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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review Cardboard Landscapes (Paesaggi di cartone) Photographs by Luigi Ghirri Reviewed by Odette England "Imagine the pleasure of finding in the Museum of Modern Art archives, perhaps in one of those acid-free fully-lined boxes, Luigi Ghirri’s unique handmade album Paesaggi di cartone, or Cardboard Landscapes. For 35 years, it lies waiting to take a breath of fresh air until Quentin Bajac, former chief curator of photography, quickens its pulse as his own races with the discovery..."

Cardboard Landscapes. By Luigi Ghirri.
Cardboard Landscapes
(Paesaggi di cartone)

Photographs by Luigi Ghirri

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2020. 
112 pp., 111 illustrations, 9½x9½".

It arrives at my door in a cardboard box suitable for books.
“Can I have the box?”

There’s that twinkle in her eye. It’s not really a question, my daughter already knows the answer is yes. Gratification is immediate and the cardboard sustains her interest for longer than it takes me to pore over the book’s pages.

Cardboard is magic. You can bend and fold it. Store and protect things in it. Squash, press, paint, recycle it. Bury it to keep weeds at bay. It is an icon of inspiration and creative potential, the bare-bones of possibility. Strong, light, inexpensive. No charger, adapter, or batteries required. No need for an instruction manual or serving suggestion. There are even websites dedicated to photography ‘hacks’ using cardboard. It seems we can’t get enough of what’s been coined “beige gold”.

Imagine then the pleasure of finding in the Museum of Modern Art archives, perhaps in one of those acid-free fully-lined boxes, Luigi Ghirri’s unique handmade album Paesaggi di cartone, or Cardboard Landscapes. For 35 years, it lies waiting to take a breath of fresh air until Quentin Bajac, former chief curator of photography, quickens its pulse as his own races with the discovery. The ‘it’ that arrived at my door is, according to the note written in the back of the book by curator Sarah Meister, “a faithful reproduction” of Ghirri’s original, identical down to the binding, spine, size, and sequence of the 111 prints.

Cardboard Landscapes. By Luigi Ghirri.

What are Ghirri’s images of? In short: images of images. Images of paintings and photographs. Images of printed representations of contemporary life and pop culture of the early 1970s. Images of style and taste. Images in color, a washed, wrung out, tumble-dried sort of color, before acid wash or bleach wash becomes trendy, before factory vintage finishing is something you pay extra for when you buy a new pair of jeans. It seems we prefer some new things to look old, it’s more poetic, more realistic. This irony would not be lost on Ghirri.

I often photograph my photographs and then study these alter egos over the originals. They reveal information that isn’t otherwise knowable, I tell a friend. I ask fellow photographers why we make images of images. Their many worthy answers, more than I can reproduce here, deserve their own essay. For Mark Alice Durant, “Making pictures featuring other pictures is discursive — a way of simply acknowledging that we make these visual utterances in relation to the rules, conventions, and history of that language”. Brea Souders proposes, “It has something to do with desire. Desire to interact with it, to merge with the image and shift the meaning”. Janet Pritchard writes, “Photographs are our vocabulary and we quote others through our images…sometimes our quotations take the form or subject matter or style of photographs by others; other times we are so literal as to photograph their photographs”. Dinu Lu observes, “There is the notion of more than simply creating and holding onto a version of an original for ourselves”. For Alison Nordstrom: “We photograph photographs to affirm their materiality.” Paul Shambroom’s response is brief but provocative: “Because we are meta-morphic”.

Many an artist has used images of images or cardboard in their work. Photographers Lee Friedlander, Daido Moriyama, Susan Meiselas, Torben Eskerod, Richard Prince, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Lorie Novak, to name a few. Painters, too. In the 1960s Yves Klein made a series of ‘Untitled Fire Paintings’ comprising burnt cardboard mounted on panel or wood. Jacques Villegle and Raymond Hains used found, torn posters on canvas or glued to zinc plate. Francois Dufrene remounted the undersides of found posters to canvas. John Latham affixed whole books to canvas.

Signs. By Lee Friedlander.

Ghirri’s photographs were made during his travels around Europe from 1971 to 1973. Like the examples given, they are transformative of material time and space. Their distance and framing lean into his training as a surveyor and graphic designer. His eyes favor flatness, the speed and fickleness of our emotions when we look, the ways in which we are looked at by images of what we look like, or should look like, of what we should buy and be consumed by.

I linger, as I often do, on the title: Cardboard Landscapes. Not all of Ghirri’s images are landscape orientation. Not all of his subjects are cardboard. The common denominator here is less cardboard landscapes than synthetic surfaces. The writer and curator David Campany once said that when two people collaborate, they produce a third thing. The same is true of language: the words ‘cardboard’ and ‘landscape’ together produce a provoking if sad title. One that puts human-made materials that once depicted a better, sunnier, glossier life in conversation with the nature of looking. The complexion of the falsified world in which we regard (or disregard) images that have already passed us by. The landscapes we see but don’t notice. Images of existence, further fabricated through the autonomy and subjectivity of the camera. A questioning of what is real versus what we faithfully sip, and sometimes guzzle voraciously, through images. 

Cardboard Landscapes. By Luigi Ghirri.

The MoMA Design Store recently hosted a conversation with Sarah Meister and the artists Sarah Cwynar and Stephen Shore sharing their reactions to Cardboard Landscapes. I was struck by Stephen’s commentary around our use of phones as cameras: “With a phone, you’re looking at an image [onscreen] and it unconsciously reminds you that you’re not looking at the world, you’re looking at an image of the world”. It occurs to me that Ghirri did both: he beheld images of the world, in the world by navigating and then critiquing, intentionally or not, the world of images with his camera. Further applying Stephen’s observations about phones and photography, not only did Ghirri use his camera as “an extension of the eye”, he saw through the viewfinder, in the still eyes of others, reflections of the very world he was attempting to reframe.

Unlike making photographs with our phones, light and quick is a no-go zone with Ghirri’s book. Our world and its images are already too eager and reckless. Perhaps dark and slow is what his album needed. To be tucked away in the MoMA for 35 years in a cardboard box before we’d be ready to slow down and really look. No: before Ghirri’s images were ready to speak to us as re-representations. One hopes we take the time.

There’s a time in our lives we desire to look older. My daughter is nearing that time, when the cardboard box will be recycled in favor of the makeup it carries. Transforming her likeness. The pace at which she is maturing before my eyes knows no brakes. For now, the cardboard box is still more interesting to her than its contents. But in this case, the contents — Ghirri’s Cardboard Landscapes — are more interesting to me. Though I won’t look at a cardboard box in the same way again. Cardboard truly is magic.

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Cardboard Landscapes. By Luigi Ghirri.

Odette England is an artist and writer; an Assistant Professor and Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts; and a resident artist of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program in New York. Her work has shown in more than 90 solo, two-person, and group exhibitions worldwide. England’s first edited volume Keeper of the Hearth was published by Schilt Publishing (2020), with a foreword by Charlotte Cotton. Radius Books will publish her second book Past Paper // Present Marks in collaboration with the artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen in spring 2021 including essays by Susan Bright, David Campany, and Nicholas Muellner.