The Italian photographer discusses scouting locations, the politics behind his work and the changing status of Europe’s beaches
Massimo Vitali is known for his large-format photographs of crowded beach scenes. A former photojournalist and cinematographer, Vitali has committed the second half of his adult life to travelling across the globe. “At the beginning of the season I look up places to shoot,” he says. “Sometimes people I know will talk to me about new locations, sometimes I will want to go back to places I’ve been before.” It’s this tradition of visiting and re-visiting beaches that has reinforced his idea of them as places of perpetual change. “If you really wanted, you could go to the same beach for twenty years and every year it would be different,” he explains.
“When I first started taking pictures, beaches had no connotations. They were places where people could not think about anything, and be totally at ease.” Today, the same beaches are still holiday destinations, he says, but they are also the troubling backdrops of the European migrant crisis. For Vitali, an artist who has spent the last two decades documenting holidaymakers along the coastlines of the continent, as well as further afield, the beach has become a looking glass into the heart of the lives of Europeans. Of the current political climate, Vitali notes: “There is a vague sense of doom.”
New work in the Italian photographer’s current exhibition at the Benrubi Gallery in New York, Disturbed Coastal Systems, was primarily shot on the beaches of Portugal, where over a million Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees first set foot on the shores of Europe. Vitali continues to look at the tension between the human habitat and the natural world with his latest photographs. Throughout the images, man-made saltwater pools and concrete piers break up natural scenery and hint at ways coastlines are occupied.
While at first glance Vitali’s photographs can seem almost saccharine, on closer inspection there is an unexpected depth beneath the bubblegum colour palette – something that feels both timeless and fleeting. “I try with my pictures to be in the middle, in the middle of something that is not long lasting, like walking on a thin line between what is already there and what is changing all of the time.”
Disturbed Coastal Systems is on show at the Benrubi Gallery in New York until 17 June