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Gabriele Basilico obituary


The Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico, who has died of cancer aged 68, was arguably the best internationally known photographer of urban landscapes. From his early work documenting the coastline of France and the ruins of Beirut following the civil war of the 1980s, through to portraits of Shanghai, Istanbul, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro, and images of former industrial powerhouses now decayed and abandoned, his domain was the relentless decay of the old and the burgeoning new megalopolis.

This article was featured on the The Guardian’s website ( written by Amanda Hopkinson on February the 25th, 2013.

Gabriele Basilico's photographs focused on European cities as industrial centres. Photograph: Manuel Bruque/EPA
Born in Milan, Basilico trained as an architect and graduated from Milan Polytechnic in 1973. Architecture informed his work throughout his life but with the recent exception of a book on (and sponsored by) Scavolini kitchens, the interior world did not feature any more than the residents of the apartment blocks and factories he documented. On the rare occasions when people did figure in his photographs, it was not to inhabit, still less to belong there, but to exaggerate the monumental scale of the apparently empty buildings.
According to the photographer and writer Italo Zannier, Basilico's place in 20th-century Italian photography was assured by his style of 1930s sophistication, his controlled and knowing metaphysical tension and his achievement in combining a postmodernist taste for peripheral architecture with an archaeological approach … documented in an intense chiaroscuro. Although Basilico latterly explored colour and digital photography, his lifelong passion was for often ominous shades of black and white and the use of classic cameras, particularly his large-format Rolleiflex. At times, he would employ a still older tripod and black cloth technique.
Italy inspired his portfolio throughout his life. His first major exhibition, held in Milan, presented factory portraits – not of the workers but of the buildings. It represented three years of work undertaken between 1978 and 1980. He then undertook a project documenting modernist architecture in Milan, seeking to give the impression in the photographs that time had been suspended. This was achieved, he explained, through lighting and the absence of traffic.
Commissioned by the French government's Mission Photographique for the Bord de Mer project, he created a study principally of Norman seascapes exploring the point where land and sea merge, almost without a border, in a bleak diffusion he called apocalyptic. During the second half of the 1980s, he explored Europe through its cities (Trieste, Antwerp, Geneva, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Vigo), his eye always more on the margins than the centre.
Basilico's fascination with harbours and the liminal edge of things led to a book and exhibition of seaports in 1982, and a book of collected projects, Porti di Mare, in 1990. He exhibited at the Rencontres d'Arles festival (1987) in Provence, the Philippe Daverio gallery in New York (1987) and Mois de la Photo in Paris (1990), and undertook work for the Milanese Progetto Beni Architettonici e Ambientali (Project for the Architectural and Environmental Heritage of Milan).
In 1990 Basilico went to Berlin to document the aftermath of the fall of the wall the largely untouched, decaying grand avenues of the eastern zone were perfectly suited to his eye for the relics of abandon. In 1991, he accepted a commission to document Beirut in the wake of the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war. The bleak formality of the bullet-riddled, empty arcades was captured only with available light. Basilico's sense of scale and absence was unique in this group project, sponsored by the foundation belonging to Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister assassinated in 2005, and including work by Josef Koudelka, René Burri, Raymond Depardon, Robert Frank and Fouad Elkoury.
Basilico, who later returned to Beirut, wrote on his first visit "There were almost no street lamps and buildings looked like ghosts. The only noise was that of electricity generators. Space was perceptible but not matter. The atmosphere was heavy and intriguing." He later concluded "It seemed to me some people had just left and others were about to return. All in all, the situation seemed almost normal – the city had just entered a long period of waiting."
For the next 20 years, Basilico's publications and exhibitions gathered pace, as he zigzagged between familiar places and obsessions. He continued to focus on European cities as industrial centres; times of violence and dislocation; and themes of collapse and decay. Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco and Kwangju joined the panorama, alongside Oporto, Marseille and Bolzano. There were also occasional shifts of scale to studies of benches and bollards, girders and staircases, worthy of Eugène Atget.
At the Venice Biennale in 1996, he received the Osella d'Oro award, a most prestigious trophy to add to the rest. He continued to work up until his death during his career there were more than 100 group and 50 solo exhibitions, with a major retrospective at the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, in Turin, in 2001. The scholar and curator Francesco Bonami said that, in his urban landscapes, Basilico was like a doctor examining a patient who has survived a deadly disease. He observed destruction and at the same time acknowledged the incredible possibilities offered by survival.
Gabriele Basilico, photographer, born 12 August 1944; died 13 February 2013

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