He was introduced to photography by his father’s business partner, Lamberto Vitali (no relation), a collector and author of books on the sculptor Marino Marini and fin de siècle photography. “He gave me my first camera and started me in the world of art and photography: he was much ahead of his time and would freely mix the two. He was a friend of Giorgio Morandi, maybe the only friend of Morandi. In the office there were dozens of canvases, great works of art, leaning against the walls. I remember a couple of Modiglianis.”

During the 1970s, Vitali spent time as a jobbing photojournalist for the Report agency, producing work that he says he now wouldn’t take out of the drawer. A foray into film and television followed; again, it didn’t gel. “The trouble with photography,” he says, “is that unless you really break through, you can spend all your life doing total crap.”

A random crime in the early 1990s led Vitali to art photography. “The leap was made necessary by the fact that I had my cameras stolen from a car,” he says. The thieves took two 4 x 5 cameras but left his bulky 8 x 10 large format camera. “They didn’t take the suitcase. And so I thought, now it’s time for the 8 x 10. When I was 50, everything came together. I was lucky: I got into photography when photography was being sucked into contemporary art.”

Cala Corsara Clavarino, detail, 2013.

When he began, he shot from the roof of his car – a method used by Anselm Adams 50 years earlier – and he took his lead from the Dusseldorf school, whose members included Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer. “We had landscapes, we had street photography, we had fashion. Now everybody was doing the Germans,” Vitali laughs. His other influences include the photorealist paintings of Gerhard Richter and the plate pictures of pioneers Eugène Atget and Gustave Le Gray.

Working with a tripod gave Vitali “time to think”, and his camera confused his subjects. “People couldn’t even identify a large-format camera as a camera,” says Vitali. His collection includes vintage Deardorffs and a bespoke model made by Alessandro Gibellini: “ A modern classic, reinvented to my specifications, made of aluminium and various forms of carbon fibre and pressed powder.”

His pictures are known for pushing the technical limits of photography, although for most of his career Vitali has worked with film. “It was impossible to do with digital what I could have got with film, and now I can do things with digital that I will never be able to do with film.” The life of the beach has also evolved. “People have changed. Not only the swimming trunks – the faces, the beards, the tattoos, the shape of the body has changed.”To illustrate his point, he shows me his first few beach shots, taken in the mid-1990s. “Look at this guy,” he says, pointing to a pot-bellied man in Speedos. “You don’t find him any more.” Today, he insists, men are more sculpted and women are no longer topless. And now both genders automatically pose, even when off camera.

Cala Corsara Clavarino, detail, 2013.

His images are still joyous, I tell him. He frowns. “Maybe the beaches are more tragic. Because now everybody connects beaches with refugees. In Italy more than most places. So it’s joyous and tragic, like almost everything.” I remark that the crowds have thinned; Vitali’s compositions are gradually emptying out. “I think I can get what I want with fewer people and less eventful situations,” he agrees.

Vitali has a flurry of other projects on the horizon. There is a catalogue raisonné (to be published by Steidl) and an exhibition of his giant contact sheets, 23 years’ worth of work, totaling 4,976 images. The project, titled Before Digital, will be unedited. “Every time I press the shutter, It’s there,” he explains. “Including steaks of light and double exposures.

Does anyone ever object to his lens? “Privacy was very popular a few years ago,” he says. “Now everybody is super happy to be in any picture.” Perhaps, conversely, his fame might get in the way. “One day last year,” he recalled in a recent blog, “I was standing on top of my scaffolding when a couple went by and I overheard them saying, “Look at that idiot, he thinks he’s Massimo Vitali!”

Christian House, "Crowd Pleaser" In Christie’s Magazine, September - October 2018, pp. 70 - 81.