Colombo and Ghirri were both writers and historians as well as photographers, both understood the context of their images. In the 1980s, Colombo compiled an anthology of Italian photographs to celebrate the medium’s centenary in the country. “In the magic Italian landscape, nature, evoked by centuries of painting and poetry appeared through the photographic lens to be suddenly damaged by bridges and tunnels,” he wrote. “The camera could finally document everything.”

Everything is precisely what you get in a Massimo Vitali panorama. At first glance, Vitali’s work might appear the antithesis of Colombo and Ghirri’s still scenes: his large format, immensely detailed pictures focus on the sunbathers, swimmers and posers that pepper Italy’s beaches, pools and piers. Often hordes of them. But, again in a nod to Brueghel, look closer and the viewer sees that each of these figures tells its own tale. These characters are alone in a pack: a boy takes his first plunge in a Genoese pool; a woman, lost in thought, stares out to sea.

Vitali has photographed bathers and revellers all around the world—a collection of which feature in Short Stories—and has come to the conclusion that less is more: the crowds have gradually dispersed in his pictures. “I think I can get what I want with fewer people and less eventful situations,” he notes.

Following several months of lockdown, Vitali recently returned to the seaside, taking his large-format camera to the resort of Tonfano in Tuscany. From his studio in Lucca, Vitali tells me that there was a sense of uncertainty rather than sadness on the sands. “Young kids were perfectly at ease, they consider themselves immortal, but the rest of the people were very cautious.”

You can find the existentialism in his work, he says, “if you know how to read a photo”. His photographs are full of humanity but they celebrate its most evanescent events. “Humanity is ephemeral,” he says, “It’s not something I am trying to underline, but it is natural.”

Vitali’s colour scheme, like those of Colombo and Ghirri, remains calm. “Ghirri was definitely a master of the subdued,” Vitali says. “I shared a printer with him in Modena, and so I got very influenced by this lightness. And Cesare was a very good friend of mine, but I tend to think of him as a black and white photographer.” Vitali’s photographs are great washes of blanched rock, turquoise waters and faded swimwear.

People are almost beside the point in this landscape. These places have seen residents and workers come and go for centuries; the carmakers of Turin, the financiers of Milan, the sailors of Genoa, they have always ebbed and flowed through their piazzas and ports. “Landscape is not where nature ends and the artificial world begins, it is rather a passageway,” Ghirri noted.

When contemporary architecture is bereft of people, it’s like haute couture on the rack. But the avenues of Milan and lidos of Livorno seem ambivalent to the masses. They have survived invasions and allegiances, the fascists and the Red Brigades, depressions and economic miracles. What endures is the setting, the resilient loggias and churches, the cliffs and the mountain paths.

In recent years the forsaken has become fashionable: all those coffee-table books of crumbling Soviet institutions and Mitteleuropean mansions turned into beautiful tableaux of rubble and weeds. It’s the pornography of nostalgia. But that’s not what is happening in the photography of Colombo, Ghirri and Vitali. Rather, they confront the inevitability of change—what Vitali calls “the next normal”—and, invariably, acknowledge what remains.

Christian House, "The crowds and the emptiness" in Standpoint, July 10, 2020.