Massimo Vitali: Endless Summer @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 large scale color photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against cream colored walls in the main gallery space and the smaller back gallery. The show includes 9 single images and 1 triptych, and all of the prints/panels are archival pigment prints mounted to Diasec. The works on view were made between 2008 and 2020, and are available in editions of 6+2APs. Physical sizes range from roughly 35×44 to 61×81 inches, with the triptych consisting of three 56×44 inch three panels. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: Whenever the warm weather of summer starts to comes around, Massimo Vitali’s photographs get brought out once again to appeal to those who want to revel in his expansive beach views from around the world. It’s a straightforward content-driven approach to curation, with an easy-going look-at-the-beach vibe, but one that actually doesn’t do Vitali any artistic favors. It pigeonholes him as “merely” a beach or tourist attraction photographer, when in fact, the content of his images is in many ways less important than how Vitali’s eye sees these extraordinary places. Every single location where Vitali has made his photographs over his long career has been previously photographed by thousands of other visitors, and yet, his pictures of these places are instantly recognizable as his. That’s the unexpected aesthetic magic we often overlook in Vitali’s work, and the consistent photographic intelligence we should be examining more closely.

Vitali has recently switched gallery representation in New York, leaving Benrubi Gallery and joining the stable at Edwynn Houk, and so this show provides an introductory summer-themed survey for the Houk clientele who might not be as familiar with Vitali’s work. Crisscrossing the globe and reaching back to include works made nearly 15 years ago, the show doesn’t offer much in the way of new insight; in fact, the show only includes two images made since 2018. Instead, it skips across various beach and seaside scenes, in some cases, reprising works that were on view in a 2017 gallery show (reviewed here) and an even earlier 2012 show (reviewed here).

The first thing to notice about a Vitali photograph is its omniscient elevated view. Looking down from above, often working on platforms, scaffolding, or other temporary structures erected to allow him to get even higher, Vitali takes in wide views of glorious beaches, rocky coastlines, and other famous locations, and using a large format camera allows him to generate a deep area of sharpness that reaches nearly edge to edge across his compositions, bringing the tiniest of far away figures into clear view. The resulting stepped back perspective creates a feeling of hyper-real vastness, where the intruding human presence provides small dots of color that decorate otherwise impressive stretches of natural (or man-altered) landscape. Standing back ten or fifteen feet from a Vitali photograph provides a muscularly formal experience, where the astonishingly beautiful land forms take center stage and the accompanying people drift into anonymity like ants.

This show jet sets from one seaside location to the next, from the white windswept rocks of Sarakiniko, Greece, to the craggy limestone pools of the Grotto della Poesia in Italy, with additional beach stops in Portugal, France, Ibiza, and Turkey. The only two non-seaside attractions included on this mini Grand Tour are the Roman Forum in Italy and the Preikestolen in Norway, where Vitali has applied his signature vantage point to water-less, but still impressively massive views.

A transformation occurs when the viewer approaches a Vitali photograph and gets up close – the tiny ant figures which were essentially unidentifiable at a distance resolve into dozens and dozens of actual individual humans, each enjoying his or her day at the beach in any number of ways. It’s as if Vitali has taken inspiration from the densely populated paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder – there are small vignettes and stories taking place all over, if we are patient enough to look closely. As seen in some of the detail shots above, the variety of activities is wholly predictable, but still entirely engrossing. Friends sit and talk, families play with children, people take photographs of each other, and the bolder in the group jump from the rocks or go snorkeling. It’s all happening simultaneously: sunning, sleeping, resting, eating, showering, watching and being seen, looking at maps and guidebooks, following tour guides, checking our phones, and even daring to lean out over precarious cliff edges (for a photo or just a thrill). And teenagers somehow find a way to cluster together and be bored at even the most visually stunning locations on Earth. As seen here, the variety of ways we engage with a place is quietly amazing, and Vitali’s photographs capture it all, almost like precise anthropological documents.

While shows like this one get the job done in terms of offering an easy (“Endless Summer”) entry point into Vitali’s work, I think we’re ready to move beyond simply using his images to build a bucket list of exotic destinations to visit. If we are taking Vitali seriously as a photographer, “where” he is going shouldn’t really matter; “what” he is doing when he gets there is far more important.

As an example, the two most recent works in the show find Vitali dropping his vantage point slightly and getting closer to the beaches themselves, looking out at bays and curves of sand from almost standing level, and in a certain way, it’s less successful than his farther back approach, at least in terms of re-imagining the scene. Is this just a byproduct of the particular geography of those two spots, or is Vitali evolving his aesthetic thinking?

This kind of questioning and analysis needs to be applied to Vitali’s whole career, building up a more sophisticated arc of how his eye (or his process) has changed across the decades. We can still use his most recognized images as keystones, just as we would with any other photographer, but we need to fill in the steps and refinements that have come along the way, instead of always dumbing it back down to how much we love the beach. Is Vitali actually underrated as a photographer, because we’ve spent so much time blandly admiring his grand vistas? We’ll only know if we actually invest the time to think critically about his work, instead of always treating it like eye candy.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $24000 and $48000, with the triptych at $85000. Vitali’s work has become more consistently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $82000.

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JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by 5 Continents Editions (here) and Magnin-A Gallery. Hardcover (23.5 x 31 cm), 86 pages, with 45 color illustrations. Includes essays by Renée ... Read on.

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