by Paolo Mattei
Gabriele Basilico, one of the most important European photographers of the past forty years, died in Milan on February 13th.
With his work he told the story of cities’ melancholic soul, of suburbs’ and abandoned factories’ deserted heart; he was able to see the metaphysical scream coming from urban spaces – in wires, signs, and naked architectures set against the sky. He was a “descendant” observer of metropolises, a clear believer of the maxim by the ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, “The city is the teacher of the man”.
Born in 1944 in Lombardy’s capital city, after his architecture studies Basilico immediately started collaborating with field-specific publishers, editing a long series of works.
His popularity was established with “Ritratti di fabbriche” (“factory portraits”), published by Sugarco in 1982: a great reportage on Milan’s industrial areas, which he was motivated to do by “a will to experiment with a new language, in freedom and without ideological influences”.
In the mid-1980s, the French government sent him, and a team of noted photographers, to document the transformation of the post-industrial landscape. The result of his contribution to the “Mission Photographique de la Datar” project was showcased in an 1985 collective exhibition held in Paris, at the Palais de Tokyo.
In the following years, he grew as a professional photographer and published a series of books that achieved great success in the field – to mention but a few: “Italia&France” (Jaca Book), “Paesaggi di viaggi” (Agf), “L’esperienza dei luoghi” (Art&), all the way to his popular Lebanon reportage, “Beirut 1991” (Baldini Castoldi Dalai), dedicated to the bomb-tortured capital.
Urban areas were his chosen subject to try and tell the story of post-modernity: “In every city,” he said, “there are more or less visible presences that manifest themselves to those who want to see them; familiar presences that allow us to confront the sense of bewilderment we feel in front of something new.”
Italian Ways asked academics and artists to say how they relate to Basilico’s work.
Photographer Maurizio Galimberti and Basilico had a long-lasting friendship: “We were bound by great affection and deep respect for one another”, Galimberti says.
“I recently looked again at some of Gabriele’s photos. I think the ones from ‘Mission de la Datar’ are beautiful work – their landscapes remind me of Flemish paintings. His way of working joined passion and precision. His photographs show the point of view of a scrupulous architect who tries to tell the story of space as it is. The outcome is extraordinarily poetic, a quality that I think bursts right out of the photos he shot in Beirut. They convey all the pain he felt as he witnessed destruction. The silence and absence in those shots help us to imagine how much death had swept the city at that point.”
Alberto Manodori Sagredo, professor of history of photography at Rome’s Università Tor Vergata, is also a fan of Basilico’s work.
“I truly appreciate his eye for cities’ architectural volumes, his attention for balanced composition, his interest in design. I know how meticulously he worked, sometimes taking hours before he could shoot a certain instant, waiting for his gaze to turn into a photograph. He waited for clouds to move, for the sun to rise higher, for the wind to blow stronger…”
Perhaps he also waited for silence to be stronger, like in his portrays of Beirut after it was bombed.
“In Beirut”, Manodori adds, “Basilico shot a ghostly city: there are no people. Thus, he conveys the feeling of an ongoing destruction – a very different scenario, to make a comparison with cinema, from the Berlin immortalized by Rossellini in ‘Germany, year zero’. Basilico’s Beirut is the skeleton of an abandoned city, like a new version of Pompeii. I agree with the critics who have said that Basilico’s motionless metropolises, his decaying, lifeless factories, are an example of ‘metaphysical photography’ that is reminiscent of De Chirico. I also agree that one of the greatest photographers of the 1900s, Eugène Atget, had a huge influence on him with his masterful rendition of the deserted streets in Paris. Basilico photographed the human theater when it is empty, once the show is over and silence takes over.”
A silence Mario Botta feels is calling out to him. The Swiss architect told Italian Ways, “Every time I’ve encountered Gabriele Basilico’s photographs, I stumbled on a question mark. This goes to show how his poetics ceaselessly calls upon the architect. His images probe – mercilessly, most of the time – the silences of the city”.
Finally, the art critic Achille Bonito Oliva – who curated the great Milanese artist’s last exhibition, “Elogio della lentezza” (literally, “In praise of slowness”), at Villa Pignatelli in Naples, between the end of 2012 and the beginning of the 2013 – told Italian Ways Basilico was “a great photographer with a strong ethics about his medium. He explored space more than time – the space of history, living space destroyed by catastrophe and war. His work makes me think of Picasso, when he talked about art being pointed towards the world. Gabriele Basilico pointed his photography to the world.”