Guido Guidi: Wherever You Look, There is Something to See

Guido Guidi: Wherever You Look, There is Something to See

Now in his eightieth year, Guido Guidi is a quietly spoken, gentle man. He is reticent, even shy in his dealings with people he doesn’t know well, and yet, as so often is the case with artists, his shyness glints with intensity and sincerity. To be the focus of his attention, to sense the fragile strength of his physicality and receive the immense warmth of his smile, is also to be aware of the depth of his natural intelligence. It feels like a kind of privilege. For many, especially the younger generation of Italian photographers, Guidi is a father-figure, his experience and wisdom are revered, and his company and presence treasured. 

Guidi’s work has been recognised and celebrated in his own country for many years, but it is only over the last decade or so that he has been acknowledged internationally as one of the true masters of post-war Italian photography. For Guidi, this period has involved what might be called a ‘career reaffirmation’, with various major exhibitions and books being produced, most notably since 2013 his publications with Michael Mack in the UK. As part of the MACK programme, Guidi has been working with his vast archive of pictures dating back to 1959, revisiting some older projects and publishing others for the first time. In the process books such as Veramente (2014), Per Strada (2018) and the recent Cinque viaggi (2021) have quickly become contemporary classics.

Born in Cesena, about forty kilometres south of Ravenna, Guidi has spent much of his career living and working in Emilia-Romagna and now provides a kind of motivational focus for contemporary photography in that region of Italy. To Luca Nostri, Marcello Galvani and Francesco Neri, all locally based photographers, he is an inspirational mentor who has become a close professional colleague, advisor and friend. Their own work certainly betrays Guidi’s influence, and along with their activities as curators and teachers, it is a reminder of the rich and ongoing legacy of his seminal photographic example.

As it emerged in the 1970 and 80s, Guidi’s work shared many of the preoccupations of his contemporaries in the US who came to be known as the New Topographic photographers (following a landmark exhibition of that name at George Eastman House in 1975). Their pictures, as seen in signature works such as Robert Adams’s The New West and Lewis Baltz’s The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California – both of 1974 – responded to an altered landscape of newly built environments in America, most especially new developments on the fringes of cities. They adopted a deadpan, highly precise and descriptive style, producing apparently artless photographs that tended to be detached in tone, and in most cases avoided direct social commentary. Collectively the overriding drama of their work was its very plainness. 

Guidi admired what he calls the unsentimental, ‘cold’ quality of the new topographic work: ‘I found them dry, in a good way’, he says. He also preferred to work outside cities in the dry, dusty Italian hinterland of small towns and out of the way places, where the countryside and new post-war housing developments overlapped. But without the deep-seated sense of irony and the love/hate relationship with American materialism that the new topographers inherited from Pop Art and Minimalism, Guidi’s photographic sensibility differed from his American counterparts in several important respects. For example, although he aimed for an observational detachment in his work, many of his photographs betray a strong physical connection with the landscape, both the simple rustic surroundings of his rural childhood and the built-over, non-descript places that so often replaced them. In fact, one could say there is a sense of profound empathy and solidarity with places in Guidi’s work, something equally tangible in relation to ramshackle wooden structures as it is hastily and cheaply built brick and concrete buildings. 

And this feeling of empathy and solidarity is also why people have come to be so important to the tone of his photographic series. They present, quite literally, the landscape’s human face; they are part of the history and lived experience of Guidi’s places as much as worn buildings and roads are a chronicle of its material fabric. To an extent Guidi’s photographs ‘redeem’ the places they often so obliquely depict. Colour and light are part of his descriptive language and yet they are also elements to be savoured in his pictures – the peeling tree-green paint on a battered old door, or the late afternoon sun leaving its golden warmth on an otherwise featureless brick wall – drawing the viewer in to what is always a more complex, if equally oblique, historical and social narrative.

Recently I have been conducting a wide-ranging interview with Guido Guidi in which he reflects in some detail on his childhood, his artistic influences, his photographic ideas and his recent success. What follows is a series of brief edited extracts from that longer, ongoing dialogue.

DC: You were born in Cesena during the war, and from 1943 to 45 the entire Emilia-Romagna region was occupied by the Germans. It was obviously a traumatic time in Italy’s history but I wondered whether you had any surviving memories of that period of your early childhood? I ask this since in a way so much of your work deals with the legacy of the war and what has happened since.

GG: Yes, childhood leaves signs, signs that you carry with you. 

When the war broke out in Italy in 1940, my father was doing his National Service in Sicily, in Trapani or Caltanissetta, and they immediately sent him to fight in Algeria. This was before I was born. I didn’t meet my father until he came back when I was 5, so he never saw me as a child, apart from some photographs my uncle sent him. Unfortunately, when he came back he was quite embittered because those Fascists who had sent him to the front had stayed at home and once the war was over they became Communists. My father and grandfather were resolutely anti-fascists. My grandfather told me that once some Fascists had wanted him to join the Party. He threatened them with a cleaver.

My grandfather and father were both carpenters, and when he came back to Cesena my father resumed his trade. My parent’s house consisted simply of a kitchen, some bedrooms, a workshop, the chicken coop, the sty where we kept the pigs, the stable where we kept the horse, and there was also a latrine attached to the pigsty. In short it was an archaic rural environment. 

My grandfather’s small workshop, the place where he kept his tools, I remember very well. It was just a ramshackle sloping shed. So now, if I see some old wooden huts, I photograph them, not only as a tribute to Walker Evans but also to my grandfather. There is certainly a Neorealistic aspect to my work that derives from realism in painting, photography and cinema, but it also comes from these experiences I had as a child. If this were not the case, my preference for realism would be more superficial, and instead it is physical, corporeal. 

DC: I’d like to ask a you little more about Neorealism. Your childhood coincided with the emergence of Neorealist cinema in Italy, and it has often been suggested that those films became a formative influence on your work. What especially did you admire about the Neorealist and other films of that time and how did they help shape your photographic sensibilities? 

GG: As a child, I hardly went to the cinema at all. But in high school I started going a little more, I became a Chaplin fanatic: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), and so on. I've seen them all three, four, five times! At that time, my friends and I also saw some American Westerns, John Ford’s films… with Gary Cooper, the American gunslingers. At university, I started going to the cinema much more, often seeing more than one film a day: when one film ended I left the theater and went to see another one. On the suggestion of my professor, Bruno Zevi, an Architectural historian, I saw Antonioni’s The Eclipse (1962), and later liked his other films, The Adventure (1960), Il Grido (1957), the latter above all, then Red Desert (1964), which was in colour. Let's say that Antonioni influenced me a lot and then also Godard with the Nouvelle Vague. Here we are in the 1960s.

Later I met Robert Frank at a conference. He was an assistant to Antonioni and then to Godard. He said he valued Godard more. I appreciated Godard’s early films, such as Masqulin Femminelle (1966) and Two or three things I know about her (1967), which were perhaps more lucid than Antonioni’s works. Godard is faster, Antonioni is much slower, closer to the Alain Resnais films. Between the two of them this spirit of geometry prevails, but in Antonioni it is more diluted. Perhaps Antonioni is more sentimental, Godard drier. I have also seen the films of Eric Romher, Jean Renoir and Truffaut, all of which I like, and Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) was very important to me in those years. But at a certain moment I left the cinema, now I never go there, I get bored.

Basically, my own realism does have some foundation with Neorealism, but I would say above all with the photography of Walker Evans. And Paul Strand's book, Un Paese (1955), was also fundamental for me. I saw it for the first time in 1967/68, shown in class by Zannier. But in terms of film, ultimately other film directors influenced me more than the Italian Neorealists. I breathed the air of these films, because Neorealism was in the air, but I have not seen them, not Bicycle Thieves or the others. I haven't seen them, or maybe I saw them much later on television. However, as I said Neorealism was in the air, and even if I didn't see it, people often talked to me about it.

DC: Bringing things more up to date, in recent years you have been working with your vast archive of work going back to the 1970s. As well as revisiting your pictures in this way, are you discovering new things about work you made in the past?

GG: Yes, it happens all the time, if I did not discover new things I wouldn’t do this job of revisiting the archive. I am pulling out some photographs that have remained hidden over time, some had been exhibited but not published. I am now looking at my work with more distance, and in a more critical way. This temporal distance helps me to re-read and clarify the work I have done. In part I look at it as if it were not mine. As Carlo Scarpa said, you should attach a drawing made when you were a child to the wall, and every now and then look at it to see where are you going, starting from there. You have to compare that child's drawing with what you are doing now. So, I also occasionally compare the old work I did bring out, with the newer one, and I ask myself some further questions.

DC: Since you have been working with your archive, some people have suggested there has been a renaissance in Italian photography. Do you agree, and if so how do you see yourself in relation to a new photographic culture? 

GG: What I can say is that the work I have done is somehow an attempt to get closer to photography and its history. But rather than retracing the history of photography by referencing historic works, I tried to put myself in the shoes of early photographers, to try and walk in their shoes. And changing shoes every now and then!

In some ways, this respect for the past was also true for artists of the Renaissance, such as in the Venice of the 15th century, when Giorgione painted his scene of a storm (now called The Tempest, c1506-08), he gave it a classical character by inserting an ancient ruin into the picture. This rediscovery and reverence for classical antiquity in the Renaissance, is important. Even Michelangelo made a sculpture, buried it and then took it out as an archaeological find. I too have looked for color toning in the print, that simulate the dawn of photography. The ‘diachronies’ (from diachrony: a form of analysis that seeks to describe and explain processes of continuity and change over time) I did at the end of the 60s, using two frames together, were a simulation of stereoscopy. 

The New Topographics were very interesting for me in the 1970s, because, even before then, I had begun to take an interest in the early American photography of Matthew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, Carleton Watkins, and of course in Atget, who was among the photographers recommended by professor Zannier. I remember that he gave us the task of taking photographs ‘in the manner of’, that is, of ‘imitating’ or ‘copying’ a photographer, and I did a work ‘in the manner of’ Atget. But I don’t have those photographs anymore, I don't know where they ended up.

Regarding the new photographic culture, I am interested when it maintains roots in early photography. There is an ancient maxim from Roman antiquity that I heard from the painter and art historian Massimo Pulini, in which it is said that the Author, with a capital A, is the one ‘who adds’, in an eternal kinship with what already exists, yet whose origins may have been lost. We are always someone's children. Today the frivolity of ‘doing something new’ seems to be sought at all costs, neglecting the quality of authorship in that classical sense. 

DC: When we first met nearly 15 years ago now, you expressed some frustration about finding a larger audience for your work internationally. Things have certainly changed a lot for you in the last decade and you now have a much more international profile. So, I wondered what success feels like now!?

GG: As a nice joke, Ennio Flaiano (Italian screenwriter, playwright, novelist, journalist, and drama critic) often said ‘failure has gone to my head’. Now I hope that success doesn't go to my head, too! And I wonder what this success is due to… Being successful somehow means doing things that everyone likes, and that can be dangerous. However, the problem for me was not so much in lacking an international recognition, it was the difficulty of communicating with other people from the art world who somehow weren't so much into photography. The photographic culture in Italy is very undeveloped I think, and for me it is frustrating to share ideas and conversations with people who don’t understand the language you have adopted.

However, now I am happy especially for my father and my mother, who unfortunately are no longer here. They were worried that I didn’t take exams at university and didn’t have a regular job. I was not integrated in the world of work, or in the world in general... But as a student I was lucky enough to have a teacher like Zannier, who encouraged me to insist on working. Then I am grateful to friends, friends of the time, friends of today, not so much a general public, but friends were important and strengthened me, direct friends. Even now, it’s important to have a dialogue with my friends, my friends encourage me. It's not having a bigger audience that stimulates me, because at the end of the day that ‘wider audience’ feels somehow distant.

DC: And finally, despite the obvious technical skills and all the intellectual and aesthetic judgement of the photographer, there is something other in photography: what we might call the enigmatic mysteries of the photograph, and the unpredictable chemistry between the image and the viewer. Do you think in this sense that as a photographer you are ultimately the humble servant of the camera?

GG: I would like to be the humble servant of language, as Joseph Brodsky would say, and of photographic language in particular, and therefore also of the camera. And I agree with Walker Evans when, during the last years of his life, he ended a conversation at Yale by saying precisely that photography is basically just a personal thing. 

When Fox Talbot took a photograph of a house, he said he believed it to be the first house ever to have drawn its own portrait. In this sense, it is true that you take the picture, and the house enters the camera on its own, but somehow you have facilitated this alchemical process to take place. You facilitated it, you initiated the conversation, and then you let the house and the camera carry it out on their own. The art historian Daniel Arasse says that one could describe the history of painting through the history of the brush. One could make a history of photography through the history of the camera. So, my work is also the result of the work of all those who contributed to the construction and evolution of the camera and materials. It is all a kinship once again.