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Massimo Vitali: I want to see what people are up to

an interview by Enrico Ratto – translation by Elisa Chisana Hoshi

Massimo Vitali, you are known for your large-scale images of beaches, but you actually started as a photojournalist.

Let’s say that I’m a reformed photojournalist. My pictures of that period are kept in a closet, and I don’t want to see them ever again. I started taking pictures during high school, and then I switched from photojournalism to cinema, all with mediocre results. At some point in my life I thought it was time to start doing something that really interested me. In my fifties I started photography for real and in the last twenty years I developed a coherent path in contemporary art.

At fifty years old did you just decide to start working in contemporary art?

No, if someone thinks, now I want to start making contemporary art, they are already wrong. You need to go with the flow. I was lucky enough to take photography seriously in a moment when major changes were happening in this world.

In the middle of the nineties, you were able to catch a particular moment of the relationship between photography and contemporary art.

Everything was far more accidental than it looks. Trying to achieve any of that in a more organized way, rather than leaving it to chance, would actually be more difficult. I was lucky enough to work on my projects in a moment of transition for photography.

The pictures of the beaches, they came by chance too?

I started shooting at the beach by chance. I took the first beach picture at Marina di Pietrasanta, because I needed to try a tripod that I built with a friend and a new 20×25 camera. So, I just took this equipment to the beach. This was back in 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi had just won the elections and, to be honest, I was very interested by the people that were at the beach.

I read in an interview that you took the first beach pictures because you wanted to see the faces of the people that voted for Berlusconi.

That’s right. I wanted to see the people’s faces, which interested me a lot. I have a genuine interest towards the people I shoot.

Those who imitate you seem more interested in your visual style, though.

It is quite flattering to be imitated. But whoever shoots “Vitali’s way” doesn’t necessarily understand what I’m about. All they do is copy the style, the lack of shades and contrasts, the clear colors.
I shoot roughly five meters from the subject, and that’s not accidental: I don’t use a helicopter or a drone. I want to see what people are up to; I want to feel them. For instance, I’m not interested in the geography of the place.

Does the collector want to know where you took the picture?

Unfortunately, yes. Every time I try to tell them that it doesn’t matter where I took that picture: what matters are the details and to try to imagine what the person wearing red shorts is thinking. Of course, in my pictures the sea has a certain color, the beaches are whiter than usual, but at the end of the day, what really matters is the relationship with the people.

Here, there is a contradiction that I believe is crucial in your work. The critics say that your beaches make the people anonymous.

I don’t agree with that: for me they are not anonymous at all. Some of my wiser collectors tell me that they establish a mental connection with some of the people pictured in my photos. The figure out stories, they become friends.

But the subjects in the centre of the pictures don’t know they are being photographed.

They usually don’t. Also, because today being photographed is seen as normal, we got so used to it.

Shooting is only the last step of your work; all your research comes before.

Photography is twenty per cent the image, twenty per cent the print. The rest is assembly and choosing a frame.

That makes sixty per cent marketing.

I don’t sell an image. My pictures are on the Internet and as far as I’m concerned, anyone can download them. I sell a piece of art that weighs forty kilos, an object that can be hanged on a wall.

You are very open about that.

I certainly am. At the beginning, I did an exposition with a gallery owner; I had six pictures in total. I told him about my future projects, the other pictures that I had in mind. He told me that I didn’t understand anything, and from that moment on all I had to do was to travel the world with these same six pictures. He was absolutely right. At the big international and contemporary art and photography fairs, you see thousands of things hanging on the wall: the essential thing is to be recognized. After two years, even if they did not know my name, they instantly recognized me as that beach photographer.

You started selling photos at a time when art dealers insisted on numbering and having special editions of each piece, something that didn’t have anything to do with photography before.

That’s right. People can freely access my pictures on the Internet; they can see it, download it and share it. But when I enter the game of contemporary art, I do accept the exceptionality of the actual, physical object.

Another taboo you are destroying, you are clearly stating that your pictures are beautiful and they are worth hanging on a wall.

When photography started, it suffered from this enormous inferiority complex next to painted art. For such a long time photography took its inspiration from rules that were inadequate for the 1880’s, let alone today. Photography managed to free itself when it got rid of the rules of art pompier at the end of the past century and started to use the rules of contemporary art instead.

You are often quoted along with Andreas Gursky, and not only for a simple matter of large-sized prints. I think what you two have in common is the urge to represent the truth in a more complex way compared to those that isolate all the single elements using black and white, strong contrasts, depicting a scene with only a few subjects in the foreground and the rest in the background.

Sure. I have to say one of the biggest inventions of German photographers was that the photos could be taken from a distance. For a portrait, I don’t need to shoot ten centimetres from the face; I can be far away, five meters high and obtain a more complex and stratified picture. This genre of far away photography is complicated, contradictory and difficult to explain. What I add to it – and that’s a really Italian thing to do – is my need to be close to the people I shoot.

Do your collectors, most of which are foreign, recognize your Italian touch?

I was instantly linked to the German school, but without their constrictions and harshness. Take, for example, Gursky’s pictures of the Rhein. He took everything away; he is someone that takes things away.

Do you add things?

I only need what’s already there.

In your life you have taken 4700 pictures, as many as a journalist takes in a week. Do you drop some of your ideas?

Marketing must serve a purpose. It helped me to use the beach pictures to sell other pictures, other ideas of mine. I’m currently working on a project about the indigenous populations in Central and South America. I can do this today, but had I done it twenty years ago, no one would have cared for it.
Today I like to be put in front of problems that I wouldn’t deal with on my own. That’s why I’m accepting assignments like, for example, from the New York Times who sent me to Rome to shoot the Pope’s Angelus prayer.

After twenty years, what makes one of your pictures immediately recognizable, even if the subjects and the context change?

That is something that the buyer sees. They tell me: we want a Vitali picture.

When you are doing corporate assignments, do they ask you for that even more?

In corporate assignments I always try to add something of what interests me the most. If I shoot for a bathing suit company, some of the people in the picture will have one of my images printed on a suit. I take the picture following the company requests, but I add that personal touch that makes everything more interesting and unique.

Do you know at what point of your path you are now?

Yes, absolutely. I know if I’m with a gallery I shouldn’t be with, I know where the mistakes are, why some things sell and others don’t. I’ve got some great galleries that don’t sell anything but do excellent expositions, and others that are less interesting but sell a lot. I decided, for example, to stick with some not-so-great galleries that sell a lot.

If you stop selling, will you give up photography?

Absolutely not. If I enjoy doing something, I’ll keep on doing it.