Guido Guidi was born in 1941 in Cesena. He spent his childhood in the countryside, a boy curious about everything, fascinated by painting and architecture. From 1956 he’s in Venice studying at first architecture and then industrial design at the IUAV university, around masters like Carlo Scarpa, Luigi Veronesi, Italo Zannier.
Venice with its corroded colours, sign of humidity, has been of great impact in the gaze of young Guidi, who actively starts photographing. He documents everything around him, from the greatest Architecture works, to what is further away: marginal spaces, rural areas, with no urban plan, that his teachers would have preferred to demolish than portray.
Guido Guidi likes photographing “what is there”, he drives kilometers and explores what is on the way, becoming one of the most important photographers of the Italian, vernacular landscape. In the first 80s he participates to research projects on the territory’s transformation, such as the Archive of Space of the city of Milan in 1991, the investigations on public buildings of Ina-Casa in 1999 and the Italian Atlantic 003 curated by the general direction of Architecture and Contemporary Art in 2001.
Together with photography, he dedicates a lot of time to the education, teaching in his old classrooms at the IUAV and at the Fine Arts Academy of Ravenna. His work has recognized and celebrated internationally, through expositions (Fotomuseum Winthertur, Venice Biennial of Art and Architecture, Canadian Centre for Architecture of Montreal, New York Guggenheim Museum and Paris Centre Georges Pompidou) and publications. The last book he presented this 18th of February at Viasaterna Gallery of Milan, and published by Mack books, is called “Lunario”.
Today until the 6th of December it’s possible to see Lunario’s photographs at Linea di Confine, (Rubiera, Reggio Emilia).
Starting with Lunario, this book collects photographs from 1968 and 1999, where the moon is interpreted as a mysterious element of the landscape and as pretext to analyse the photographic medium and the act of watching. The moon, a sphere in part lighten by the sun, reminds the photographic process: by framing we agree to select something and avoid all the rest. Can you tell us one of the numerous experiences with the moon, that affected you?
Tough question (he laughs). The moon is in everyone’s imaginary. Especially in the Italian culture after Leopardi, how can you ignore the moon? Maybe we talk about it too much.
In my years in Venice I saw the Amalassunte by Osvaldo Licini. I knew Paul Klee, like most of Scarpa’s students at the IUAV, and he loved Klee, so much that he translated Klee’s paintings in concrete and wood. For example, inside the Correr Museum we can find some of Scarpa’s artworks which resemble few drawings from The Theory of Form and Figuration (Teoria della Forma e della Figurazione) by Klee. He also curated Klee’s exhibition at the 1948 Venice Biennial.
I tell you another story about Scarpa: once Italo Zannier met him at the ticket box in Piazzale Roma, in Venice, they were just talking when Scarpa bowed three times saying unintelligible words… He explained later to Italo that in certain African villages there is the custom of greeting the New Moon. As soon as it appears in the shape of a little sickle, African people bow and pronounce “Bonjour Dame Lune”.
Also, I always think about Françoise Arago script that announces photography’s birth at the Science Academy of Paris the 7th of January 1839. The script mentions the “horny moon” or “horny silver”, a chemical or alchemical mixture that blackens to the moon. It is surely connected to the moon and the silver… The moon, in fact, takes the light from the sun instead of living on its own, and so the things we photograph take light from the exterior. There is an indirect exchange between the object-photo, the moon and the object-moon, the metaphor of photography, the moon phases and time. Thinking about a particular experience I had, I remember when I was a boy, living in the countryside, I was on my way back after the oratory, it was freezing cold and dark, and the moon took me home in the black of the night. There wasn’t artificial light neither light pollution, I still see the bright sky full of stars and clouds of those moments. It probably got stuck in my background.
In your book, the number 3 is often repeated, in the experiments around Mariangela Gualtieri’s face, in the sequence of picture where your daughter Anna plays the ball-moon, the three sickles reflected on the wall during the ’99 sun eclipse. Is there any hidden meaning or it is just a coincidence?
Inside the book I inserted my sketch I made during the partial sun eclipse: a projection of the moon shape multiplied on the wall. The three sickles drawn indicate a multitude, although in the picture the moons are way more, like the leaves. The number 3 comes from the myth and the religion, and it is often used. In the medieval reliquaries, for example, the internal wall (1) is enclosed between 2 doors, usually painted, where the relic is conserved. The number 3 in this case is a combination of 2+1. In medieval and renaissance paintings, panels are the combinations of 2+1 too. I think about diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs. Diptychs are diachronic variations, diachronies; triptychs and polyptychs are called like that maybe because we can’t say “triaconies”…They surely had some influence on me, especially the first renaissance paintings. And to say the truth I prefer the diptychs to the triptychs, for democracy. There is a possibility on one side, and another one on the other side. The triptychs instead have a central figure, more authoritative than the others, an absolute image symbol of a hierarchy. The diptych accepts the doubt, it represents the thesis and antithesis to the pre-Socratics philosophers. I don’t use that much the three in my activity… The pages of books are always two, like the butterfly wings (he smiles). The three is the number indivisible, stable, it is the architectural structure of the tympanum or the truss, in the temples and churches, the triangle, the most solid geometric figure in nature. Solid like the representation of the family in the Catholic religion, made by three people, mother, father and son, it should be indestructible.
The polyptychs is interesting as well, it’s the place for different stories, opposed to the altarpiece, singular image which today we could call propaganda. The polyptychs is a sort of great narration to remember, dedicated to the memory of things and events. And photography, from its birth, has been considered the glass of memory, not of propaganda, a system to remember things.
Even if photography has been used with this aim “it hasn’t been made for doing propaganda of tomatoes, or shaving cream or soaps” as Walker Evans said. Neither of politic. The authentic photography avoids propaganda.
The moon seems the right continuation of your research about marginal spaces, non-spaces that Marc Augé identified like ‘spaces without identity and relation but that create solitude and similarity’. Through its similarities on earth (the apple, the sickle-shaped light coming from the window, the circle drawn on the sand) the moon gives the idea of an in between space that covers the distance to it. What do you think about the solitude?
It’s a tough question. It makes me think about Jospeh Brodsky who used to say that we are like space ships which by time rotate further away from the earth, abandoning it. The sidereal solitude. The earth is a planet, then there is the moon, a celestial body, between them this vortex. When I take pictures I don’t forget about the relationship with the cosmo, that sometimes is missed because it’s too far, infinite. The moon is something powerful and mysterious, something that fascinates us. Not so fascinating like it was for the primitives, but it’s still reason of concern… When there is the full moon we look at it with a kind of apprehension, the same we have during its phenomena, for example the tides.
The attention on marginal spaces mentioned in your question, doesn’t refer to the moon itself. The border is very important to me, when I print I understand the correspondence between photographing the marginal spaces of the city and paying attention to the physical borders of the image.
Dutch painters, like Vermeer, used to focus on minimal things in their canvas, and started colouring from the borders, not from the centre like in the Italian painting. Ephemeral things, things of little interest… Cage has been great with his sound. Gille Clément too, author of Manifesto on the Third Landscape (Manifesto del Terzo Paesaggio), he pays attention to the grass spontaneously grown in marginal places, in the middle of traffic islands, spaces full of biodiversity, where the nature follows its cycle without being disturbed by humans, without being ‘corrected’ by humans.
Your friend and colleague Luigi Ghirri in the series about 365 skies, Infinite, condensed his numerous looks up to the sky in one image, proof of the photography’s inability in fixing the Nature, and reality. Lunario that investigates Nature and photography, can find any answer to the historic question: is the photographic means capable of presenting reality?
The first time I’ve been in his house I remember we sat down in the living room on sofa chairs made with pallets. In front of us, on the walls, he installed a group of pictures of the sky, but he didn’t explain them through this key, the inability of the representation. Photography doesn’t have to fix the Nature, the reality, or better “the intractable reality” like Roland Barthes called it: a painting, Levi-Strauss explained, is not what it represents, but what it transforms, so the sky picture is the image of the sky transformation. It can present associations, correlations, new constellations. Giulio Paolini worked all his life to this question. He narrates that Giovan Battista Marini, before dying, saw the rose at the end of his bed, the same yellow rose he tried to paint all his life, at that moment was different.
I consider photography an indication. I think about Saint Giovanni Battista inside the altarpiece in Brera, amazingly painted by Piero della Francesca, who depicts “the one who indicates”, with the finger pointed to the kid and the cane pointing as well, the shell and egg.
I think about Leonardo who made the little San Giovannino, now at the Louvre: a finger pointed upward, to indicate… almost suggesting the real life is not inside the canvas, but outside.
In the conversation with Antonello Frongia at the end of the book, Lunario is compared to one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie, The Eclipse. Is your imaginary generally influenced by the cinema neorealism? What do you think you have absorbed the most?
I have to admit I watched a lot of Antonioni. Both Antonioni from the neorealism years and the one form the years after. He in fact announces the end of neorealism, his attitude is less objective and more filtered by feelings. His characters show anguish, discomfort and also mental health issues. Carlo Emilio Gadda, in one text published the same years on Paragone magazine, wrote that neorealists are to be considered naive because they believe they can catch reality in the act.
And to continue the discourse: reality is impossible to catch in the act, she is shy, as Gadda would say, anticipating the idea of the timid atom. As soon as you look at the atom, it gets inhibited and doesn’t transform.
At the beginning of his novel, Western Atlas (Atlante Occidentale), Daniele Del Giudice puts the reader in the middle of a conversation between a young scientist and an old writer, outside the CERN of Ginevra. The writer asks the scientist to describe what he sees around them. So he begins describing a woman walking with her bag, a man, the red house, the tram moving… He describes everything, everything. The old man asks again: “and then?”. Then nothing”, he answers. “But why you don’t describe yourself in the act of watching?” says the writer. Neorealists didn’t do that, while Antonioni did, and that was the fundamental anticipator step.
Evans as well, for example, who can be considered one of American neorealists, is anticipator of the attention on the self. He speaks about making photography, about the self as a photographer. My contact with Evans is very important and I feel to have absorbed much form Antonioni too, both of them in their look on minimal things.
Together with the neorealism, another source of inspiration has come from US photography (like the one of Walker Evans and Robert Adams) with its democratic and not spectacular gaze, testimony of territory transformations. Is it correct to relate this experience with your collection In Veneto 1984-89, where you photograph those places just outside Venice and their passage from rural territory to the fragmented industrialisation?
Yes, and not only for In Veneto. Together with the Italian neorealism, American photography is the one I looked at the most. To say the truth, I picked up more from the neorealism cinema than photography. American photography impressed me more, especially Evans, and again from Friedlander to Shore, from Robert Adams to Wessel, from Baltz to Gohlke. The so named “New Topographers”. I could name others more. To synthesise and make categories, we can divide them in two US schools: one from New York and the other from the south-west, around San Francisco, the cultural area of Edward Weston. The MoMA in San Francisco was directed by Van Deren Coke with a photographic idea quite different from Szarkoswi’s New York Moma. New York was more rationalist, concrete, less surrealist.
Even though Friedlander’s photography is quite surrealist… I took something from both the schools.
For example, if I wanted to compare the work on the moon (Lunario) with something, I would choose the south American photography, not the north. En passant, I didn’t really think about it (he laughs). Or maybe I would choose Atget’s photography, all of it.
Is it possible to recognise in this attraction to passage places from countryside to city, your ‘double’ nature: vernacular, coming from the rural childhood, architectural, as it is the monument to time, coming from the academic study?
Everything influences. Evans tells that when he was a child we was living next to the railway. Seeing train tracks and wagons stopping by with the name of their destinations, lately influenced him. Let’s say that being born in the countryside pushed me towards a particular attention for the vernacular. My studies in architecture, linked to the idea of creating, probably comes from the fact that I am the son and nephew of carpenters. I also looked a lot at Mies, Le Courbousier and Scarpa above all.
I remember the auto portrait of El Lissitzky with the compass, the hand and the eye in evidence, and Edward Hopper, painter I loved very much. I met his work when a first book came out in America, in the Italian museums he arrived late, after almost 30 years, because he was considered kitsch, only an illustrator. Hopper used to say that all the master painters from the past painted also the architecture, nature as well but the architecture.
Moreover, Walker Evans said that the camera, at least his camera, wasn’t born to capture the nature, but the artifice, the construction. Evans records man signs, both famous men and carpenters, smiths, a farmer from the village…
But, if I really think, my attention to the vernacular arises from Bruno Zevi more than form my countryside childhood. Zevi was one of my professors of architecture in Venice, he was coming from a great experience in America, Harvard. He told us a lot about organic, vernacular architecture, the one of Wright and the one that used the Balloon Frame technique. Le Corbusier refers to the vernacular architecture too when he says that the world is full of horrible buildings and villas instead of beautiful vernacular constructions or factories, only made for their function. Vernacular architecture is born out of necessity.
In Venice I heard Carlo Scarpa during his classes “We can’t talk about beauty. Beauty is a boutique concern. We talk about necessity, about making a necessary drawing.” And I would say “necessary photography”, not beautiful but useful, both for who is making it and for the world who receives it. Photography doesn’t have to be flattering, as my master Italo Zannier was teaching.
In Lunario, waiting the sun eclipse of August the 11th 1999, is evident the importance of the time element. We can often find in your images a double sequence of the same scene, a passage, just like a tiny movement of light that makes visible the time. You’ve always been able not to stop the instant but to talk about the time flow. Waiting, has that been the key?
Actually I am impatient… (he laughs). What you say is truth. Variations interest me, and for sure the time is one of the most important elements. Things, over time. I remember Giorgione’s portrait of an old woman with the cartouche. Maybe I talked about this to much.
Finally, the last and maybe the most argued question: a master like You, who lived the various photographic transformation, and the digital boom, where belongs to?
The reproducibility of image (like Walter Benjamin would call it), and its fast fruition, makes it loose the authenticity (the hic and nunc)? Has digital changed something in the concept of photography?
Photography changes eventually, modifies itself. I don’t have any prejudices about the digital.
Daniel Arasse says that we should re-write the history of painting starting from the use of brushes, noticing that Velazquez, with brushes of 50 cm length, used to paint far from the canvas, like a swordsman, and Turner, differently, painted with brushes of 10 cm length, and never stepped back to watch what he was realising. As you see, there are many ways to use one medium…
At the same time, digital simplifies the recording, but to me it remains annoying because of the many techniques it offers. The traditional camera instead is an instrument I use for a long time, I know it quite well and I don’t want to modify its behaviours. The film creates some boundaries but I know that I can play inside them and I can work with them.
With digital I can take photos at night, but it has a less quality print and I can feel the water missing, “the water is taken off”. The writing and leaving trace on the water typical of traditional photography disappears, it becomes “dry”, and yes, I can feel this lack of liquidity.