The Italian photographer on the process behind his sweeping shots
“There are so many pictures that need an explanation,” says Massimo Vitali, counting his own among them. For the last 20 years, Vitali’s objective has been to create images with layers of meaning, but he is adamant that beauty has never been a priority. “The only thing that I don’t particularly pursue is to take beautiful photographs,” he says.
As one of Italy’s most celebrated photographers, Vitali is best known for the seaside panoramas he shoots from an 18-foot tall scaffold with a large-format camera. His six-foot-wide photographs of crowded beach scenes have drawn parallels with old master paintings and biblical scenes, and his studied approach and singular eye stem from earlier stints as a photojournalist and cinematographer.
“I try to be in the centre of things without going to extremes,” says Vitali. “And the beach is a fantastic place for watching people. Everyone faces forward and they are still.”
His images – instantly recognisable for their saturated colours and almost classical compositions – are tied as much to the history of art as they are to cinema. “I grew up around art,” he says. “I can take a shot and know that in Renaissance painting, the space was divided in the same way. I don’t even have to think about it, but it’s one of the natural layers in the pictures’ compositions.”
By now, he has taken nearly 5,000 photographs. This is something of a feat if you appreciate there is little room for chance in Vitali’s process, which demands that each shot be something of a full-scale production involving thorough research and a team of assistants. “It’s seldom that people talk about one image in detail,” he observes. “But behind the pictures there is a lot of work.”
One image in particular in his portfolio is something of an anomaly. An all-white picture of sand dunes in Brazil is perhaps the only unpeopled shot he’s ever taken, and a departure from the brighter work for which he is known. “I titled this picture after the Italian artist Piero Manzoni’s white painting Achrome, because it reminded me so much of his work,” Vitali explains. “We were in Maranhão in Brazil on assignment with The New York Times, and normally there are small pools of water between the sand dunes. I was there to shoot those and we went at the end of the rainy season, but as it turned out, it was the first time in 27 years that they didn’t have rain. Everything was all white and I couldn’t not take this picture or think about Manzoni’s paintings. It was a special place and I did something I’d never really done.”
Here, the photographer shares his tips for taking the perfect picture.
Don’t look for drama: “There’s a lot happening in my pictures, but also nothing. It’s just life. It’s the little details that make up our lives and that’s the best way to tell a story.”
Think big: “I think that it’s all about moving into the picture. I want people to see the photograph and I want people to appreciate the details. If my pictures were printed in a smaller size they would be less interesting.”
Do your research: “You have to know the location and where you want to put the camera. I do a lot of research and we often send people to scout locations. We never really discover anything. Everything I do is planned.”
Originally published on houseseven.com for Soho House & Co