I initially came across Massimo Vitali’s pictures as a student at Bard College in the late 1990’s. I was already making photographs with a view camera, and these massive beach pictures made for an early compass point in my expanding pictorial imaginary. But I was still a student and I, rather lazily, categorized these works with the Dusseldorf Germans who were themselves at the height of their influence. What is so obvious to me now is that the great strength of Vitali’s pictures could in fact be described succinctly through their difference from his German contemporaries – particularly the work of Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky. The way I would draw this difference is through the issue of afforded subjectivity – the position the viewer is invited to take when viewing a picture. In short, where Gursky’s pictures often explicitly take up the vantage of seats of power—whether the overseer / manager, or the yet-more-rarified-air of the helicopter or satellite—and where Struth’s comparable attempts turn his subjects into chorus members or statuary, Vitali’s scenes are at far less of a remove, hierarchically or psychically, from the demos. As viewers, we are amongst their number, sharing space, in spite of our elevated vantage, as if we have just come upon the scene. I find myself looking for bodies resembling my own or those of lovers or friends, and this inclusiveness of the viewer as a part of the crowd gives the work a surprisingly egalitarian ethos.
These two exposures, made this past July on the beach at Praia da Torre in Portugal, are no exception. In the first, a young woman attempts a handstand while others fraternize, ankle or knee deep, in the clear salty water. There are fisherman in the middle distance and a boy in a pink shirt possibly digging for clams in the foreground. The second is more of a crowd scene, complicated in its geometries to the point of being a little anxious, with a group of kids in the lower right who have turned to pay attention to the camera.
I can only imagine that in this year marked by refugees and nationalist re-entrenchments, that Massimo’s choice of a beach tucked under the looming 16th century Forte Sao Juliao da Barra, active national headquarters of the Portuguese Defense Department, is an acknowledgement of the hard road to come. 2016 has been a year when the crowd has come to feel alien and alienating for many of us and questions of citizenry and community are reshaping the world. I don’t want to freight these works with all of the baggage that comes with this reading, but I would, however, like to suggest that we seem to be having real trouble imagining our collective experience except in the most inadequate, and derisive terms. In this context, there is something deeply important, and frighteningly at risk, in the communities that these pictures invite us into.