Chance Encounters: Guido Guidi on ‘Di sguincio, 1969–81’

Cesena (Anna), 1980 [C3-26]

Antonello Frongia: These photographs of yours from the 1970s reveal a completely different line of enquiry from the better-known work you commenced during the following decade, which used a large-format camera, usually with colour film. These are small-format black-and-white instant photographs, taken without a tripod. They feel very dynamic, shot from moving cars or while approaching people, and often using the flash to freeze movements, gestures, and expressions.
Guido Guidi: It’s a selection of the photographs that I took in my day-to-day life for many years: at home or with my closest relatives in Cesena, on my weekly drives to Preganziol, where I’d started working, with the fellow students I shared a room with in Treviso, and with work colleagues. There are also several self-portraits and some pictures taken during a trip to Spain with my wife Marta.
AF: The approach is very direct, straightforward, unclassical, apparently without any concern for the aesthetic outcome.
GG: Italo Zannier, who was my teacher when I was young and greatly encouraged me, has said more than once that my photography is transgressive photography. Today I’d say instead that my work is a series of infractions, in the sense that I’m not interested in seeking transgressions but in exploiting the immediacy of photography – its ‘rude’ nature and its ability to show things as they are, without taming them. These infractions were like unintentional, unplanned transgressions. The transgression was a desire to see what could be done with the instrument, but also a juvenile dismantling of the instrument, just as children take toys apart and are then unable to put the pieces back together again.

San Trovaso, 1980 [C1-3]

AF: In 1969 you were twenty-eight years old; in 1981 you were forty. Do you think this work is also the diary of an individual maturing during a period of social and political strife?
GG: The photographs taken from the car or with a flash certainly have something to do with impatience. It’s true that these were the post-1968 years and I enjoyed being outside the expectations of official and professional photography. But most of all, I was trying not to over-think things, to work quickly so as not to use my head too much. When photographing quickly, things are rough-hewn, while if you work with a tripod and stop to think, you start to check the edges, details, composition, and so on.

I remember being struck by the performance of a Japanese monk at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, around 1962 or ’63, who spread sheets of paper on the floor in a large room and dissolved ink powder in a bucket of water. Then he took a huge brush, the size of a broom, dipped it into the ink, let the excess drip off and, after waiting a moment longer like a pole vaulter about to jump, he hurled himself at the sheet of paper, producing a drawing in no time at all. Within seconds it was all over. The monk then waited for the paper to dry, before deciding whether or not to accept the result. In many cases he tore up the sheet, but if he accepted it, it was followed by the ceremony of the small square stamp in red ink, which lasted at least a quarter of an hour. I was intrigued by this sort of absurdity: the moment of lucidity followed by the time of reflection. But in this contradiction, I also recognised the methods of Informalism, a pictorial movement that intrigued me.

San Trovaso, 1980 [C1-1] 

AF: For a long time you took photographs without looking through the viewfinder, using a Leica or a Rollei 35mm and a small flash mounted on the bottom of the camera. Did you have any models for this type of work?
GG: At some point in the 1970s, I think I saw Joel Sternfeld’s colour photographs taken at night with a flash in Camera and, later, Mark Cohen’s black-and-white ones. In Friedlander’s self-portraits too, if I remember rightly, the projected shadow clearly reveals that he doesn’t always hold the camera to his eye, but keeps it detached and consequently isn’t framing the shot through the viewfinder. But most of all, I was influenced by my meeting with Nathan Lyons. He pushed us in this direction on a course held in Venice in 1979, encouraging us to photograph by looking through the viewfinder and then without it. Ultimately, it’s a bit like Matisse, who’d sometimes blindfold himself after spending a long time drawing a face and do it again on a sheet of paper pinned on a door, with his eyes closed, to test his mastery of the subject. And, as we can see from Brassaï’s famous photographs, Picasso also drew figures in the air by moving a lamp, without being able to control the result immediately. Even Walker Evans secretly photographed travellers on the New York City subway, in the late 1930s, without looking through the viewfinder.
AF: The uncertainty of the outcome is consequently an important aspect of this work.
GG: It is an attempt to rely on chance. It reminds me of a remark by Harry Callahan: chance, he said, is fundamental, it’s beautiful, it’s like turning the street corner and bumping into an old friend – you weren’t expecting it, and it’s wonderful. To me, chance is also when someone else asks you to photograph something, like Padua’s city walls for example. But the walls are long, they go all around the city. So you go to Padua but you arrive at a random point, because you’ve taken a certain route and it’s convenient for you to stop in the shade of a tree. You’re there and chance begins to prompt you. You’ve come out of your house, your room, your shell, out of yourself, in short, and you have an opportunity to make contact with the outside world, to encounter the other.
Excerpted from Guido Guidi and Antonello Frongia’s conversation in Di sguincio, 1969–81 by Guido Guidi