Massimo Vitali might not appreciate the comparison, but every time I look at his outsize color photographs, I think of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. The title is not entirely irrelevant to Vitali’s subjects-crowded Italian beaches and discos as sites of mass leisure activity. But the real association is perceptual rather than thematic: it has to do with the way we look at these works and what we actually see.
For those unfamiliar with the Italian photographer’s imposing originals (approximately 59 by 71 or 71 by 83 inches), a brief caveat is in order: They reproduce about as well as Bosch’s triptych does in postcard form. It is not simply the scale that is drastically reduced but also the space, the luminosity, the range of colors, and, above all, the wealth of seemingly hyperrealist detail. In fact, each photograph is baed on a rigorous geometry of planes and lines-the spectacular permutations and combinations of sea, sand, landscape, and sky in the beach panoramas or, somewhat less spectacularly, the interior space of discos overlaid with their massive lighting, sound, and ventilation systems. But this visual infrastructure, meticulously orchestrated through the choice of camera angle and the framing of the image, is never immediately apparent, because Vitali’s “real life” compositions, like Bosch’s visionary ones, are impossible to take in at a glance.
In both cases, the eye is irresistibly drawn to the proliferation of human figures, at once anecdotal and archetypal expressions of group behavior, individual psychology, fashion, fads, and body language waiting to be discovered and deciphered.
For Vitali, at least, there is nothing voyeuristic about the exercise, because of the public nature of the place and the vastness of the space, not to mention the seeming indifference of the not-so-lonely crowds to his presence. The bird’s-eye perspective (also à la Bosch) of these uncannily close-up panoramas is explained by the fact that they are shot with a large-format camera mounted on an eighteen-foot-high platform: Set up before the crowds arrive (early morning at the beach, early evening in the clubs), this modern-day mirador not only lets the photographer spend hours patiently staking out his visual territory and allows people to forget he’s there but also guarantees an extraordinary depth of field from what we read as the front plane to the distant horizon.
A veteran photojournalist of the May ’68 generation, Vitali spent a number of years working as a cameraman on ads and feature films before returning to still photography in the early ’90s with a large-format, black-and-white reportage on East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Italian beach and disco photos that followed, he explains, are intended above all as “documents”: “so that in fifty years, people can say, ‘Yes, that’s the way it was!'” Indeed, the first beach photos were also inspired by a political event, the March 1994 election victory of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. Dismayed by Italy’s swing to the right, the photographer undertook an in-depth investigation of his fellow voters and their families the following summer on the coast near his home in Tuscany. But this sociopolitical grid remains more latent than the formal one, and fifty years from now, we can imagine, people will still be fascinated by the images without necessarily being able to decode them. Even today, the “documents” seem to be endowed with a mysterious life of their own, as in the views of Rosignano Solvay, where the groups of bathers dotting a vast expanse of pale blue water lead the eye back to what looks like a nuclear power plant, but the apocalyptic symbolism overrides the facts of local industry. Vitali himself speaks of a “reality that exists but is never seen as such.” This “magic dimension”, as he calls it, is the space of art.