‘Luigi Ghirri: Kodachrome’ at Matthew Marks Gallery

Born in 1942, Luigi Ghirri lived for most of his life in northern Italy, worked as a land surveyor, and had just one solo show in New York before his death in 1992. The modestly scaled photographs he created suggest a once-in-a-generation eye and an unusually agile mind. Relatively obscure in the international art world during his lifetime, he has recently been rediscovered by artists and critics.

The 25 color photos from the 1970s at Marks are casual, elegant, surreal depictions of life in Italy and the surrounding countries that Ghirri collected in his 1978 self-published book Kodachrome. He catches a couple walking in front of the snow-dusted peaks of Engelberg, Switzerland, just as a crane behind them lowers a giant billboard of waterfalls—an ad for Sprite. The image does both Brassaï and Weegee proud. In another, a young man examines an Eiffel Tower souvenir in Paris. The curve of his face rhymes with the slope of the monument.

Ghirri was Eggleston with a drier sense of humor. He had an acute sense for atmosphere—hazy whites and golds suffuse his vistas—that recalls Atget’s Parisian street scenes. With photos like a 1976 shot in Corsica that shows a postcard rack filled with images of sunsets, he presaged later appropriation artists’ use of existing imagery.

There is a quiet comedy in his close-up of a sunbather reclining in front of a cruise ship that turns out to be an optical illusion: he appears to have it made by cutting a wavy line along the bottom of a picture of a cruise ship—note the thin shorn edge—and placing it in front of bare skin. It was Photoshop done by hand.

Ghirri favored places other photographers would be likelier to avoid, like the space been two landscape paintings or a window overlooking the gardens of Versailles in which the images of a woman and the greenery surrounding her are fractured and repeated. Homing in on the kinds of moments we’re programmed to ignore, he revealed the strangeness and sublimity in the stuff of everyday life.

(Through April 20, 2013)

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