Still Lives

We met the photographer best known for his large-scale pictures of ordinary people at the beach. He explained to us his art, and how it all started with a picture he took on the Versilia Riviera the day after Berlusconi had won the elections, because he wanted to understand “what Italians are like”.

I wanted to see who the Italians were, I wanted to understand their attitudes and to photograph their faces, at that precise moment in history”

Massimo Vitali’s story and the evolution of his work method are explained in great detail in the new book Massimo Vitali. Una storia italiana (Ledizioni). […] The title of the book comes from an anecdote that helps us better understand the reasons for the ‘Vitali method’. “Una storia italiana” was in fact the booklet that Silvio Berlusconi sent by post to every Italian in 2001, right in the middle of the election campaign. And Massimo Vitali tells how Berlusconi’s Italy was what made him take his first photo of a beach. “In 1994, I had just returned from abroad and Berlusconi had won the elections. I wanted to see who the Italians were, I wanted to understand their attitudes and to photograph their faces, at that precise moment in history”. The first photo of the Beach Series was taken in Marina di Pietrasanta, and is the negative 0.0 of the archive.

“In 1994, we had printed only one copy,’ Vitali says, ‘but it was already in the 59 x 71 inch format, so it was quite big compared to the Italian photography standards of the time. I had sold it in Germany and it had been displayed in a café. Years later, when I saw it again, it was all dirty. It had been treated quite badly. Today, we scanned the original negative and reprinted it. It will be exhibited in April in Turin, at Mazzoleni Art.”

Enrico Ratto: It was the first time you placed the camera on a three-meter-high tripod. That shooting point became your trademark.
Massimo Vitali: We had built a kind of very rudimentary tripod with some recycled aluminium tubes, so that I could shoot at a certain height. For years, I studied the technique of photographers who usually worked with large format photography, and I realised that I had to be at a certain height to take panoramic and objective photos. Today, almost thirty years later, my perspective is still at that height.

“In the negative 0.0 in Marina di Pietrasanta, a man is taking a photo with a film camera, and I was struck by this detail because it was not usual to take photos on beaches. Today it is normal, but thirty years ago I thought that this man was doing something bizarre, that it was an exception.”

E. R.: But the element that makes one say “this picture was taken by Vitali”, apart from the white beaches, is the presence of people – so many people creating micro-scenes.
M.V.: In my pictures, there are a lot of people doing extremely normal things, it’s the normality of our lives. And you can see the changes very well. Over the years, the details change, along with the bathing suits, the style, the colour of the towels, even the shape of the bodies. And, above all, behaviour changes. In the negative 0.0 in Marina di Pietrasanta, a man is taking a photo with a film camera, and I was struck by this detail because it was not usual to take photos on beaches. Today it is normal, but thirty years ago I thought that this man was doing something bizarre, that it was an exception.

E.R.: What’s interesting is that you started photographing beaches when you were fifty years old, which kind of goes against the idea that creativity either comes out in your twenties or you’re out of time.
M.V.: I studied a lot to find my path. I studied German photography and art history. Sometimes, on Instagram, my collaborators associate a photograph of mine with a classic painting. Of course, I don’t do it on purpose, but those lines, those shapes, that geometry comes out of everything I’ve accumulated through years of observation. I try to visit as many museums as possible, and I think that comes through in my work.

E.R.: There’s an element you also take from the cinema. You hold the camera still, and it’s the people who move. They create the scene. It’s the opposite of what reportage photographers do, for example, as they’re constantly moving around looking for what strikes them most.
M.V.: Everything that happens before and after the photograph is interesting. Let me give you an example. We’re releasing an NFT these days, and I spent several months thinking about how I could connect the crypto world, the digital world, and my world. So, I made a short film that includes a whole shooting session, and then we wrapped it up in a one-and-a-half minute .gif. It’s the same session in which I photographed this Penitent Magdalene – there you go, another reference to classical art – coming out of the water. If you look at the whole sequence, the camera stays still, I look at what’s going on around me and I shoot. This sequence shows everything that happens in front of my eyes in a certain amount of time. I find it interesting to be able to show this very old approach of mine, where I don’t move anything, and I wait for things to happen.

Enrico Ratto, “Massimo Vitali’s beaches: It is the normality of our lives”, in Domusweb, March, 2 2022.

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