Talking to Massimo Vitali means listening to a direct person who at the same time is precise in affirming his own thoughts. Some of his photos that depict people in swimming costumes on beaches have been exhibited in many museums and have contributed to making him an important photographer worldwide. He has often been called the beach photographer and as he himself will explain in this interview, what attracts him is not what they are wearing, but the people themselves. In Vitali’s photos, nothing striking ever happens, but we could look at them for hours and continually find some new event to dwell on. The reason for this attraction lies perhaps in the fact that each of these shots is a portrait without filters of our contemporary society with many meanings condensed within.
Why are you so attracted to crowds, especially people in swimming costumes?
I am attracted to people in general. I must say that the beaches are an excellent observation point for what I try to do with my work.
As for the crowds, I could say that even a group of ten people can be interesting, but I wouldn’t call it a crowd.
You have also photographed places where people dance…
It was the ‘90s and I felt the need to photograph people not only in the summer, at that time discos seemed to me to be interesting meeting places. Today the situation is different, they have lost the lustre of that time.
One of your last works was the Jovanotti concert…
Yes, but that is very different from discos. People dance and listen to music on the beach, there are not just young people but people of all ages interacting with each other. A very transversal portrait of society. From a photographic point of view, one thing that particularly attracts me about this event is that everyone is in a bathing suit and this makes them more defenceless and scrutinised. If I had to photograph a square full of people in winter, I would find it a very boring image. Photographing a multitude of duvets that move like crazy ants is completely charmless. It prevents me from understanding who people really are.
You photograph events where the subjects change constantly, when do you understand that it is the right time to shoot?
I must start by saying that now I only take digital photos but before when I used to shoot with the large analog format, I would watch what was happening in real life and not through the camera. I never took photos looking inside the camera. I limited myself to just taking visual references that I knew were the limits of the frame and then I looked at what was going on within. Not looking in the viewfinder you understand many more things and you can simultaneously follow multiple events located in different points.
Has your way of shooting changed with the arrival of digital?
I have kept the same approach. To shoot I use a Phase One back and the image that you see in the small monitor does not allow me to understand what is happening in the frame. To overcome this, I connect the camera to a laptop. But despite this, I still prefer to look directly at the shot without going through a monitor. I only see the photos after I have taken them. I look at reality.
How did you experience the transition to digital?
Well. Up until two or three years ago digital backs were not up to par. The quality was too low. Normally I print photos that are 180 x 240 cm and I need detail that ranges from 3 metres to infinity. What I need is to see what the family is doing, for example 70 metres away. I’m interested in that and to do this you need very high-quality tools. Today digital finally allows me to reach a level of detail equal to or higher than analog.
Do you ever make cuts to the frame?
Not normally. But I closely study the enlargements of the photos I have taken.
Your photos are often overexposed why?
No, they are not overexposed. They are light prints. The photos are taken with the correct exposure and then very often I decide to print them lighter because I don’t like shadows. I don’t even like that “grayish” sand, therefore I lighten it because I find it unbearable.
So, making light backgrounds is mainly for aesthetic reasons…
Not just that, the colourful people and costumes they wear if portrayed on a light background stand out better from the background.
To create your photos, you have to have a certain point of view that leads you to position your camera up high. Why?
If I have fifty people and I photograph them at human height, I only see the front row. The idea was also to sort of take inspiration from Renaissance art that filled paintings with people and where a central and slightly elevated perspective was used.
Is the height always the same?
When I take photos with the tripod on the minibus the camera is about 3.5 metres high. Other times I use a special tripod that allows me to go as high as 5 metres. I don’t always manage to get the height I want but I try to adapt to the height I can reach.
Referring also to your recent collective exhibition Civilisation. The way we live now. Can you tell me at least one advantage and one defect of the society in which we live today?
I wouldn’t ask a photographer to come up with such stringent conclusions. I just see what happens, I hope other people can use my work to draw conclusions. I know where I want to go and what I want to say but at the same time I prefer that others say it. Basically, I am against the type of author who uses photography to reach conclusions.
Do you also include photojournalism in these authors?
Yes, that’s right. Photojournalism often hastens concepts towards conclusions that are not always clear and evident. To understand things, it takes time and knowledge of the many factors that have led to the occurrence of the facts. My work is much softer and great photos do not portray something eclectic but simply many people who often wear swimsuits. Having time and willingness to understand I believe that all those small actions that take place in my photos can make us understand some aspects of the society in which we are living.
In some respects, your work reminds me of Pasolini’s Comizi d’Amore…
That was a great inspiration for me. I remember that at the time he was very criticised, and many did not understand his interest in interviewing ordinary people on the beaches. Over time we have realised the value of this work.
You have achieved considerable success through social networks, what relationship does it have with these tools?
I believe that today we cannot do without social networks. Like we cannot do without digital cameras.
Sometimes some photographers are afraid of being conditioned by the immediate judgment that comes through publishing their work on social networks…
In my case I don’t have this problem because we use these tools as a simple diary that narrates the life of my studio. The photos we publish are related to the backstage and not a portfolio of my works.
It is very difficult for a young artist to turn his passion into a job. Today all of us, also thanks to social media such as Instagram, can see hundreds of photos daily but this rarely brings an income to their authors…
Yes, it is true there is this problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just happy that the photographic image is so widespread today. In the art world, however, many things have changed. Galleries play an increasingly marginal role and I do not think that international fairs can attract a sufficient number of collectors. At the beginning of this century, anything new that was produced had thousands of potential buyers who could not wait to buy it. Today collectors are much less daring in their choices and only seek a safe investment.
Would you have any advice for a young photographer?
Today there are many new and different things that can be done. It is wrong to say that everything has been done and everyone has done everything. However, in order to understand what the road ahead will be, you need to have a serious and profound culture of art and photography. One thing I would like to say is that today in our schools these subjects practically do not exist, whilst from my point of view a history of organic photography should be taught, that would enable this art to be seriously understood. The advice I would like to give is to study and get to know.