As featured in Eye To Eye on Fantom 05 / Autumn 2010
Guido Guidi was born in Cesena, Italy, in 1941. He started to photograph in the 50s and is one of the most renowned European ‘topographical’ photographers. His work is focused mainly on the geographical, historical, political, architectural, individual and social aspects of the landscape. His series Fiume has recently been published as the second volume of Fantombooks. For Fantom Luca Nostri captured Guidi’s own words about his work and the medium itself and went ahead with our investigation of the Italian master photographer, starting from his earliest picture shot in 1956 and the latest one he took, just before this conversation on July 27th, 2010.
Guido Guidi Where would you like to begin?
Luca Nostri With a book I was recently given, entitled Mathematics is pointless. There are two passages I would like you to read because I think they relate to your work. The first is a story about Italian-French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange who, at the peak of his brilliant scientific career, was invited to resolve a delicate matter regarding the foundations of geometry. After years of research the time came for him to present his results at a public conference eagerly anticipated by the entire academic world. Lagrange entered the hall, slowly arranged his papers on the lectern, cleared his throat and then simply said: “I need more time to think about it” and left ¹.
Guido Guidi Indeed, one of my problems is that I never manage to finish anything. I am still working on some of my earliest projects. The point is that I have never been able to think clearly and this is precisely why I take photographs: to crystallize my thoughts and to gain a deeper understanding of the world that surrounds me. That is why I have never worked on individual projects but always attempted to tackle a single project, that of ‘knowledge.’ Photography means this to me: an approach to knowledge.
And do you think that you will eventually reach some kind of a conclusion with this project?
Conclusions do not hold much interest for me. I am more interested in how they are reached. I am equally uninterested in answers, which claim to be exhaustive or to frame a concept neatly. Mostly I find them banal and oversimplified. I always try to sidestep questions and end up talking about something else. I try to do this in photography too. If I have to photograph something, anything, I attempt to do it discreetly and quietly. I prefer to hint at something rather than to emphasize it. This is also a means of allowing the observer space to think, without channelling his thoughts or opinions in any particular direction. Norberto Bobbio said that meekness is a form of behavior that lets others be what they are. That form of behavior is peculiar to photography.
Very interesting but, as you said yourself, you haven’t answered my question. I’ll ask you another one. Why do you take photographs?
When I was 15 years old I used to go and steal watermelons from a field with my friends after dark. Later that field disappeared, buried under one of the first Cesena by-passes. I still recall how bad I felt about that. Many of the photographs I took at that time near my house or in the city suburbs, by the factories or under the bridges over the rivers in the countryside, are probably failed, and hence infinitely repeated, attempts to find that field.
Don’t you think there’s a touch of nostalgia in this?
There may be some nostalgia but it’s ‘active.’ It certainly addresses the past but, at the same time, it also investigates the present, and asks questions about the future, analyzing how the landscape is being transformed and the changes that are underway. There is no trace of despondency or intent to condemn anything in this investigation. What I try to do is reduce what I photograph to a measurable dimension.
But I would like to say something else with regard to this. There is a current mindset that deems anything which has anything to do with the past to be negative. I think this teaches a very wrong message. Referring to the past is a means of choosing a starting point to build on and experiment with. My work calls on the classical tradition, from the earliest Italian ‘primitive’ paintings to nineteenth century photography, and is subsequently influenced by a certain type of American photography. However, I have always tried to explore new avenues, to find Varianti ², to mention a title Paolo Costantini suggested to me, which I loved. This is a way of broadening one’s knowledge of the very language of photography.
That is exactly where I wanted to go with this. When you take photographs you try to gain a deeper understanding of the reality that surrounds you. At the same time you try to gain a deeper understanding of the medium with which you try to gain a deeper understanding of the reality that surrounds you. That is why I would like to read to you the second passage from the book I mentioned earlier. However, before I do that, I wanted to ask you another question: what is the point of photography?
(Pause) Perhaps the most intelligent answer is the one Lagrange gave. I need more time to think about it.
“Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and recognize the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it. Without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.”
That’s exactly it. Who wrote that?
¹ La matematica non serve a nulla, Giorgio Bolondi and Bruno D’Amore, Editrice Compositori, 2010
² Varianti, Guido Guidi, Eds. Art& Udine, 1995