A New Map of Italy: The Photographs of Guido Guidi
(Loosestrife Editions, 2011)
Covering the last 20 years, Guido Guidi’s new book A New Map of Italy is an excellent introduction to a seminal Italian photographer. Edited and designed by the photographer John Gossage, A New Map of Italy draws from Guidi’s vast archive of images and past books, but also contains many previously unpublished photographs. Like his influential forefather and near contemporary Luigi Ghirri, Guidi is a photographer whose gritty Neorealist-influenced documentary work is little known and underappreciated in the United States. Working in the tradition of Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, and Stephen Shore, Guidi’s large format color photographs are full of surprises and pictorial sophistication.
Using an 8 by 10 view camera, Guidi’s work is largely concerned with the contemporary Italian social landscape, eschewing the picturesque and romantic. For the past several decades, Guidi has photographed the liminal and man-altered landscapes of contemporary Italy and Europe. While this is a well-trod (and often cliché) subject for photographers, Guidi’s work is distinct and compelling. Along with portraits of strangers and friends, A New Map of Italy focuses on the rugged back roads, trash heaps, scratched walls, dilapidated villas, and abandoned construction sites of Italy to form a complex portrait of a country in decline and flux. Deadpan, weatherworn, and elegant, Guidi’s photographs offer a grim metaphor for the state of Italy.
The view camera that Guidi employs is an awkward but highly precise instrument. Prized for its hyper-real clarity and rich tonal rendition, it also allows users to manipulate the camera’s plane of focus and correct convergent lines in architecture. Heavy, cumbersome and notoriously difficult to master, the camera is handled effortlessly by Guidi, resulting in images that resemble casual snapshots. At the same time, Guidi’s pictures are visually astute and complex—the minor distortions and shifts of focus subtly drawing our attention to the act of looking. Even Guidi’s restrained palette, a muted sun-bleached cyan tone, seems to defy the camera’s intended purposes and matches the images’ restrained, utilitarian aesthetic.
Measuring roughly 10 by 12 inches, A New Map of Italy’s elegant design allows the photographs to take center stage. The book’s end-pages are an especially nice touch. On both the front and back endpages are paired photographs of walls and corners—first leading readers in and around a corner into the book, and then ushering them out at the end. The book also contains two essays by Gerry Badger and Marlene Klein. Badger is one of the preeminent photography critics, and his essay is especially worthwhile. Too often essays in photo books are disposable, pedantic filler. Fortunately, Badger is insightful, astute, and thankfully, free of academic or theoretical jargon.
Quoting Lincoln Kirstein’s afterword in Walker Evans’s seminal book, American Photographs, Badger draws a direct parallel with Evans’s work of the 1930s. As Kirstein wrote, “here are the records of an age before an imminent collapse. [Evans’s] pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin and to salvage whatever was splendid for the future reference of survivors.” Like Evans, Guidi’s images are brutally honest, but also deeply affectionate. At the same time that they indict the “symptoms of waste and selfishness,” they celebrate the quotidian beauty of the land and its people.
Another major influence in Guidi’s work—along with Italian Neorealist film, Conceptual Art, and other large-format documentary photographers—is the photographer Luigi Ghirri, a towering figure in Italian photography whose influence can be seen throughout Guidi’s work. The two not only share a similar palette, but also an appreciation for their native Italy’s quotidian beauty. The book’s use of the map can be read as a nod to Ghirri, who not only photographed and loved maps, but also produced a body of work on the subject entitled Atlante.
As the book’s title and the cover photo of a faded map suggest, the work is a remapping, or alternative mapping, of modern Italy. Dense and complex, Guidi’s self-professedly “ugly” pictures provide a deeply nuanced exploration of the contemporary Italian landscape. The broken landscape, buildings, and solemn portraits of Guidi’s work form a narrative of contemporary Italy in flux, but rooted in the commonplace. As Italy and its European neighbors plunge into economic and political turmoil, Guidi’s images point beyond the mythic past or turbulent present to an honest and gritty reality of his subjects and the country he loves.