Joyful art: Massimo Vitali

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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Someone turned me on to photographer Massimo Vitali this week, and I can’t stop looking at his fascinating images of Italian beach culture. Viscerally, there’s something immediately appealing about the slightly sun-bleached color palette and the way the images manage to be both peaceful and bustling with activity at the same time. It’s hard to see at this scale, but because Vitali shoots large-format, the images are incredibly detailed, so much so that he considers them to be compositions of portraits. In an interview with LensCulture magazine (audio here), he describes the role of the human element in his decision to press the shutter.

And then it comes a moment. Because in fact all the pictures are taken in a very little amount of time. And obviously, I follow stories and things. I look at the people, people that interest me and that pick up my fantasy, and I say, “Oh, what is she doing? Why is she looking at her?” and so I start to make connections, and when I see a certain number of these connections taking place, then I shoot. Because I want to, I try to have the picture as complicated as I possibly can.

His photos are actually compositions of stories, tons of little narratives distilled into light and color, and there is joy in the abundance of it, the way you can simply get lost in the contemplation of other lives in their leisure. This idea of complexity is fascinating, because we don’t normally associate it with joy. We think of joys as simple pleasures, but when we think about simple pleasures, we often fail to recognize how sensorially complex they are. We simplify a day at the beach to sun, sand, saltwater.

But the sun has a feel that is particular to a latitude, a time of day, even the melanin composition in a particular person’s skin. Sand has texture and color (different everywhere), micro and macroscopic scale, hidden stones and shells that may be jewel-like treasures. Saltwater has smell and taste, temperature, and translucent color so mottled and varied it’s like a world in itself. Before we even get beyond the setting, the beach proves to be a deeply complex pleasure. This complexity is one of the things that makes joy renewable. It explains why the same settings can trigger powerful emotions over and over again. Just like gazing at a Vitali portrait-scape, each time you return to something that gives you joy, there’s always the likelihood you’ll discover something new.

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September 14th, 2009

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