In the first decades of the 20th century, the photographer frequently photographed a crowd of humanity within the seething urban metropolis: one thinks of photographs of the street – political gatherings, parades and protests, or photographs made at the sites of heavy industry or construction such as steel making or ship-building. Towards the end of the century, the crowd is no longer located at these same places – in Western culture at least. It has been relocated from sites of labour to places of leisure.

Vitali’s photographs of these scenes of leisure, on heavily populated beaches and in crowded clubs are primarily works of description. They describe the form of the contemporary crowd. They are concerned not so much with the single person but with the relationships between people. In the foreground of his beach photographs, there are clearly identifiable individuals. But their status as individuals is superseded by the way they form into small social units – couples, families, groups of young men, groups of young women, groups of men and women together etc. Then as the eye moves from the foreground to the middle ground, these small social units coalesce into the larger social grouping of the crowd. Through a dialectic between immediacy and distance, between intimacy and objectivity, Vitali shows the shape of our society.

On one level, these photographs could be described as anthropological. But there are crucial differences between Vitali’s photographs and those of a 19th century ethnologist.

Firstly, his works constitute an anthropology not of others but of ourselves. And secondly, the particular position he gives himself – placed above the crowd in the club or in the sea – does not create a sense of apartness from, or power over, his subject.

This is partly because although Vitali chooses the frame of the photograph, the picture appears to compose itself within this frame. The people make their own relations and Vitali is there to describe them rather than to manipulate them. From his earlier work as a journalist, he is highly conscious of the potential problems in photographing such scenes. How many times have we seen photographers portray people to being mere ciphers of a contemporary human condition? And how often have we seen them succumb to the temptation to transform the contemporary, consumer into a caricature of an unthinking, alienated humanity?

To navigate a course between the pitfalls of the picturesque on the one hand, and the grotesque on the other is not easy for the contemporary photographer. In describing his culture at rest and play, Vitali resists the rush to easy judgement or spectacular effect. Poised on his ladder in the sea or the club, Vitali may position himself above the people he photographs. But he does not look down on them.

James Lingwood, Beach & Disco, February 1999, p. 7.