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Most people go to the beach to kick back and soak up the rays; for the Italian photographer Massimo Vitali it’s been his place of study for the past 20 years

Text: Elizabeth Fullerton | Images: Massimo Vitali

‘I CAN STAY for hours looking at things on a beach. It’s much better than television,’ says Tuscany-based Massimo Vitali, whose sumptuous images are on display at Ronchini Gallery from 20 May to 18 June. ‘I try to go to places where nothing important happens because I think the non-important things are the defining things in our life.’

As in Chekhov’s plays, life’s theatre unfurls before Vitali’s lens: people flirt, children play, lovers break up and make up, families squabble and nothing major changes. Vitali’s interest in the beach is anthropological and sociological; for him ‘shapes and colours are accessories’. ‘On the beach, people are not pretending, they only wear swim trunks but that also signifies they are not putting up a defence – and, being defenceless, they are easier to study.’


Vitali positions his large-format camera at least 10 feet above the ground, which allows him to observe unobtrusively and capture the scenes in extraordinary detail. Typically presented on a grand scale such as 6 x 7 ft, his photographs turn the viewer into voyeur.


But what is captivating about Vitali’s images is not the buff bodies sporting speedos and thong bikinis, although there are plenty of those. His bird’s-eye view reveals humanity in all its facets, without hierarchy or judgement. Fat, thin, old, young, rich and poor are all shown enjoying the common idyll of the beach holiday, where the turmoil of daily life is temporarily forgotten.

Born in Como in 1944, Vitali grew up in Milan and studied at the London College of Printing in the heady 1960s. He spent the first part of his career as a photojournalist but grew distrustful of the role of the photographer as self-appointed interpreter of reality. He turned his hand to cinematography, where he learnt the importance of technical precision.

‘Because photography is the only art form that is made by machines, not by the human hand, you have to know your machine well – otherwise you just accept what Mr Eastman thinks your colour should be,’ explains Vitali, who works with both digital and analogue cameras.

That meticulous control of his craft is evident in the number of images he takes – normally just one per day. ‘In 22 years, I shot 4,870 photos. A digital photographer can easily do that in a day to get out one photo.’

Vitali shifted to art photography and began taking photos of beaches in 1994 at the age of 50, when few photographers were interested in the beach as a focus. A defining moment for him was seeing Cape Light, the American photographer Joel Meyerowitz’s classic 1979 book on early colour photography, shot with a large-format camera.

Another major influence was the famous black and white image, Coney Island Beach, 4pm, July 28, 1940 by Arthur Fellig (known as Weegee), showing a sea of people clad in bathing suits, packed together like sardines, stretching to the horizon. Vitali went to Coney Island in 2006 to make his own version in homage to Weegee, but when he tried to set up his scaffold, the police wouldn’t let him. ‘They said: “Why don’t you go where Weegee went?”,’ Vitali recalls. ‘So I had to dismantle my scaffold and go where Weegee went. And it was very nice, but I preferred my standpoint.’  

Vitali’s early beachscapes show heaving scenes edged by urban sprawl, but in his more recent work, dramatic natural settings dominate the figures. His locations range from the deserted white dunes of a Brazilian national park to a Spanish beach in the middle of a meadow, formed from a flooded sinkhole

The scenery is often bewitching, even otherworldly, but Vitali insists the geography is a red herring. ‘Most people look at a picture and say: “That’s beautiful, where is it?” The moment they ask: “Where is it?”, it’s a defeat for me. I lost the battle,’ he says. ‘I can tell you where it is, but that’s got nothing to do with what I’m doing. It’s just an excuse for finding different people and situations.’

Although he has exhibited all over Europe and America, Vitali has become increasingly frustrated by critics’ and curators’ focus on the beauty of his photographs. ‘I must admit my pictures are too nice. I don’t do it on purpose. I try to do it as rough, as non-aesthetic as possible but somehow they just come out like this.’

He is currently designing a new website to replace his selection of photographs with a single image that will change each week in an effort to stimulate in-depth discussion around that. ‘I just realised that 90 percent of people don’t understand what I’m doing, and even 90 percent of the people that buy my works don’t buy them for the right reason. Now I’m trying to do something about it. No more vacations,’ jokes the man who has, for so long, made vacations his subject matter. ‘You want my pictures, you have to work for them!’

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