I Saw People Like Butterflies
An Interview with Massimo Vitali
for Under The Influence Magazine

Renowned artist photographer Massimo Vitali has spent the best part of the last twenty years making images of beaches around the world. From his studio in Lucca, Italy, he talks to Under the Influence about the origins of his work, the unending fascination with people and nature, and his particular vision of paradise.

Massimo, looking back over your different series, from the recent Lampedusa, to your first images of swimming pools and discos, have you found a connection, an underlying interest behind your work?

At the beginning I was trying different subjects. I was going form beaches to discos to pools, but then at the end I just thought that I would stick to the beaches. In the last 20 years I’ve made some dramatic changes in the way I see them, and also to the approach that I have when photographing whatever happens to be there. I’ve done pools and discos and other public spaces, ski resorts for example, but my main work has been the beaches and the way they have evolved. The other interesting connection is how my way of photographing them has changed with time.

When did you shoot your first images of the beaches and what attracted you to this topic?

I started in 1994, and it was totally a coincidence. Like many things in life, it was something I found by chance. I had this large camera and at the time didn’t have the smaller camera that I always used. I had to try and test this large format camera, so I built a small aluminium scaffolding to go a bit higher in order to take pictures where you can see a bit more, to open the space. When I had it ready I had to go test the camera, and the first place where I wanted to go was the beach -at the time I lived not far from the beach- so I just went there one morning and stayed there for hours, in Lido di Camaiore, not far from Lucca.

I wasn’t even shooting in colour; I only shot one picture in colour. I mainly had some old black and white film, and the pictures of the beach in black and white looked really terrible, really ugly, because the sand is really grey and dark, almost black, but it was altogether the first test. I only had one colour negative in my film pack and the rest was black and white, because at that time it wasn’t so bad to do black and white, some 8 x 10 black and white. But it was really horrible. The pictures were really boring.

And then one day I developed the colour plate, it looked better than the black and white and then I thought, ‘well maybe I could do something with this’.

What were you first ideas going back to the beach?

I went in the water and I took pictures of the people from the front, which was somehow different from what had been done before on beaches. In the history of photography there was not much on beaches, I found a few but all these pictures had the problem that maybe you saw the sea and the shoulders of the people –they were taken from behind- so I decided to go to the other side and take the people from the front, so that was a little step forward.

After a few weeks I developed the film, I made a test, I made a little print, and then a larger print, and it then all started.. People said ‘you are crazy, nobody takes pictures at beaches, nobody takes pictures of beaches’. At that time it was quite adventurous to go to the beach and take pictures, because nobody would, it was not done, you know? A picture had to be something like what we saw coming from the United States, a petrol station in the desert. That was the trend at the time.

From early on your images where very thoughtfully composed, you clearly took your time to set the camera and get the best vantage point. I can’t help but think about the Italian cinema of the time, the influence of 60´s Antonioni, shooting Italian life out and about, turning the whole of Italy into one big cinema set. Was Italian cinema an influence for you when shooting this early work?

Yes, the new wave. I didn’t want to do the gas station in the desert. That was very boring. I did work in the movies at some time, it was a big influence but I don’t think I even noticed it at the beginning. Maybe later I thought about the cinema, and Italy, and it took me back to the beach. By then [start of the 90s] I would go and spend the whole summer at the beach, in 1995 I spent the whole summer taking pictures of beaches.

What was it that caught your interest? What did you find so fascinating about beaches to return again and again?

The beach is very appealing to me because it’s a fantastic viewpoint on our society and also because people are somehow easy to photograph there, easy to study. It’s like when you study butterflies; if you see a butterfly that’s flying around -well that’s one thing- but if you take a butterfly and you pin it down and you put in on a velvet cloth, then it’s much easier to study; the animal, the colours and so on. So the beach for me was the place where I saw people like butterflies. They were very open to be studied, easy for me because people in beaches don’t move too much. If you’ve got too many people moving it gets really complicated, especially if you use a slow process like shooting with a large format camera.

You have to take your time. And the beach is a perfect place for this.

You know, somebody gets to the beach and you know they are going to stay for a couple of hours at least. And then you have these waves; waves of people that arrive, and then there is a mounting momentum. And up to a certain point people keep filling the space and then there is a couple of hours of some sort of calm where nothing happens but everything happens, in the sense that all the nuances of all these little stories happen at that time and then people start to go away, because they want go and have lunch or go for a swim then all the equilibrium changes. It breaks and it recomposes until the moment, maybe around 4 or 4.30 when actually someone leaves and then everyone starts leaving. Then it’s finished. There is no more tension. I miss all the sunsets. The nice light and the nice colours are not for me.

The tension is when people get there and then they look at each other, they interact with each other, they share the space. I’m after this sort of tension given by our way of living and occupying the space.

Is there a difference between that original beach near Lucca and all the beaches you have photographed around the world?

I’m not a geographer; I’m not somebody that likes to travel too much. Even now I find beautiful places 15 miles from home, and I’m much happier where I find places that are near home. Obviously you have to move around, but I wouldn’t say that my pictures are influenced by specific locations.

If your work is not a geographical survey, could we then think that those early images of beaches were perhaps imaginary places, anywhere and nowhere at the same time?

Absolutely, you see, there is no discovery in my beaches. When I go to the beach I know exactly what I’m going to find, so I can concentrate on other things, on different levels of communication. Maybe it’s a bit voyeuristic. Maybe it’s a bit sociologic and anthropologic. It’s a way of getting in touch with people that I would never stop and notice in other contexts. It’s also a subtle psychoanalytic way of connecting with people.

This exercise works in many ways. When people say ‘Nice picture, beautiful scene, fantastic colour, where is it?’ when I hear the ‘where is it’ I think there’s something wrong with the work, it means that I have failed.

Perhaps the images have to do more with the people rather than the actual place? Is it the people that interest you and keep you coming back?

Sometimes it’s also people and nature, people and industry, but its never just geographic.

Now that you mention it, one of the things that strikes me from our images is the feeling that people go to the beach to be seen. It’s more than just butterflies on a box for you; it’s about group behaviour.

Yes, people go to the beach to be together with other people. I think there are deserted beaches of course, but if people have a chance they’ll go to a beach that’s not deserted.

Is it about communal enjoyment? Perhaps this is a link with your images of pools and discos, a strand present throughout your work.

Yes, like colonies of mammals that live in together. Like penguins. You don’t see a penguin on a beach on its own, and all the rest of its family away. They stay –all 20,000 of them- in one place. And man is the same; they have to stay together, it’s very primal.

So your Idea of paradise instead of being a long empty beach at sunset, is a crowded beach at midday?

Yeah! That’s right. Absolutely!

What was the biggest change in the way you photographed beaches back then.

At the beginning I was doing beaches with a more urban background, where there was something happening on the back and something opposite happening on the front. I shot people trying to rest, and behind them was the city, the factory. So there was this contrast. This big contrast.

But then there was a definite interest in nature, away from the urban beaches and open spaces in cities, to more remote locations.

Indeed, for the last number of years the natural part became somehow a more important part of my work. And it was not just nature; perhaps it was more what people were doing to nature, how nature was reacting to this occupation by the people. One question that became evident to me was if nature was really being strong enough to fight back against what mankind is trying to do to it.

Eventually the focus on people became less important and this fight between human beings and nature became prevalent. By the end of the end of the nineties I started to think about exceptional natural places, or exceptional non-natural places, there was a bit of conflict.

This brings us to a more recent series of work, entitled Capricci. As the title hints, these images refer to 18th Century Italian fantasy landscapes. Are these your own vedute de fantasia?

In the last series I started to introduce a more political view in the sense that I felt that people didn’t really understood all the drama that was within my very quiet and pacific pictures. And so I decided to insert some appropriated images from the Internet with some very dramatic content within a very nice idyllic picture, something to do with the same place.

Was this intervention a way to transform the beach into a stage, a place for you to talk about things that matter to you, for your own stories to unfold alongside the ones you find?

Exactly, yes, and you really think, ‘How can these people enjoy themselves and be on a beach without thinking about disasters and evil that happens in the world?’ Everybody is on the beach to relax, to have fun, people cannot just think about the drama all the time. There is this ongoing contrast between the problems of life; war, disaster and the way we use our spare time to hide away from them.

At first glance it is an idyllic image but on closer inspection it reveals some hidden stories.

Yes, absolutely, somehow beaches are very idyllic, but you know that behind them there are a lot of stories. If you dig a little bit, take the top off; then there are a lot of problems, the human drama.

One of the pictures that I made that I’m particularly fond of is this picture of Lampedusa where there’s beautiful beach called Spiaggia dei Conigli where the water is fantastic, people take it really easy, everybody is swimming, lying on the beach, there’s even a place where turtles go to nest. It’s a fantastic place and there’s also a beautiful little island, Isola dei Congli. Just one mile behind that little island there were some 600 people who sank in a boat trying to get to Italy from Libya and died there two years ago.

How can you be on the beach without thinking about this? But also when you are on the beach, -you just want to be on the beach– you want to forget everything and enjoy yourself. That’s the contradiction in my pictures; there is always something terrible happening around us.

[Insert Image -> Three / Four of his Lampedusa Series these can be the highlight of the piece]

The beach can also be read then as a space of protection. Perhaps like the penguins you mentioned, it’s a place where you can find solace from angst and negativity, a place to forget about the troubles of the world for a little while.

Yes, and sometimes you can even forget you are very near the places of drama. I don’t judge. But that’s us, that’s the way we’re made. Thank god we can forget.

What’s next in your work? It seems that after 20 years of photographing beaches, you still have a keen interest in going back and creating new work.

After this picture of Lampedusa, I started thinking about doing something more specific about migrants arriving on the beach, so I’m now working on a project to do with beaches as spaces of departure and arrival. The title at the moment is Visible – Invisible.

Obviously it will be something totally different from the pictures we have already seen to do with this topic. It will be different from a photojournalistic take. It will be very different; I’m working on some ideas.

I’m now trying to work on what is behind photography, not what is on the surface of the image. The idea is to get people to realise this grave situation and get them to help these other people. It’s another step, a different step in the world of communication. It’s not longer about a beautiful picture, or even a strange picture. I want to say I’ve done something -something completely different- something that transcends.

Interview by Rodrigo Orrantia in Under the Influence, Issue 15, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 248-261.