When creating his works, Massimo Vitali picks a slightly raised viewpoint, distant, but not too distant, which allows him to observe the subjects without transforming them into “masses”: they are individually present in the photos in all their physicality, feelings, fragments of life. These photos evoke the works by Peter Bruegel the Elder: the brown typical of the Flemish artist’s paintings becomes intense light in Vitali’s photos, but the ironic and conciliating view of common humanity’s vices and weaknesses is the same. And this bond of his with Old Master painting made him interesting to Florence’s Antiques Biennale. We had a talk with the artist at his home in Tuscany to learn how his photos come to life.

Francesca Lombardi: Your career did not begin in the world of art…
Massimo Vitali: I tried a bit of everything at first: reportage, photography, advertising, cinema…Even at a high level. But I was not satisfied. In the early 1990s, I moved on to art photography. It did not happen by chance, nor did I have a lucky encounter with an art gallery owner, I simply decided to do it: to take on contemporary photography. I was aware that I could do something different, that I could give my contribution to a language which makes use of technique, but needs content all the same. But I did not play it by ear: I studied and researched into photography and I set my expressive codes.

FL: Photography, like most of what happens in our world today, is -as you yourself said- constantly changing. Do you still believe it? And what direction are we taking?
MV: Technique will continue to change and evolve, I’m against fighting technical progress. It’s not like a daguerreotype is equal to being a nice picture! But technique is a tool, whereas the message conveyed by the photographer does not necessarily have to change as quickly as technique. For instance, I always move within certain patterns, which are nearly always the same, though not identical. I look back as far as composition is concerned, and forward when it comes to technique.

FL: Can your photography style be described as inspired by the Old Masters world? This may not be an easy concept to grasp for the viewer…
MV: Most of contemporary photography is still tied to late eighteenth-century painting, with large, empty and figureless spaces. My style, instead, draws inspiration from Renaissance and Flemish art, in which the central space is fully exploited and the urban or natural landscape becomes the background.

FL: What relationship do you have with the people you portray?
MV: I’m physically far away, but I feel intensely connected to them: I identify with the people I portray, I establish a bond. After nearly 30 years working as a photographer, I realized that I develop a real, empathetic relationship with the people who are part of my photos, and it is a mutual feeling actually, because these people are all happy to meet me when they do, nobody ever complained.

FL: Do you take pictures at a precise moment of the day?
MV: When the sun is high overhead and shadows are smaller because, to tell the truth, shadows make me sick…Even in Old Master painting, the shadow is of minor importance, with the exception of the artists for whom the shadow served as a stylistic code. In my case, I find that shadows deprive the composition of harmony, so I prefer taking pictures during the central hours of the day or after sunset.
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FL: In a world made up of images of different quality, what sticks in the eyes and head of viewers?
MV: This is a question I often ask myself. What still intrigues me about photography is a certain kind of objectivity, in my photos as well as in those by other photographers. I appreciate the photographer’s attempt to stay away from and take part in the scene at the same time. The resulting images carve out a place for themselves within the order of things, although they may not be perfect images. But, you know what, better yet if imperfect…

Francesca Lombardi, "Imperfect Images" in the BIAF Magazine 2019.