Panoramic photography is more than a category of images, nor is it merely a technique for taking pictures. Ever since the birth of photography itself, it has sought to recreate the eye’s natural vision, which is achieved by constant movement. This is something that cannot be reproduced by the narrow field of view of normal lenses nor by the wide-angle variety. Way back in 1846, the English pioneer, Fox Talbot, who invented the negative-positive process, placed two prints showing next to each other. And for several decades, until the turn of the century, the collage remained the simplest, most effective way of producing panoramic photographs. The field they encompassed was even greater that the 180° typically used to define the sweep created by moving one’s eyes; also, they were mounted flat.

The difference between panoramic and conventional photography immediately strikes us. By comparison, standard pictures appear to cover a smaller space (like a little window, a narrow slit through which one views the world). But they also seem conceptually more limited. Panoramic photographs fully express the dilemma that relates vision to the camera: a different tool, encompassing an enormous field of view (by revolving the lens, by moving the film, or by a combination of these two methods), actually determines the photographer’s philosophy. His choices have to adapt to the capabilities of his camera.

Who controls what?, we might wonder. The photographer taking the pictures accepts the idea of exploiting, of favoring a certain amount of autonomous power of the camera itself; consequently, he modifies his approach towards visible space. There are several technical and linguistic elements which required that the photographer make lengthy pauses for reflection: the constant use of the tripod; the need to maintain the optics in a horizontal plane; the attention to the subject’s compositional values; the advisability of compensating light values; and the control of the entire scenario. Thus, it is no surprise that two outstanding traits of these photographs by Vitali are the feeling of suspension and the rational analysis of horizontal space. Those who are familiar with his career – from the memorable photojournalism pictures of the ’60s and ’70s to his work as a cameraman for the movie industry – may interpret this new phase as an unwillingness to plunge into the chaotic bustle of things, as opting for a “contemplative” viewpoint. But one also should reflect on the subjects of these photographs, on the cultural itinerary they suggest… through what used to be East Germany in that decisive 1990. Images of ports at sundown that evoke the Nazi’s nightmare V2 bombing of London; squares with statues whose profile is obsolete; cars made of non-recyclable plastic; structures and symbols pathetically wrapped in rust. Everything is suspended, deserted; it has aged in just a few months. Massimo’s view is “panoramic”, but it remains immobile. It suggests trips within spaces that look empty, but actually “were emptied”. (The space only comes to life one Sunday evening, along a tree-lined riverbank. The Germans take snapshots of each other, leaving their history in the background).

Thinking of my friend Cesare Colombo, a year after his passing.

Cesare Colombo, "Massimo Vitali fotografo" in Domus n. 729, July/August 1991.