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The beach crowd

Massimo Vitali has been photographing beaches in Italy and beyond since 1995 – and while much has changed, life on the sand remains the same

  • The beach crowd
  • The beach crowd
  • The beach crowd
  • The beach crowd
  • The beach crowd
  • The beach crowd

Text by Toby Skinner

Italian photographer Massimo Vitali has many poetic ways to describe the beach. “People on the beach,” he says, “exist in a very brief equilibrium, which is always on the verge of dissolving. When a cloud comes, it’s gone.” As for the people, he describes them as “like butterflies pinned on velvet – they’re easy to capture and understand in that moment, even if the appearance of a fantastic life might be deceptive.”

If you’ve never thought of the beach that way, neither had many people when Vitali first started his Beach Series in 1995, taking a home-made scaffold and tripod to Marina di Pietrasanta, his local beach in Tuscany. “Very little had been done on beaches in photography, and people were quite snobby about the idea. But I just set up the scaffold in the water and pointed my camera towards the people. If you walk around with a camera, people get funny, but when I stay on the scaffolding no one interrupts me. It gives me freedom to just be there and watch life unfold.”

Vitali had been a photojournalist and cinematographer, and had been shooting mostly in black and white with his 8x10mm camera. “I only shot one colour negative in that first trip, but I thought it wasn’t bad. Other people were saying it was a horrible idea to shoot beach panoramas in colour, but I thought: I’ll carry on.”
And carry on he has. Across much of Italy and Europe, Vitali has been shooting beaches ever since, and has no plans to stop. His criterion for a beach is that it’s “a normal one with normal people. I’m not interested in special beaches but in a kind of universality. Put people on the beach and we’re all pretty much the same.” Still, he says he’s always trying to capture stories within the pictures. “I want there to be layers, connections, things happening.”

That’s true of many of his pictures – like his image of one of the bathing platforms in Catania, Sicily. “People that work there come out on their lunchbreak, jump in the water and lie on these platforms. They’re set up on these huge blobs of solidified black lava from Mount Etna, and I love the contrast between the natural and the man-made.”

Perhaps strangely, Vitali’s favourite beach in Europe is one he has never shot. “Ostriconi beach in the north-west of Corsica is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never been able to shoot it,” he says. “I just can’t get a photograph that looks as beautiful as the beach does in my mind.”

Much has changed since Vitali started shooting the sand and the sea. “Back then, [Silvio] Berlusconi had just come to power. I couldn’t understand how anyone could have voted for this man, and I was interested in documenting people in that moment.” Almost 20 years on, and things are different. “Back then, people seemed ready to start a new life – there was optimism. Now people are a bit more sad – it’s all more problematic now.”

What hasn’t changed is that moment on the beach. “It doesn’t matter how hard your life is, for a few hours life is good. What people get from the sea and sun is a moment of relaxation and happiness. That will always be the same.”
Norwegian flies to Milan, Pisa, Rome, Sardinia, Sicily and Venice in Italy. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com


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