LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph


LIVE from Massimo Vitali’s INsight Talk

Join us live from the Paramount Theater for Friday’s INsight talk with Massimo Vitali, interviewed by Alex Chadwick, of All Things Considered fame.

*This liveblog is not an exact quotation of the entire conversation…but it’s as close as we could get :)


Massimo: I just make some pieces of plastic with aluminum on the back really happy for a while. I see the images for a while, then they make their way into the gallery, a collector’s home maybe.

The image is a very small part of my work. The work is about organizing, setting up a scafolding where I take the picture, it’s about having all these people, two or three assistants/photographers with me.


In the age of internet, you cannot keep track of images. The only thing I can really keep my hands on is the object. It’s heavy. It’s something that cannot be stolen. It cannot go anywhere unless FedEx takes it.

When I started 15 years ago, I was already thinking about this. It’s like music; you cannot hold onto it anymore. The concert is the only thing you can get people to pay to go see.

So with pictures, the only thing you can hold onto is the object.



A long time ago, I was in NY with my photographs rolled up, and I went to a few meeting with galleries. At that time you could actually talk with people in galleries.

I put my pictures out on the floor and the woman said I’ll buy two pictures and I’ll do a show. But she said, how do you want to mount them, frame them. And I was in agony because like every photographer, all I was thinking about was the image. Only later on I learned that she was terribly right. She told me, it was an object.

And now I go even further. I say it’s not only the object, sometimes it’s the frame, sometimes it’s the size.


M: That was a strange moment. That was a moment when someone in the contemporary art world decided they needed photographs. That doesn’t happen anymore. They left the doors open for a little while, and then they said, ok, that’s enough.

Alex: But you found yourself inside the doors.

M: Yes, but it was pure luck. I never meant to be a contemporary artist, they just told me I was a contemporary artist.

So the money started coming in, slowly. I always tell my friends, the first few you sell, the money just goes away. Once you start making a lot of money, you start to have a little something left.

Yeah, but I learned lots of things. This happened when I was fairly old. Because when I started this thing I was already 53. I was almost retired.


Alex: You had been a newspaper photographer, right?

M: I was, and a steady cam operator…all the stupid things you could do. And then I took a few years and I said I wanted to do something that no one had ever told me I had to do.

I gave myself two years and began experimenting with a 4×5 camera. And one day, somebody lent me a big old Mercedes. I was in Milan, I went for lunch, I had all the cameras in the trunk, and I get out of the restaurant and all the cameras were gone, two 4x5s. But I still had an 8×10 and one lens. And I thought this is a sign.

The 8×10 is a horrible beast. It’s really terrible. The depth of field is VERY shallow. It’s very good for a portrait. But the moment even and interior, it’s sort of strange. And outside you have lots of things in the way.

So I thought I would go high and tilt down so everything was sharp. So with a friend I built some scaffolding, really dangerous and shaky. Once I remember some idiots took the ladders away from the scaffolding and I was stuck up there for an hour. You cannot imagine what happens on these beaches.


So I’m there, it’s summer 1994, I’ve built this thing, and I need to see that my idea works. I was living not far from the beach and a month before our dear head of state (in Italy) won the elections and I couldn’t believe it.

So I went to the beach and I wanted to see their faces. And it worked. The first day I did a pictures every half hour all day, kind of a conceptual thing. I was working in black and white. You have no idea how horrible black and white is on the beach. Between the cassettes I had one sheet of Portra 160 and I developed it two weeks later and I thought, this is not so bad.

I showed some friends and they said, what are you doing? It’s a really stupid idea to take pictures on the beach. And I thought, I think I like it.

So I made more photos, bigger and bigger, in the winter. One summer my assistant couldn’t come because he was a lifeguard and he was working. So I took and architect with me instead.

And after 4-5 years it was pretty successful.


Alex: Let’s go through how you would actually shoot.

M: So the camera is what makes the picture. I heard other friends here saying I don’t want to talk about cameras, because it’s the photographer who takes the picture. In my case, it’s not me, it’s the camera. So if I change the camera, I take a different picture. I have an 8×10 and I know what I can get with that.

The relationship between the space on the film and the space you are photographing is absolutely unique. Each camera has a different way to portray reality. And since I like to somehow be part of a objective way of looking at reality and working with photography, I choose this large format because it puts me closer to the classic photography. The early photography, which was really so objective. People hadn’t started dealing in “beautiful” pictures. Pictures were whatever. Already the fact there was an image was a big deal. And that’s very important. Because they didn’t have time to think about the light, the composition, and I think photography should still be like this. It should be about the discovery of the image. Photography was born to reproduce things, not to interpret things.


Alex: I read that you think of your images as giant post cards.

M: Yes, because they are the epitome of objectivity. These guys made these photos…they had to make an image that was easily understandable and that people would want to take home. They usually had to find the most obvious but also the most objective view.

I have a friend, who collects old postcards of the places we go and shoot. Every place we go to shoot, I know exactly where I’m going and how many photographs I’m making. This summer I’ll take six or seven. And it’s solid work from now until the end of August. Greece, south of Italy, we move.


Alex: And when you get to a beach where you know you want to shoot, what happens?

M: You get there and there’s only one place you can put the scaffolding. It’s heavy and difficult to move, so I put it in one place and then I let things develop around me.

Alex: How high are you.

M: About 18-19 feet. It’s a good height, because it’s not geographic, and you’re a bit distanced but still in touch with people. In fact the people in the foreground of the pictures, I get kind of intimate with them.

Now, the reason that I’m up and shooting down, because starting in the Renaissance, paintings were full of people. You had the angels in the sky, a little landscape, then you have people doing things, warriors, saints, whoever, and then in the bottom you have the guy who paid for the portrait.

So the fascination of this kind of image is that every space is filled with things. And when I started I confronted the photography that was being done and I thought the missing part was there was always too much sky, too much foreground, and very rarely pictures were filled with things.

My idea is also about doing complicated images. Things you cannot understand in a short amount of time. People who have my pictures, they tell me, I’ve had that photo for five years and every day I look at it I find something different. You have to give people something you can look at for a long time.


Alex: So you’re up there on the scaffold. You’re also shooting digital now.

M: I’m trying. This digital thing is an ordeal. It’s beautiful, but I don’t know if I can do the same size prints…. But I thought about doing digital, because maybe there won’t be film left, so I have to be prepared. But one thing I thought is that digital should stay digital. I shoot on negative I print on paper. You shoot digital, you see it on a screen. When you start messing with prints, you’re confusing the issues. If one day I do digital, I will probably sell the picture with a screen.


Alex: All the photographers I know say don’t shoot in the middle of the day. Do you sleep in?

M: I don’t care, I’ll shoot any time. I don’t even look at the light. The 8×10 is very forgiving. I shoot until the light is gone.

When I go out, the assistant brings out the camera, puts everything straight, I go up and look into the camera and the picture is there. Then I eat a sandwich, I have some water, and then I spend the day. I have a little swim.

Alex: How many images would you take?

M: I take very few images. In 15 years I shot 4,600 negatives, altogether. But that works, because every picture has something, since I’m not looking for particular things. Obviously the more complex the image is, the more human texture you have, the better it is. But now I’m also doing some things with less people, because I can better master the trade. I can get maybe only 50 people is enough to make a complex situation.

Alex: One thing you told me was you could make them more beautiful, you’re not trying to make them beautiful.

M: If I wanted I could make them much nicer. But contemporary art doesn’t work like that. If you take a nice picture, they say, this is too nice. Your reputation is ruined.


Alex: You told me one thing you do is you organize the image in some way.

M: Normally I make the most obvious things. Everything is level. Horizon is high. And then if there is a point of interest, I put it right in the middle, and that’s it.

Alex: What would you say is the subject of your pictures?

M: Human beings. And this is something that I have to tell you. One thing I don’t understand about photographers, friends of mine, is that they keep changing subjects. They need a subject for their pictures. You don’t need a subject, it’s humanity. It’s what you have around.

For me it’s a bit restrictive to try to find a a story. But also the contemporary art photographers need an excuse to go out and take pictures. I don’t think you should have an excuse. No subject.

I decided to look at human beings through gatherings that are very interesting in certain places. But that’s it. And this is my life’s mission. I’m not going to change. Why should I? I’m changing every year, I do a different photo. But I’m not going to change subjects.

Also, going back to contemporary art, the moment people recognize your work, you’re really in. I remember the first couple years I had a gallerist who said, for two years you have six pictures. Only these six pictures. Everywhere I went, every show, was only done with those six pictures. And people started to remember. Maybe they wouldn’t remember the name, but they would remember.

When you change your subject, when your image is nice but similar to other images….people go through these huge art fairs, they don’t remember who you are. They don’t know who you are. You have to immediately catch their attention. And when you catch the attention, then someone maybe takes the wallet out.


Alex: Are the people you’re photographing aware you’re taking pictures?

M: I’m up high so I’m really out of the visual space. They don’t care. Sometimes I get out of the scaffolding or my assistants go to take pictures and they’re immediately confronted by people. But no one ever asks, what are you doing up there? I’m like a pier. Do you ask a pier what they’re doing out there?

Alex: Have people come up and said they are in a photo?

M: Yes. I pretend privacy laws don’t exist. But sometimes I have people who write to me and say I’m in your picture…and I just send them a little print, and they’re really happy. Also because I have no attitude towards the people in the pictures. I’m objective. They can only be happy to be part of a contemporary art piece.


Alex: Now you’re starting to get asked to go back to doing editorial assignments.

M: For them I shoot more film.

Alex: In that case you do take a subject on, but you try to do it your way.

M: Obviously I have to do it my way. Sometimes it works really well. The Venice picture in the gallery, I was doing an editorial for New York Times and I shot the picture and everybody knew and the edition immediately sold out. And one of the collectors got it in the Guggenheim in New York, less than a month after it came out in the New York Times. So it was good for me and for the Times.


Alex: I want to talk more about your camera. But Kathy Ryan isn’t asking other people to go take their 8×10 to make pictures. So there is some contribution from you….

M: I just refine the technique of the 8×10 camera. Not everyone has such a refined technique. All winter we spend getting things ready for the summer shoot. It’s not easy, it’s very technical.


Alex: Can you tell us how an image becomes an object for you.

M: I have the negatives developed and a first run of contacts, with very rough color, etc. Then I look and say what I like and don’t. Then we do scans of the negatives. I send them out to galleries and say when they will be available. They say, ok, how many they want, a preorder.

Then I do the prints. I go to my lab in Milan. We have lunch with the printer then right after we do lots of tests. Then we do a print. And 80% of the time it’s fine. Sometimes I have to redo a big print, sometimes even twice. And this is all included in the final cost of the print.

Then they get rolled up and sent to Dusseldorf, and they put them under plexiglass and ship them to wherever. So sometimes I don’t even see the finished product until I go to a show or something.

Speaking of the Germans…going back to this contemporary art business, I think that really the Germans did it right. They’ve been working on this 50 years before we started. Because they started back with the Beckers, they were all going in one direction. And finally they came out with the Dusseldorf school.

Whereas in the rest of the world, including, unfortunately, the US, the contemporary art galleries had to take what was there. There are beautiful photographers here that I love, but they were photographers. And they’re called contemporary artists, but the real ones are back in Germany.


Alex: Yesterday you were talking about how you organize your material. You said when you started this project you began to archive things in a different way. And you put everything you did earlier than 15 years ago, you put in a drawer and you don’t have any interest in it anymore.

M: I don’t think that earlier work represents me. I’m really against digging into the drawers and finding what Cartier-Bresson did when he was 11. I don’t care. My 11 lasted until I was 50, but, still. I don’t want to do it. I don’t like what I did then.


Audience Questions


Q. A lot of your pictures show middle class European life. Have you ever thought about showing another slice of life?

A. Yeah, but it’s not that easy. I’m middle class European and I know middle class European. If I go to Africa, I have to either be geographical or start thinking in another way. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. But it’s just not easy to confront oneself with a reality that is not similar to the one you live in. It’s like, I purposefully avoid any confrontational beaches. Nude, lesbian, gay, gangsters. Lots of places I could go to, but my idea is to go to normal beaches with normal people.


Q. It’s it kind of unusual to have no bare breasts at European beaches isn’t it?

A. I have some with bare breasts. I was at one beach near where I live and the beach was really crowded and there was this beautiful girl with bare breasts, she’s walking, and I’m a total voyeur, and she goes around and she turns, and she positions herself in the middle of the picture in front, and obviously I took the picture. She did her part, and I did my part.


Q. You said you’re a very technical photographer. Two of your prints had a very cyan tint….

A. They are fading. You’re good for noticing. Photography is a vanishing art. In the sense that pictures only last a certain time. I think that the diptych should be reprinted because it’s losing the proper color. Sometimes it happens. It’s part of photography. I prefer to have a good picture that lasts 10 years rather than a bad picture that lasts forever.


Q. Have any of your patrons ever asked to be in a picture and what would you say?

A. Well, it depends on how much…. [Laughter and applause]


Q. Has anyone ever asked to not be in a picture?

A. There is a story that happened the first day I went to the beach and did the black and white. While I was printing we were doing test strips. And the guy said this is my brother. Then he does another test strip next to the brother and he says, oh, but this is not his wife. But apart from this, no.


Q. One of the things I find fascinating in your photographs is the relationship between people and the natural surrounding. Can you talk more about that?

A. Yeah, what you should know is that I started with a more urban industrial background. I wanted to show that beaches were not far from every day life. And then part of my slow evolution was to get into something more romantic. Get inspiration from the landscape painting of the 17th Century.

Just to tell you one stupid instance. This place that looks like a nuclear plant because luckily in Italy we don’t have those. But that is a factory that produces some basic, innocuous chemical. And it belongs to a Belgium concern called Sovay. And I met this guy, Mr. Solvay. And this guy, the last in his family, has a private terminal in the Brussels airport. He’s a very nice guy. But obviously his factory that the people are concerned about. But this guy has bought 6 or 7 of my pictures. All the ones with the factory in the back. And one day he says, every time I see my factory in your picture, I love my factory so much, I cannot help, I have to buy the photo. So there’s something you can see from two different sides.


Q. You shoot so few frames, and you capture so many great gestures with thousands of people. How do you do that?

A. It’s sort of easy. The 8×10 sees much more than you can see. But I try to follow…there’s always something that catches your attention. And you follow little stories. When you have enough connections and the tension starts….in a way, the picture is building up.

For instance, around 4-5 in the afternoon, nothing happens anymore. There is no more tension. No more life on the beach. But there are moments in which things happen. And you have to catch those little things. And when you have 4 or 5 things happening at the same time, you shoot.

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