Massimo Vitali: The seaside snapper who's making waves
When Silvio Berlusconi won the Italian election in 1994, Massimo Vitali packed his camera and headed to the beach. "I wanted to see who had voted for him," says the photographer. "It was such a shock for me when he won." Vitali, 67, has been working on his beach series ever since – setting up his large-format (11in by 14in) camera on clifftops or assembling 20ft-high scaffolding to shoot his "sociological" seaside panoramas.
The 6ft-wide, seagull's-eye-view photographs capture Italian holidaymakers lined up on loungers like sardines, or crowded on bathing platforms in the shadow of cliffs or high-rise hotels. Like Andreas Gursky's vast landscapes, they're immediately appealing, but the devil is in the detail. What appear to be sun-soaked picture-postcard views become unsettling on second glance, the hedonistic herds crammed in and over-exposed.
The artist's recent works, some of which will go on show in London next week, have a softer more, sunbleached feel. Bathers perch, "like penguin colonies", on the rocky Sicilian coastline. "It's always a mix of the beautiful and the ugly, the natural and the manmade," says Vitali. "The beach is the ideal place to see how we behave and what our society is about. It's like butterflies pinned in a case: they can't escape".
Most of the time, his subjects are blissfully unaware that they are part of a work of art. "People don't look up. I'm like a pier, part of the landscape. If you wandered around on a beach taking pictures with a small camera, people would be vicious but because I'm taking large panoramas they don't care," says Vitali. "Though you can see more in my work than they think." If people do spot themselves in the finished pictures, the artist always sends them a print as a souvenir.
A self-professed "late bloomer", Vitali worked as a photojournalist and a cinematographer after graduating from the London College of Printing in the Sixties. "It was a job – and that's the death of creativity. One day, I thought I should do what I wanted to do." As a rule, it takes him one day, and very little film, to get his shot. "In 15 years, I've only taken 4,500 negatives. When I have a good picture, I don't need to take 100 of them. It's there." Once it's there, it's time to relax – at the beach, where else? "When I'm not photographing it, I go whenever I can. I live 15 miles from the Pisa coast and I still love it," he says.
Massimo Vitali, Brancolini Grimaldi, London W1 (020 7493 5721) 18 November to 28 January
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