A Specially Written Contribution for this Blog

Any lingering belief that politically concerned reportage photography might change Italy for the better finally dissipated in the spring of 1994 when Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party were elected to power. The following summer, part by accident, part by design, Massimo Vitali alighted on the formula, that through his own process of alchemy, would turn sand and sea into photographic gold. The Berlusconi-voting Italian masses, were there for all to see, stripped bare of any outward political allegiances, arguing, lounging, frolicking and preening on the shoreline. They offered themselves up, perhaps unwittingly, as a new subject for the scrutinising lens of the bemused photographer and the descriptive power of the large format camera and colour film.

Vitali’s long journey to the crowded beach followed a period working in film and advertising and over twenty years as a photojournalist. He trained in London at the print union controlled, London College of Printing and was mentored by Simon Guttman of the left leaning Report Photo Agency whose lineage in photography traced back to 1920s German and could speak with feeling of his friendships with Walter Benjamin, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Erich Salomon. Vitali’s career in reportage coincided with Italy’s infamous Anni di Piombo or Years of Lead, a period punctuated by bullets and bombs in an atmosphere heavy with conspiracy and conflict.

Nothing was ever as it appeared and the authorities developed a uniquely Italian line in staging futile public displays of trying to get to the bottom of things. The re-enactment of the death of Giuseppe Pinelli was one very particular moment. Pinelli, a railway worker under investigation into the bombing of a Milan bank in which 18 people were killed, fell to his death while in police custody.

The first investigation concluded it was all an inexplicable accident. The incident provided Dario Fo with the material for his absurdist play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”. A second investigation followed a year on in 1971 that exceeded even Fo’s invention of the ridiculous. Pinelli’s by now decomposed body was exhumed to no obvious purpose and various re-enactments were staged for the benefit of the magistrates and invited press. Massimo Vitali was one of a small group of journalists to witness the moment when a dummy representing Pinelli was winched onto the window ledge of the police station and dropped to the floor below.

Stripped of any context the photographs might be mistaken for documents of a period conceptual art performance. Indeed, the performative became a central component of the tragic-comic drama of 1970s Italy as events, from show trials through to acts of terrorism were increasingly staged for the camera. The Pinelli re-enactment may have contributed to Vitali’s growing sense of unease about the shifting role of photojournalists from critical observers to unwitting accomplices.

It is almost thirty years since Vitali abandoned conventional reportage. His back catalogue remains locked away and he hides the key. However occasional glimpses are beginning to emerge of a remarkable early chapter in his career that maps a cataclysmic period in Italy’s modern history. What makes the work so poignant is the contrast with his later work in which he takes back control of the photographic concept to emerge less as the journalistic puppet and more as the consummate puppeteer.

Roger Hargreaves, Puppeteer from the Past, September 19, 2016.