Beyond the Sea [Massimo Vitali interview]

Massimo Vitali, Cefalu' Orange Yellow Blue, 2008, direct analog print on Diasec
Luxury Magazine, Summer 2015, pp. 224-239.

Beyond the Sea

Famous for his beach photographer, Massimo Vitali guides us through a coastal shoot and explains why, under their surface, his scenes are much more than just fun in the sun. 

By Jason Edward Kaufman


Italian photographer Massimo Vitali is renowned for his large-format panoramas of sun-drenched pleasure takers on beaches around the world. From Sicily to the Riviera, Coney Island to Rio de Janeiro, his images give viewers a front-row seat to what might be called the theater of the strand. His camera has focused on human behavior in clubs and other public venues as well, but the luminous beaches are his signature works.

Born in Como in 1944, Vitali became hooked on photography as a child when he received a camera as a gift. After high school in Milan and art school in London he worked in Italy as a photojournalist and movie-camera operator, then at 50 launched his career as a fine art photographer. His beach scenes quickly achieved commercial success, particularly among US collectors, who include Sacha Cohen, Cameron Diaz, Courtney Cox, and many museums. He continues to add to the series even as he embarks on a new project that addresses illegal immigration to Italy’s shores. Via Skype, from his studio in Lucca, Vitali offers insights about the meaning and the making of his celebrated pictures.


JEK: Why the beach?

MV: I’m interested in the interaction between people, and the beach is a fantastic place to take pictures of people. They are not moving around too much. When you look at butterflies pinned in a little case, obviously you see the colors and details much better than when the butterflies are flying around. And on the beach people are as if pinned. Anywhere else I think it is more difficult. On the beach you have many people, they mix together and have some sort of relation because they are next to each other. And they are not really moving and don’t have anything else that attracts their attention. You can go to a football stadium and you have tens of thousands of people, and they sit one next to the other, but their attention is taken by something else. On the beach it’s different. On the beach part of the attention goes to who’s in front of you, who’s next to you or behind you. So people are in a way interacting with each other, maybe in a very minor way, but there is an interaction and that interests me. It’s totally voyeuristic. I get carried away and think, “Oh my god, he’s looking at her, and she’s doing this. How close are they, and what is going on in that family?” You start thinking and thinking. Sometimes I take my pictures and then stay on looking at people because it’s much better than television. It’s real.

When you go to these beautiful huge beaches in the Caribbean and you meet like three people in an hour, I find it terribly boring. You have sea and sand and palm trees, but that’s not my cup of tea.


People generally associate “a day at the beach” with relaxation in a pleasant natural setting. You rest or exercise, see beautiful people, have a nice dinner and come back in the morning. Your pictures must remind viewers of that experience.

I really don’t like collectors and fans that are interested only in the beautiful sea, fantastic colors, nice girls, nice boys. You have girls who work in interior design and they are always raving about how nice the picture is: “It’s so good in the winter in Canada to see your beach.” That’s why I made the prints bigger and put in details that should make people think more rather than stay on the surface level. I did a show recently in Verona with my Italian gallery, Studio La Cittá. This woman comes in walking really fast, very nervous. She looks and then she turns and says to someone, “But this is tragic.” “Yes,” I say, “Exactly, absolutely. Thank god you don’t say this is beautiful.” We are there on the beach, but there is always an underlying tension, an underlying tragedy, even in our really nice moments. It’s tragic because in a way our lives are not so fantastic. We have so many problems and everybody has little things that they want to hide. And I think in my pictures, if you go behind the surface, you can see some of this.


If people want to hide their problems, whey do they expose themselves to one another on the beach?

That’s a good question. Because they want to stay with other people, and they know that other people have the same problems. It’s part of our way of being human. We are animals that live in colonies. Very few people live very secluded lives. We really want to live next to one another.


And the idea that “life is a beach”?

That’s Martin Parr! I am a good friend of his, but obviously my pictures are very different from his pictures. From the morning through lunchtime there is this sort of buildup of tension between the people. And then slowly it sort of evaporates in the early afternoon. People are bored, they’re thinking about what they are going to do for dinner, and someone starts to go away. I would say by 5 it’s all gone. But there are like three hours that are magic. And obviously these hours are the hours with the worst light. A photographer would say, “I never take pictures when the sun is high.” I don’t care. I especially take pictures when the sun is high because I have less shadows and I like it that way, because I am not trying to make nice pictures. And on the beach you don’t really take a nice picture.


What do you mean by “a nice picture”?

You know — well composed, nice light, like sunsets, that sort of thing. They are really boring. I react strongly against this idea of the beautiful picture. My compositions are never perfect. They are very obvious, very central in a way, but I also like to have pieces that are off the right and left edge, like an arm coming in, somebody cut off. I don’t try to make everything nice and perfect. Everything has to be very imperfect, so it’s more like life. What interests me is not the beauty of the picture. What interests me is more the matter-of-fact way of taking a picture, a bit distanced, a bit cold in a way, but also in touch with the people. It’s really contradictory. That’s part of contemporary photography: it’s distanced and participatory, doing so many things. I always think about sociology, anthropology, a little voyeurism, but I also think about the history of art, the history of photography. I try to mix as many facets as I can.


How do you choose locations?

There is no overarching plan. It’s a mixture of everything. You just find the right place to show what is there.


Is there a beach that you would like to photograph that you haven’t been to?

I thought about China. I always wanted to go and photograph these night beaches. The Chinese go to the beach at night, so they don’t get the sun. They put lights on the beach and people lie on blankets and swim, but everything is dark. In Crimea they have this party on the beach that lasts a month and I’ve always wanted to go there because it’s something out of this world. But now with the Russian nationalization of Crimea I don’t know if they are going to do it or not. But I will try this summer. It’s something like 26 days of music with DJs for 22 hours a day. You have the weirdest mixture of people – the Russian mafia plus the kids from Brighton plus the girls from Ukraine. It’s sort of incredible. On this derelict beach, it’s some sort of eastern idea of Burning Man. How can a Ukrainian think about Burning Man? It’s something really strange.


Do you scout out locations in advance?

I just do it on Google Earth or I find other pictures. And then I choose the places and go take the pictures. I think it’s very important to know beforehand what you want to do. I don’t like discovering. In the States photography has always been connected with discovery. The idea behind American photography is people that go out and stay away for six months and they go around and wander the huge territory. I’m a huge fan of Robert Frank, for example. I’ve met him many times. But my way is totally different. I go to a place where I know exactly what I’m going to see, what I’m going to get, and almost where I am going to put my tripod.


Describe a day when you go on a shoot.

We have a little van. We are like five people. It’s me, my assistant Giovanni who has been with me for 18 years, and a producer, a girl who used to be an actress who is always very nervous but gets everything done. She seems to be able to get permissions everywhere. In the States you have to pay a lot of money and I don’t deal with it. If I knew that to get onto a certain Long Island beach I’d have to pay $500 I wouldn’t have gone to that beach. But if somebody else does it, it doesn’t bother me as much. And then I normally have another couple of assistants, like a second assistant and somebody who takes care of the computers. It’s like a little movie crew. You get there, you look, and plan what to do tomorrow. We get up around 8, then we have breakfast, and we try to be set up around 10:30. Between 11:30 and 2:30 is the best time, because as I mentioned there’s this tension building up. We shoot from a big elevated platform, all done in carbon fiber according to certain European rules on safety. It’s about 12 or 14 feet high, so the cameras are 16 or 18 feet. Three or four of us can stay up there for the day. We have some water and the producer goes and gets the sandwiches that we have at lunchtime.


Don’t some people object to being photographed?

No, not really. I never had problems with people on the beach. Despite the fact that I am on top of a big scaffolding with a huge camera, people don’t take any notice of me. They are more aggressive if you go around with a small camera and you look a bit nosey, but I am high and far away and nobody really cares. It would be more difficult if I took pictures with my iPhone, but no one knows what a plate camera is anymore and you can tell them anything. Sometimes one of my assistants says that we’re measuring the speed of swimmers! We can say the most stupid things sometimes.


Which cameras and lenses do you use?

I always have digital and large-format film cameras side by side. I have an 8 x 10 Phillips, made by a guy from the Midwest who stopped making these cameras about ten years ago — just disappeared, nobody knows where he’s gone. And I have an 11 x 14 Deardorff from the fifties, a classic American camera that is a fantastic format, a big chunk of film and you get a lot of detail. The digital is an Alpha with a Phase One back with 80 million pixels. The lenses correspond to a bit more than a 50 mm on a smaller camera. I don’t like to use wide angles. You get the perspective of the wide angle and it’s very fake. You have a huge foreground, huge sky, and what really interests you is too small because everything is pushed further back. I prefer normal to slightly longer lenses without the awkward distortion. I tried a panoramic camera, but that again is something really contrived. I don’t like special cameras. I try to use cameras that see in a way that everybody could see with their eyes or a little camera. Even the lenses should be very normal, otherwise you lose all the matter-of-factness that I like my pictures to have.


How do you compose a shot?

I don’t direct the people. I just choose a position, locate the water line and put the camera on level, and the picture is normally there. You don’t have to move around or change. It should be something really matter-of-fact. We drop the lens and shoot straight on, never looking down because it changes the view. You look through the camera beforehand – you get used to the upside-down image on the glass — and see that from that tree to that pole is in your picture. You take another reference at the bottom and the sky, so you know where you’re pointing. With the digital back you cannot look through the camera but I know what I am getting. I move the back from one side to the center to the right side, so I get three pictures and stitch them together to have like a 200-something megabyte file that I can print the same size as the big film prints.


How many exposures do you make?

I shoot very few pictures. If I have problems I shoot more, but if I’m sure that I have a good picture I shoot maybe only two of a particular subject. In the last 19 years I’ve shot 4,700 negatives or digital photos. Digital doesn’t cost anything so you can take more, but it clogs your hard disks and then you have to go back and you waste a lot of time choosing, correcting, and raw developing. So with a digital I take maybe 10 or 20 pictures in a day. A normal day it’s about 10 film negatives and maybe 20 digital. But it’s nothing compared to a fashion photographer. What I shoot in 20 years he would shoot in a day. I’ve printed maybe a couple of hundred subjects, but most get editioned in six, so I have thousands of pictures around in collections.


Why do you always print on such a large scale, often more than 6 x 7 feet?

I want to be able to look not only at the whole picture, but also at the faces of the people, what kind of sunglasses, what time is on their watch. I want the viewer to be able to move in and out of the picture, to get close and follow the story and see the details, and then move out and see the whole image. Sometimes people make prints that don’t have a reason to be that large. With mine I think there is a very specific reason. I sometimes print the film negatives directly with the enlarger, but if things must be corrected I have a guy who makes huge scans that I print on a Lightjet that uses a laser beam to expose photographic paper. I prefer photographic paper to inkjet prints because the color is inside the paper. With inkjet the dye is little balls of color on top of the paper. I’ve seen a couple of pictures of mine printed with those machines and I really hate them.


You face-mount the prints onto acrylic sheets using the Diasec process. Why do you like that?

Because it gives weight. It turns a piece of paper into an object. I used to have just a white border around the image, but now I put on frames, as well. Normally I make the prints in Milano and have them put under Plexi and framed in Dusseldorf. It’s funny, all the famous photographers go to the same Dusseldorf lab and Diasec place – Grieger – and the same framer. A lot of photographers send their assistants. Jeff Wall sends an assistant who can stay like three days on one picture, more than I can spend. Now they are all printing on a machine that is called a Latex printer, much nicer than the usual inkjet printers, and the paper is like three meters wide. It’s the only machine you can print that wide. The only limit is the size of the Plexi, and this lab has 3 x 5 sheets of Plexi made expressly for them.


How long do you and your crew stay at a location?

The trips are never more than maybe one week or ten days. Otherwise the assistants get nervous, they get bored, and I want to go home. We have a good dinner, and always try to find good restaurants, so everybody’s happy. Everything is like a ritual, and everybody knows exactly what you have to do.


Shooting beaches must provide a lot of opportunity for good seafood.

Absolutely! Our favorite fish is the fish from Lampedusa. There’s nothing like it in the world! It’s just unbeatable. Whatever fish you get there is so flavorful. It’s in the middle of the south Mediterranean and you have the current that goes out into the Atlantic Ocean and it’s just super tasty. If I eat the fish from the Atlantic it makes me laugh.


Do you swim and sunbathe?

Absolutely, even when I don’t take pictures I spend time on the beach. I just like to lie in the sun, go into the water and swim. For me it’s very important. I am happily like 15 miles from the beach, a horrible beach but I’m not fussy. I can go for lunch break for a couple of hours and come back and work in the afternoon. It doesn’t have to be on holiday.


You’ve also photographed clubs and sporting events. Is that because you used to go yourself?

I was doing the beaches in the summer and I thought, “What do I do this winter? Where do I get people that are relating to one another.” So I tried the clubs and then a few concerts and festivals which worked out okay, but it’s really tough. You have to place lights everywhere and when I used to do the clubs they could still smoke inside. You would go and put up equipment around 6 o’clock in the afternoon, go out for dinner, and wait until midnight when they open. Then people wouldn’t leave until 5 or 6 in the morning, and you have to wait until they go away to take down your lights and strobes, so you get home at 8:30 in the morning, and everything you have stinks of smoke. Never again! Now they don’t smoke, but still, it’s a bit too much. I’m older. I’d prefer to be outside.


Do you think you are going to stick with beaches, or are you going to switch to another subject?

I will always take a few beaches, but I am also doing other projects. Now I am doing a project about photography and the people that are photographed. Maybe I exploit the people who are on my beaches, though I don’t think they feel so exploited. But sometimes — I’m talking especially about photojournalism — there are really poor bastards in terrible condition, maybe in a war, and as if they don’t have enough problems, they also have to be in a photograph with nice light on the body. I really wanted to do something with illegal immigrants from Africa and the Middle East who come to the Italian coast. It all starts or ends on the beach anyway! And so I am going to photograph some of these people and have the buyer donate to a charity that is helping these immigrants.


What else have you been working on?

I’ve also done a series of what I call “the little diptychs,” where you have one sublime picture, a beach or something like a beach, and next to it a small shot taken from the internet of some disaster that has something to do with the place. I took a beautiful picture of the beach in Lampedusa, which has been the place where all the migrants used to try to arrive. And next to it is a small picture of a tuna net, a circular holding pen for caught tuna, where they left like 30 immigrants hanging in the middle of the Mediterranean. The boat people, from Libya I think, told them to get out of the boat and hang on the net until they come for you. They hung for like three days in the middle of the sea until someone picked them up. So there is my picture where everything is beautiful, the sea is fantastic and everyone is swimming, and next it is a reminder that not everything is like this. Another beautiful picture of a beach in Greece is next to one with police being hit by petrol bombs in an Athens riot. Greece is not just sand and blue water. I have a number of these things that I’m putting together. This was the first more concerned series where I put together photographs that I get from news agencies or the internet. I just buy the picture, and combine it with my own picture. Why am I doing this? I would like to be more clear in my work. Sometimes people understand what I’m doing, like the woman who said, “This is tragic.” And sometimes people just don’t get it, so I have to be a bit more obvious.


Do you sell more in Europe or the US?

Most of my market is US. My US gallery is the top seller, but I’ve had at different times lots of sales in Belgium, Germany, and a few in England and France. In Italy I’m not so popular, but then nobody buys pictures in Italy anyway. My best clients are in the States. They are mostly people that have them in their house. Some have two, three or four, like Elton John. Tony Podesta bought a picture of Venice for the Guggenheim in NY. Some collectors buy them and put them in storage and don’t see them for ten years, but I have a lot of fans who look at them every day.


What’s the current price for the large prints?

I think we started around $4,500 for my first show in the US with Marianne Boesky in the 1990s. The price is now € 35,000, usually in an edition of six. Some people want smaller prints, and very rarely I will make one smaller, but they still pay the same price. I have done a few smaller prints in editions of 35 which are around €10,000, but just maybe five or six. They are different images than the larger prints. [He also has produced lithographs in editions of 120 that sell for $4,500.] There are many years when I’ve sold over a hundred prints.


You’ve done commercial work for Condé Nast Traveler, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine. What do they ask you to do?

I get all these proposals and I don‘t like to say no to people. I like to be friends with everybody, and I like to shoot things that I would never shoot for myself. It’s a bit of a challenge and sometimes you can get a picture to include within your editions. For instance, that Venice picture that Tony bought for the Guggenheim. It was part of a shoot of Piazza San Marco for The New York Times. Even if I got paid only the expenses — I think they paid $25,000 — I made a lot of money from the prints, so I was really happy that I did it. I did a photo essay in Brazil for the Times, and out of that I got a lot of pictures that I used for my editions and already sold maybe 50 or 60 pictures. Last summer I did a commercial shoot for Villebrequin, the famous French swimming trunk brand. We did some pictures on a French beach and had all the people wear white trunks. Then when we they printed the fabric for the trunks we had the image printed on the white in the digital file. It’s like a picture within a picture. It’s fun.


What first led you to the beach?

In 1993 I got my 4 x 5 camera stolen, and all I was left with was the 8 x 10. It’s impossible to go around with the 8 x 10 and take pictures in the street. It’s not the weight, but the focusing problem. You only have a very shallow depth of field. I thought it would work if shot from higher up, so with a sculptor friend we made this aluminum ladder-tripod, a high place for the 8 x 10 camera. I had to test the camera and this big tripod, I was living in Pietrasanta by the sea, and so I said, “I’ll go to the beach.”

First I studied a little bit, especially Joel Meyerowitz. I looked at his pictures on the beach and I thought, “The beach is beautiful, but all the people are looking at the sea and he is getting their backs. I should go into the water and shoot the people from the front.” I remember thinking exactly this thing. I looked at this picture and had the idea of turning the picture around to the other side. It all started from there.


So your first beach picture was in Pietrasanta?

Yes. The idea that day was to take a picture every half hour without looking what I was photographing, like a chronological operation. I had two boxes of black-and-white 8 x 10 film, and the pictures were really horrible. Black-and-white on the beach is really disgusting because the sand becomes this horrible dark grey. I had one color cassette left over from a job, so I took this one color picture and had it developed at a lab. A few weeks later I made a contact print and thought, it’s not so bad. I started showing it to my friends and they said, “Oh come on, it’s horrible.” And that made me think that I was on the right track. They think it’s horrible because the color is too light and nobody takes pictures on beaches. So I thought, “Hmm, this is good.” The next summer, 1995, I did beaches at Rosignano, Cagliari, Viareggio, and started showing them around, and slowly people got interested. I had a show in Chiasso, and a show in Milano, and my dealer there suggested I show in New York. He gave me a couple of addresses in Chelsea and in 1997 I went. At 303 Gallery they said, “We are full until the year 2000.” Then I went to Marianne Boesky and a girl working for her [the artist Rachel Feinstein] said to come back in the afternoon. I returned with my tube of four or five pictures and put them on the floor. Marianne said, “I’ll buy two pictures and I’ll give you a show.” Fantastic! I worked with her for three or four years.


Why did you leave her gallery?

We stopped working together because we both have strong personalities and we argued too much. Looking back on our relationship, I learned a lot from her – how to mount and frame and to think of a picture as an object. I had shows in Germany, Belgium, France, then I arranged a show at Bonni Benrubi in New York and she started selling like crazy. When Bonni died and a couple of photographers left the gallery, I thought, “It’s better to be a big fish in a little sea than a little fish in a big sea,” and I stayed. Benrubi has sold a lot of pictures and helped me move up, so I am going to stay with them. Under Rachel Smith’s direction, they have a new space in Chelsea, and I’m excited about the direction they’re going. I’m pretty busy and I sell enough to have two or three assistants, a good studio, and also to have time to think. It’s more important to come up with new ideas than to spend time stressing about my galleries.


Which do you feel are your best works, where you really got what you wanted?

A lot of the new ones I like, and a few from the past. Obviously one or two from Rosignano are definitely best. And then I like the one from Miami, the diptych. I like the Catania under the volcano, the people on that structure on top of the lava. And then I like all the new series, Palermo, Scala dei Turchi in Sicily. In Turkey I like the Swimming Pool Russians, a hot water pool with pieces of Roman columns on the bottom. And I like a few of Brazil, and a few of the last ones that were done in Sardinia that are really nice. So, I have like 15 or 20 favorites. But at the show in Verona at Studio la Cittá there were very few beaches – a diptych and two single beach scenes, and like 16 or 17 other photographs. I want to go in that direction. Beaches were very good because I was recognized as the photographer of beaches. The beach aura is working very well, but I am photographing other things.


You mentioned the project with the immigrants. What else are you going to do?

Another thing that I would like to do is to have a more curated book. And this could imply maybe museum shows because when you sell that many pictures, there’s no time for museum shows. You have to produce. Anyway, I’m glad that I have the money and I have time to think.


Which do you feel are your best works, where you really got what you wanted?

A lot of the new ones I like, and a few from the past. Obviously one or two from Rosignano are definitely best. And then I like the one from Miami, the diptych. I like the Catania under the volcano, the people on that structure on top of the lava. And then I like all the new series, Palermo, Scala dei Turchi in Sicily. In Turkey I like the Swimming Pool Russians, a hot water pool with pieces of Roman columns on the bottom. And I like a few of Brazil, and a few of the last ones that were done in Sardinia that are really nice. So, I have like 15 or 20 favorites. But at the show in Verona at Studio la Cittá there were very few beaches – a diptych and two single beach scenes, and like 16 or 17 other photographs. I want to go in that direction. Beaches were very good because I was recognized as the photographer of beaches. The beach aura is working very well, but I am photographing other things.


You mentioned the project with the immigrants. What else are you going to do?

Another thing that I would like to do is to have a more curated book. And this could imply maybe museum shows because when you sell that many pictures, there’s no time for museum shows. You have to produce. Anyway, I’m glad that I have the money and I have time to think.


You have a good life. You go to the beach, you travel, you enjoy your work and family. It must be very fulfilling.

I quite enjoy my life. I enjoy the fact that every day I think about something new. I cannot complain. And I try to keep the prices not too crazy, so I have lots of people when I go to fairs who say, “Oh Massimo, I have your picture!” Everybody’s happy. Otherwise, you can become a bit too tough. I don’t know how much I can go in the direction of being really hard and serious. I always say, “It’s only photography.” Sometimes I see people saying, “Oh my god, we have to send this picture immediately!” Come on! We’re not in a hospital. Nobody’s going to die. Nobody’s going to get hurt. It’s only photography, nothing terrible. Everybody is enjoying it.


Jason Edward Kaufman//

This article appeared in Luxury magazine, Summer 2015, pp. 224-239.



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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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