Seaside Narratives

Archivio Balneare (“Seaside Archive”) is a photographic and audiovisual archive on Instagram that aims to collect images with a focus on the beach, showing how it has been represented in media and visual arts through time. Massimo Vitali’s work with his “beach series” is a reference for the page: a moment in which the documentary power of photography rises to artistic expression, in a perfect balance of color, form, and a sociological inquiry.

”The beach is also, increasingly, a cultural and narrative theme. A setting for narratives and portraits, it has often been depicted in art, photography and films. It is from a focus on visual arts and media that the idea of creating Archivio Balneare comes up”

The beach is an independent micro-world with multiple meanings. It is first and foremost a geographical context, a territory with a fragile balance, exposed to the flow of people and the massive transformations caused by seaside tourism. A natural and at the same time artificial place. Consequently, it is also a public and social space: a place of identity, capable of offering a glimpse into a precise historical moment, a social context and its customs and habits.
The beach is also, increasingly, a cultural and narrative theme. A setting for narratives and portraits, it has often been depicted in art, photography and films. It is from a focus on visual arts and media that the idea of creating Archivio Balneare comes up: a photographic and audiovisual archive on Instagram, which aims to collect images where the beach is central, both as protagonist and as setting. The page intends to show how the beach has been represented by artists, cinematographers and photographers, how it has served as backdrop to the succession of events and personalities, and what it can in turn communicate about a given historical, social and cultural moment.
In this sense, the project is strictly linked to the sense of memory, and it is no coincidence that it was immediately conceived from an archival perspective: the idea is to preserve and share this visual knowledge also to spur a certain kind of historical testimony, linked more to a social and cultural inquiry – far from the spotlight – rather than to official chronicles.
Moreover, with this collection we also want to reflect on the meaning and consequences of the representation of the beach, on how much certain beach iconographies contributed to the creation of a shared holiday image, not exempt from the risk of simplifications and clichés.

Archivio Balneare currently has over 150 Instagram posts where different registers alternate, both purely authorial and afferent to pop culture (music, tv and show business). A first inspiration was the Italian context of the 60s, when, thanks to the economic boom and increasing possibilities in mobility, there was a gradual spread of seaside tourism and vacationing became a mass phenomenon. This trend was well depicted in the cinema of the time, which at that moment was at the center of the media system: starting from Dino Risi’s masterpiece Il sorpasso (1962) until the long series of “seaside movies”, Italian comedies set on the beach, which showed the vices and virtues of a society renewed and reconciled in the name of consumerism. On the photographic front, from the same period is La lunga strada di sabbia (1959), a reportage on the new Italian vacations, with texts by Pier Paolo Pasolini and shots by Paolo Di Paolo.
Summer and seaside atmospheres often recur in visual arts, in varied times, places, and forms: from Luigi Ghirri’s Italian landscapes, with their dreamlike fixity, to the black and white of such cornerstones of the history of photography as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier or Robert Doisneau; from the romantic summers of Éric Rohmer’s movies to the great titles of contemporary cinema; passing through the contemporary gaze of young foreign photographers. One could go on much longer: a long visual itinerary along Italian and foreign coasts, which makes the research work a source of ever-new stimuli and discoveries.

“Here the communicative power of the beach returns, being at the same time setting for holiday moments, of life suspended from everyday life, and the mirror in which society is reflected, with all its rituals, oddity, and habits that change over time”

Then there are photographers who have made the beach the absolute protagonist of their reflection. A reference from this point of view is Massimo Vitali’s work with his Beach series, a project he started in 1994: a series of large-format colour images, depicting beach panoramas and seaside settings. In his biography Una storia italiana, written by curator Noemi Pittaluga, and in his interviews, Vitali says that the impetus for shooting his first beach photo was the desire to document Italy and Italians at the dawn of a new political era, following Berlusconi’s victory in the elections of that same year. Here the communicative power of the beach returns, being at the same time setting for holiday moments, of life suspended from everyday life, and the mirror in which society is reflected, with all its rituals, oddity, and habits that change over time.
Vitali’s beaches are crowded, bustling with life; the perspective from above allows for an external overview, generally detached. At first glance, the atmosphere appears almost suspended and impalpable; the seascapes’ pastel colours convey a feeling of quiet and calm imperturbability. The masses of people are frozen in a moment that seems out of time and the seaside landscape almost looks like a borderline non-place.
But if one takes a closer look, there they are: a father teaches his daughter how to swim, a man on the shoreline shoots a photo, a boy swims with his dog. Each of Vitali’s images tells a multitude of stories. There are many private stories of the protagonists, waving relations or visual affinities in the framing, like a sort of montage within the same tableau. But there’s above all a collective story. For Vitali, the beach becomes the privileged context for observing society, with an inquiring but participatory gaze: an anthropological place where people are stripped of superstructures and urged to show their most authentic selves, while at the same time staging their internalized common customs. Vitali’s photographs capture their identity, their way of interacting and behaving, and the social changes with the passage of time; the idea behind Archivio Balneare is thus fully fulfilled, namely the testimonial value of art and specifically of seaside representations: the beach is both a narrative place (narrated and narrating) and identity place (individual and social).

Vitali is an observer. He doesn’t spasmodically look for the decisive moment to capture, but waits for that moment to present itself before him. He sets his camera, composes the framing, and waits for life to unfold before the lens, as on a stage, until events align to tell something, the unique and irresistible story of that single moment. And only then, he shoots. It is a slow and reflective approach, almost opposed to the frenetic pace of the surrounding world. Within the Archivio, his images represent a suspended moment of relief; a moment in which the documentary power of photography rises to artistic expression, in a perfect balance of color, form, and a sociological inquiry.

Bianca Greco, December 2022. Archivio Balneare

Bibliography:
Asterio Savelli, Sociologia del turismo balneare, 2009.
Christian Uva, L’ultima spiaggia. Rive e derive del cinema italiano, 2021.
Noemi Pittalunga, Massimo Vitali. Una storia italiana, 2021.

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