Art Gallery

Photographing People Once They've Left a Work State-of-Mind

By Richard Kern

Massimo Vitali works at documenting people who are not at work. He photographs places where people go to be as mentally removed from their jobs and daily lives as possible—people who have clearly crossed the line that separates the work side of their life from the recreation or play side.

Massimo, 69, grew up in Italy, studied photography in London and has now returned to Italy. Since 1994, he has been taking large format photographs of exotic places where groups of people congregate to communally share in ritualistic leisure activities.

His photographs (6’ x 8’ or larger) have the power to evoke the intense primal emotions humans feel whenever they are mentally awakened by new sensory experiences.

When we step onto a beach and smell the ocean we feel cleansed and revitalized. When we make our way through the crowd at an outdoor festival or silently walk through fresh snow we feel reborn, and open to new possibilities. Standing before these photos in an exhibition, the first thought that comes to mind is, I wish I could be there.

I spoke with Massimo last week as he was making plans to come to New York for his new exhibition.

VICE: Your work could be called portraits or landscapes or documents. How would you describe them?
Massimo Vitali: I could agree on all three. They are certainly landscapes, they are certainly portraits and they are historical documents because they portray the way we live. (In my photos) I’m trying to get clues of our existence. The idea is that there’s a lot of stuff to look at, a lot of details so that the people who are looking at the photographs have the possibility to make up their own stories.

You must collaborate when looking at my pictures—you must put yourself into the picture and try to invent your own stories.

You were working for many years- both as a photojournalist and a camera operator on films- before you began taking the photos you are known for. Why did you shift your focus?
“I was turning 50 and I thought it was the right time to do something or just give it up. I started doing some experiments and one of them worked out well.

In the early 90’s it was a turning point in photography, the Dusseldorf School, the New American Photographers, these things were happening. I didn’t mean it but in a way you feel these changes happening around you and by a coincidence

I started doing these pictures on a beach. I thought they looked ok but everybody told me, “Ugh, forget it, nobody takes photos like that but I kept doing it and it worked out. So I started a whole new life in a way.

If someone asks you what you do, how do you describe yourself: artist or photographer?
I just say I’m a photographer; I like the manualities and the equalities connected with photography. But today if you are a photographer, it doesn’t mean much. I was just reading that there are 1 billion, 400 million photographs taken every day.

I read that since 1994, you’ve only shot 2200 photographs or negatives.
That was a few years ago. Today the number is up to 4800 negatives which is a number that a fashion photographer normally shoots in two days. Even when I shoot digital I use the same restraint. It all started because with large format, a sheet of film, developing and a contact print costs about $100 a shot so if you go out for a day it’s easy to spend $1000!

What kind of camera are you using?
I use an 8 x 10 Phillips, which was very fashionable at one point because it’s light and an 11 x 14 Deardorff. This camera uses an 11 x 14 inch sheet of film. The minimum order for this film now is $12,000. And then I use digital—it took me maybe three years to get a good digital picture. I use a phase one back on an Alpa on which you can tilt the front lens- I use it like a play camera. There are now two pictures that are digital straight from the file just like my film pictures are straight from the negative. I don’t scan or retouch—they just put the negative in the enlarger and the paper on the wall. I use commercial labs. I don’t think you should get too fancy with the labs. I think you should do the easiest possible, the most natural form of photography, because what I’m interested in is beyond that. 

How many days do you shoot each year?
We go around a few weeks in summer, maybe we do a project in winter, so normally I actually shoot about five to six weeks a year but that takes a lot of preparation; it takes a lot of work to be able to shoot for six weeks. We go to places we have gone before. We don’t explore. In the 90s you could actually go around anywhere and take pictures, now you have to ask permissions, you have to pay, it’s complicated. Everything has to be super planned and nothing is free anymore. In a matter of 20 years everything has changed dramatically.

Are these trips a vacation for you or work?
It’s not a vacation and it’s not work. If I go to these places for holiday and sit on a beach with a book or the iPad, it’s boring but if I go there to take pictures and I have to think. I look at everything, I follow things, I have these strange fantasies about what people do, what people think, how they move.  This way of watching the people makes my days very enjoyable and fruitful.  If I wasn’t doing this I could be a really bored old man who’s not doing anything

Massimo Vitali’s new exhibition opens Dec 12, 2013 and runs through Feb 1, 2013 at Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York. 

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