure”.

The images in “Per Strada” are for Guidi the training ground for embarking on this adventure, which he defines as the attempt to “render things present”. An aim which, he admits, is difficult, if not impossible, to carry out with verbal language. “It would not just be the use of the word ‘sea’, but the fact that, in the act of reading, I find myself in the presence of the sea, or a person, or a thing. Few manage this”. Here he quotes Carlo Emilia Gadda in “Il Castello di Udine [The Castle of Udine]”: “He was a maths student, and we became friends: a fragile and dry friendship, in the moral chill of despair, like those flowers, glassy feather, which dissolve with a breath”. Guidi comments: “Reading this, I find myself in the presence not only of the flowers, but also of life. It is not only the flower, but also the feather, that the breath dissolves. In photography or painting, as Leonardo said, we cannot depict wind if not through clouds in motion. Rendering a visible presence, rendering a house, the curbstone, a tree, and at the same time the wind…”

Regarding this attempt to return to reality, Guidi concludes that Susan Sontag was right when she wrote: “Between two fantasy alternatives, that of Holbein the Younger, who lived long enough to have painted Shakespeare or that of a prototype of the camera which had been invented early enough to have photographed him, most “Bardolators” would choose the photograph. This is not because it would presumably show what Shakespeare really looked like, for even if the hypothetical photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we would probably still prefer it to another glorious Holbein. Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross.”

Il Foglio, 29th December 2018

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“The Measure of the West,” by Giovanni Chiaramonte

The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte

By Luca Fiore

A Doric column in Gela, the birthplace of his parents. Magna Grecia, and all that it signifies. A symbol that is found at every stage of a long pilgrimage, all the way up to the Glienicke Palace in Berlin, and all the way back to Athens and Istanbul, or further West towards Portugal, where one might embark on the Atlantic crossing to the United States, Mexico, Panama and Cuba. The column is ubiquitous, in temples, porticos, ruined homes. It is a sign of something capable of reawakening the present from a past it cannot leave behind. This is what Giovanni Chiaramonte calls “The Measure of the West”, which is also the title of his book, edited by McGill-Queen’s University Press , which collates images of this over 30-year long journey, accompanied by travel drawings from one of the giants of world architecture, the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza.

The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte

In the year of his 70th birthday, the Milanese artist, a friend of Luigi Ghirri and pioneer of photographic publishing in Italy, publishes another book of a seemingly contrasting nature: “Salvare l’ora” [“Saving the Hour”]. It is a collection of polaroids that Chiaramonte began taking in 2011. Theirs is no longer the infinite horizon of the countryside; rather, the dimensions are domestic, intimate. From landscape, which betrays the image of the destiny of an entire civilization, Chiaramonte has moved, borrowing the expression from the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, to inscape, where personal destiny appears. Yet, Chiaramonte assures us, they are both spectacular movements; one orientated outwards, the other inwards, both moved by the same propulsive energy, triggered by the same certainty: the world is image. “The Bible tells us that man is created in the image and likeness of God. This means that the eternal, the infinite, chose to create me as image. Thus the world, creation presenting itself to us as reality, suggests the existence of a “giver”. I can comprehend what I am in the moment in which I become conscious of this mysterious likeness. As a photographer, a producer of images, I am given the task of revealing the destiny of man and of the world”.

Chiaramonte’s language betrays his widespread reading: from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Oliver Clement, from Romano Guardini to father Luigi Giussani. His reflections are intertwined with those on the history of photography, which, for him, emerges not by chance in England and France. It was there, after all, that the stained-glass windows of gothic cathedrals emerged for the first time; images created with light. Yet his maddened, desperate studies also incorporate the works of the greats of American photography–Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Joel Meyerowitz–and the Europeans André Kertész, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau. Yet it is from cinema that he learns his use of colour. At the end of the 70s, the technology of colour photography was beginning to provide the materials necessary for artistic works that could stand the test of time. Before then, it had been filmmakers who had concerned themselves with the transition from black and white to colour: Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrej Tarkovskij. From them Chiaramonte learnt the poetic potential of chromatic scales. At the start of the 80s, with this cultural and technical burden, he faced the open sea in a magical moment which would see the beginnings of those individuals nowadays considered masters of Italian photography.

The story of “The Measure of the West” began in 1983, when Chiaramonte followed the advice of the great German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers, who told him “Go to Berlin, to the Glienicke Palace, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for Prince Charles of Prussia”. The idea, Chiaramonte explains, was that of returning to a location where the progress of the West was visible, where the reasons for building a new European city corresponding to man’s nature could be perceived. “Ungers, a Catholic, felt a profound need to find and sustain the value of man. For him, finite nature, represented by the symbolic figure of the square, was capable of opening the heart of anyone living in the world to the infinite nature of God, which, in Christ, is present in history thanks to the experience of the sacraments. In other words, there is a method for understanding the existence of a path linking the infinite to the present day, the places we live in; a path in which all of time coexists”.

It is no coincidence that it was precisely during that journey to Berlin that Chiaramonte’s work met that of Álvaro Siza. “I had gone to photograph his building renamed Bonjour Tristesse, built in Schlesische Straße, in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, not far from the Berlin Wall. My images, published by Lotus, had travelled the world, making his first piece of work outside of Portugal very well known.” For Siza, the photographer explains, modern dimensions do not stem from the tradition of Le Corbusier, which attempts to break away from history. “For him, the modern is what is essential from what is handed to us from the past. He stems from Milanese rationalism–let us not forget that it was Giovanni Muzio who developed Porto’s urban plan–for which the new is what realizes the presence of what has been inherited from history”. Siza was a Catholic who embraced the left-wing cause under Salazar; Chiaramonte loved his social inspiration. A commitment to social housing, for example: “For him, the job of the architect was to “serve the people”, which is what I wish to do with my photography; to contribute to the common good. When I went to visit him for the first time, I was struck by his very essential way of life. He was a successful architect who had managed to find a way of life untouched by the idols of modernity. He came to pick me up in person at the bus station in Evora and helped me carry my luggage…”.

Art does not belong to us, Chiaramonte declares; it is a gift that we receive when we listen to the world. “In Siza, this is the greatest theme; wherever he goes, he is listening. Everything is graced by his gaze. His architecture is born from this gaze which becomes drawing. Yet this relationship with things does not precipitate into the utopia of the “great architect”; he is not building the Tower of Babel. His buildings respect the stature of the human, which, we know, means not only height, but also depth. Not only light, but darkness too”.

Salvare l'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte

Darkness. An image of pain, the incapacity to see. It is from this experience that, mysteriously, Chiaramonte’s other book is born: “Salvare l’ora” [Saving the Hour]. “In 2011, the Diocese of Milan asked me to be involved in the creation of the new Ambrosian Evangeliary. Photography had never been used for such a liturgical function, and I did not know where to start.”. He goes on: “It was a difficult time. Due to an intense depression, my doctors had forbidden me from shooting with professional equipment: medium format cameras on a tripod requiring a physical and emotional effort which, at that time, I would not have been able to endure.” Yet the call of art proved too great, and the photographer armed himself with a simple instrument: an instant camera that does not allow any sort of edit before or after the shot. A €100 Fuji Instax. “One morning, returning from mass, which had been a source of light in my darkness, I entered my dining room. The winter sun was crossing the curtains, tracing a line across the table. The ray of sunlight was striking a crystal seal that refracted it into a rainbow of different colours”. This was an epiphany. He grabbed his camera, got close, and shot. “That small image, 6x10cm, captured all the power of what I felt in that moment. I realised that, to respond to the Diocese’s commission, I could only capture images of my relationship with God, as it appeared in domestic settings in which I pray every day. What I could offer was a testimony of my experience of faith, showing its small traces”.

Thus emerged the photographs which introduce the liturgical periods in the Ambrosian Evangeliary. Yet this also entailed a new, tiringly dispossessing type of work for Chiaramonte; the new medium forced him to set aside the techniques acquired across an entire career, and begin learning from scratch. “I had to take measurements of colour quality, and of the optimum position and distance at which to place myself in relation to the subject, to that it would acquire significance in this rectangular format I was not used to.” The “measure of the West” was shot with a medium format camera (with 6x6cm negatives), with the focus set to infinity, very long shutter speeds, and a shift lens to make vertical lines parallel. Then there was the lengthy work in the dark room; on tones, colours and masking. In “Saving the Hour”, all of this is replaced by a simple click. “I had to adjust my perception of the colour scale that the camera offered automatically, and thus relate to the world I was seeing within this new measure. Aside from the choice of subject and the chosen distance to situate myself from it, the rest was an obedience to what I had in front of me. Obedience to the world.” Within this simultaneously technical and poetic new dimension, Chiaramonte found himself facing up to his own darkness. “Erich Auerbach puts it well: the pagan world is unable to deal with the scandal of man’s sin. Oedipus’ self-blinding is a clear example. The Greek world was unable to give reasons for evil. Meanwhile, the Western artist, after the coming of Christ, is called to an extraordinary adventure: that of crossing the darkness, like light. This book gives an account of what this means for me.”

There is thus no longer an infinite horizon to face, the ocean, or the great American prairie. What remains are impoverished, restricted spaces, reduced by the limits of illness. “I told myself: these small images can be a testimony of the poverty of man, which, despite everything, is consoled by the light. I can see a corner of my house and it can be filled with a reason for life; one that all humans can encounter”. A white feather on a green field, a dry leaf on a deposit of coal, a line of salads on a vegetable garden, fake flowers on the graves of children in a Berlin cemetery. “If one is at prayer, these things that are far from the glory of the world become light. I learnt this from “Andrej Rublev” by Tarkovskij. The road of Eastern monasticism opened to me the path of the Prayer of Jesus; that is, the intertwining of the breath with invocation: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Chiaramonte recalls that, in his studies as a very young man, he had encountered the art of Minor White, a key figure in American photography as critic and theorist, and long-time director of Aperture magazine. He too, engaging with the Hindu religion, had had a similar experience: that of mantra. “The recitation of a short phrase that enables those who repeat it to eliminate worries and fears. It allows you to remove yourself from your lost, fragmentary condition and listen to reality. Listen to the mystery. Prayer is like the cancellation of inner turmoil, because the interior is not only intelligence or acumen, which moves outwards. The interior is also an abyss, into which you can fall”.
Chiaramonte has long walked on the ridge of this abyss, not least due to a serious illness which struck him in recent months, and impeded him from taking up even his light Fuji Instax. Thus, his own inner turmoil has been expressed instead in brief poetic compositions; haikus. Few words, placed on three lines, which he sometimes would message to his friends. Among these is friend and poet Umberto Fiori, whose lines have followed on from and accompanied many of Chiaramonte’s books. It was Fiori who insisted that the photographer should publish these haiku phrases in the book alongside the polaroids. The last two haikus on the book are the following: “Beyond death/preserving time/saving the hour” and “The day begins/the heart awakes and looks/the world commences”.

Il Foglio, 26th December 2018

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