A photographer could be defined as someone who has the faith to allow time to express itself. Although, etymologically speaking, a photographer “writes with light” and to an extent determines the details of the character of their image, at a certain point they allow physical reality to trace its own temporality. It’s not a coincidence that photographic images were once often described as acheropite, as not made by human hands. Naturally, today, artists don’t necessarily use their hands to realize their works but, through varying degrees of mutatis mutandis, do not tend to allow the work to produce itself. Yet at some point the photographer must always do so. In the early years of the medium there were many discussions, theoretical and otherwise, regarding this fundamental difference. Some were convinced that retouching a photograph, by introducing some type of direct intervention, would irremediably alter the purity of their medium. The echoes of this debate are still felt today, and are especially resonant when looking at the photographic work of Massimo Vitali.
Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Vitali’s work presents itself as essentially photographic. While many reduce photography to a formal symbol of itself in order to find a rhetoric close to that painting, Vitali produces images that adhere “millimeter after millimeter” to their photographic nature. To begin with, his subjects could be chosen by anyone who takes snapshots. Many sociological reasons can justify his choices of crowded beaches, mountainous holiday destinations, touristy streets or discotheques but, first of all, they are locations where everyone takes photographs: the classic places of photography that facilitate un art moyen, as defined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This does not mean that Vitali takes the same photographs that the people he portrays having fun on beach, ski lopes or walking on the streets of Florence would take.
On the contrary, the choice of viewpoint, which is very particular and always from the same height, distinguishes his images from the world of spontaneous photography. Far from being the simple sum of all these photographs, Vitali’s methodically organized images present themselves as metaphotography, in which the photographic appears purified from those considerations that interfere with the fact of photographing; particularly because no one seems to be aware of being photographed.
Those who’ve read Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966) may recognise in Vitali’s work two of the five typical traits of photography he lists: “subject matter” and “vantage point”. Moreover, they will also have noticed that even though Vitali’s photographs are readable in this modernist key, they are a subtle criticism of it. The systematic repetition of the vantage point and photographing what is photographable by everyone are certainly not operations two of the three other essential characteristics isolated by Szarkowski – “time”, “frame” and “detail” – it is probable that Vitali’s images function through the specificity of his chosen viewpoint. Even if the choice of the moment is not casual, it cannot control all the events portrayed – “details” which were so dear to Szarkowski – in the final image. In these two areas, Vitali allows the unconscious law of his medium to assert itself, which is all the more appealing when you consider the richness of the detail in his photographs. Only a photograph can register so great a quantity of micro events with such precision.