Mirta d’Argenzio: Why Marseille? As your blog says, Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty cannot be photographed. Can you tell me how this series came to be?
Massimo Vitali: I was commissioned the Marseille series by the French newspaper Le Monde for its edition of Le Magazine du Monde on a special issue titled Portrait de France (Le Magazine du Monde, issue 300, June 2017). One of the newspaper’s editor, Lucy Conticello, contacted me and asked if I would do it. As is often the case, I was asked if I would be interested, and so the project was born. For me, the main challenge with Marseille was to find a way to produce photographs for a photo-reportage that also satisfied me. Taking photos in Marseille isn’t easy. While normal photographers, street photographers let’s say, take their camera and eight months later generally have four photographs and their work is done – that’s not the case for me, as I create my photographs differently. I therefore engaged a producer in situ: Luigi Filotico, originally from Puglia, who usually works in advertising photography. So first of all we found a very talented producer, one of the best I’ve ever met, who understood what I wanted right away. We explored and chose various locations and completed a quick tour of the city for a couple of days, so that I could see and already select all the photos in my mind’s eye. After that we worked for five days.
MdA: How many photos did you take and how many from this series on Marseille did you then select and present in Le Magazine du Monde?
MV: I narrowed my selection of images down to 32 photographs which I sent to Le Monde and the editorial staff then selected according to their own criteria. In the end eight were chosen. As always happens in this case, there was a degree of give and take… We replaced something and of these eight we actually used five. I like being given a difficult theme or task to perform, because at least then I can struggle and fight against something. They posed a challenge and I resolved it. While I take the photographs, I always take into consideration the demands of the magazine, which has its own requirements and usually contrast with my need to create photos my way. So I don’t mind having to work on commissions because I try to bring together the magazine’s brief and my own as best I can. Le Magazine du Monde published the photos they were interested in. We made a different selection for the Bologna Art Fair based on different criteria.

Vallon des Auffes, 2017.

MdA: In fact, for this Arte Fiera Bologna project we’ve chosen to present two twilight photographs alongside two midday sunlight. What interested you in particular?
MV: I like creating pairs on the basis of colour and light. I enjoy putting together two photographs of daylight beaches with two evening photos. For some time I’ve been introducing darker photos. I often work with bright daylight and research the colour that comes from this, however, I started to take darker pictures and work with darker colours. They’re experiments I conduct, quite apart from the fact that they are also so characteristic of Marseille.
MdA: There are always hidden stories to be discovered within your photographs. What stories about the city did you want to tell in this case and what was your intention this time?
MV: Firstly, you can’t go to Marseille without first having read the fantastic neo-noir crime stories
of Jean-Claude Izzo set there; similar to a Montalbano saga but featuring a sea port and a litlle more
sophisticated. Montalbano has the Sicilian coast, Izzo has Marseille. One of the places in which his stories
unfold is at the Estaque quarter, which features in the vertical photo of the beach with the people as they
are and how Izzo might have seen and described them 20 years ago. The stories are banal microstories.

Vallon des Auffes, 2017.

MdA: Marseille is for everyone inevitably a vertical city like “la Cité radieuse”. You photographed it in this wonderful shot improvised from the roof of Le Corbusier’s celebrated popular housing project L’Unité d’Habitation, built between 1947 and 1952. When it was inaugurated The New Yorker described it as “Marseille’s Folly”; can you tell me how this image from the roof (which adds to the other four ones) came about?
MV: Marseille is a city that has in effect experienced one of the moments in which architecture gave much in every sense to the lives of its people. From the Cité radieuse to the more recent works such as the redevelopment of the Vieux Port (old harbour) by Norman Foster and the MUCEM museum. Starting out with the Unité d’Habitation, which inspired a new form of communal life, different to that of ordinary condominiums, the same spirit has prevailed. For example, La Friche de la belle de mai, depicts an old tobacco factory of five or six floors that was abandoned but has now been restored to the city as a centre for the arts. Here too, a purpose has been given to the building, which has been enlivened by social activity that is both alternative and cultural; this too represents an important moment for the city. The building is a place where the equilibrium between power and state is actuated, as was the case in the post-war years when Le Corbusier designed the Unité. The principle is the same and corresponds to a balance between the power of the central state and the will of the people. On the basis of a central tenet of the French state, especially in Marseille, a sea port in which the state has had to intervene in order to ensure the tranquillity of the community and the people. For example, all 337 apartments in the Unité d’Habitation were designed over two floors, like small houses stacked one upon another, an approach that was revolutionary in the context of a large popular housing project. It was designed to provide people with the sensation of inhabiting a semidetached dwelling rather than a skyscraper. My Le Corbusier photo was taken almost by chance from the roof of the Unité d’Habitation where they still practice yoga. We were arguing over access to the roof when the residents arrived for their session. It’s an example of a photo in which we took advantage of a situation; we tagged along with the group that was going up to the roof to exercise as a way of avoiding the security staff that did not want us going up there to photograph. We came to an agreement and managed to gain access… and that’s how it came about.

Mirta D'Argenzio, The radiant city, Massimo Vitali and Marseille, text written for the exhibition at Mazzoleni Gallery at Artefiera Bologna 2019.