New York

Massimo Vitali

Benrubi Gallery

In an 1867 letter to a friend, Eugène Boudin bemoaned an influx of vacationers to his native Normandy coast, writing, “This beach at Trouville which used to be my delight, now . . . seems like a frightful masquerade. One would have to be a genius to make something of this bunch of do-nothing poseurs.” A solution was found in selective attention: “Fortunately, dear friend, the Creator has spread out everywhere his splendid and warming light, and it is less this society that we reproduce than the element which envelops it.” Figures turn up, yet as in many Impressionist representations of recreation, people at leisure seem to inhabit the sites of that leisure provisionally, even uncomfortably.

A brilliant Mediterranean light saturates Massimo Vitali’s images of beaches and other holiday destinations, but—lacking the painter’s editing prerogatives and, since he works in analog, those of the digital artist—the Italian photographer realizes an inversion of Boudin’s remedy. While the six giant prints comprising this exhibition were shot at some prepossessing places (the coastlines of Sicily and Spain, Rome’s Piazza di Spagna), their frames filled by panoramic stretches of surf and shore, Vitali’s concern is less with the vacation spot than with the vacationer. His light is so fulgent, and so even, that sand appears bleached, water limpid and featureless. One is meant to look at the people.

And they are there in droves—tip to toe on the beach, in scattered knots on the Spanish Steps, and filed hundreds-deep in a Tuscan plaza, necks craned to view a performance by the acrobatic squad of the Italian air force. A large-format view camera registers faces and bodies in crystalline detail with little loss of legibility over distance, nullifying the perspectives that would otherwise be afforded by natural recessives such as a staircase or an arcing coastline, and by the vantage of the twenty-odd-foot platform on which it is mounted. Everything seems pressed to the front, an effect that renders these pictures of crowds all the more claustrophobic. (Overwhelming all four walls of the main gallery here, they looked especially so.)

Despite their surface seductions, these are dispassionate works, with the voyeurism inherent in observing people—who are usually unaware that their picture is being taken—in various stages of undress only functioning to heighten a sense of remove. While perhaps kin to Andreas Gursky on morphological terms, or Richard Misrach on thematic ones, the works bear above all the documentarian’s stamp of neutrality; Vitali worked for years as a magazine photojournalist before beginning to exhibit in the mid-1990s. Such detachment does not make examining the ranks of sunbathers in Catania Solarium 2.1, 2007, for example, any less diverting, but the activity feels more like study than it does like connection.

The photographs are often fringed by signs of the world beyond the resort, though those who decipher in the presence of a high-rise hotel some point about environmental depredation may be getting it the wrong way around. Leisure has become an industry, yet it has also become industrious: The labor represented here, as well as in previous series depicting ski slopes and nightclubs, is being undertaken by those ostensibly on a break from it. Vitali’s subjects, whether angling for a plum spot on the sand or contorting their bodies for maximum UV exposure, are working so hard at taking it easy that moments of true delight are conspicuous for their scarcity. In Mondello Monte Pellegrino #1, 2007, a child kicks up a splash that froths the ocean’s placid surface and nearly obscures his body. Paradoxically, it reads as an instant of repose.

Lisa Turvey