Sunday, February 7, 2010


Photography can be a bit hit and miss with me. Much of what gets raves in contemporary art culture leaves me a bit cold, and with photographs in particular, I can often feel that the virtues of composition don't make up for the fact that I can't connect in any meaningful way with them.

But coming across Massimo Vitali in the Winter 2009 issue of The Paris Review, I realize that I'm not that as jaded as I might think.

I'm sure we've all seen countless pictures of crowds on beaches and in the water. For me, at least, they are usually more interesting if they are historic shots. You tend to focus on what is different than today's beach fashion and etiquette, and maybe have a kind of ghostly people about people long vanished. Sometimes it's just the sheer density of the crowd that attracts the eye.

Somehow, though, Massali's photographs are all about individual human beings. Although the Paris Review article talks a bit about how he does it, I'm not sure that this goes a long way toward explaining how he manages this multi-individual focus. I think the comparison they make to Breughel is apt--you do see a vast crowd and then slowly stop and look at individual details. But the difference from Breughel is also instructive--Massali doesn't have entire control over who falls within the frame and who doesn't.

And what people are doing in these pictures is not necessarily so entertaining (because foreign to us) as Breughels are of a long vanished culture. And yet Massali has a way of making them all dramatically interesting. You sense that they are all involved in their own life dramas, which are as interesting to them as your own are to you.

The palette, too, is beautiful, which is also surprising. The bright colors of contemporary swimwear against pale beaches and often pale tropical seas is striking. I think we tend to look on cheap commercial fashion colors, and yet seen from afar we can know it as both beautiful and vital.

In the end, I'm not sure that I have explained the allure of these photographs at all. What I can say is that I stopped and reveled in them for awhile in wonder.


  1. Have you read anything about fractal geometry? That photograph reminds me of a distribution patter called a "dust," which I know from Benoit Mandelbrot -- clusters of points on a surface that appear random, but are really organized according to a pattern.

    I singled out the vivid views of crowded beach-resort life as a worthwhile addition in the graphic-novel adaptation of a great crime novel.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. That is a very apt description, Peter. And I will have to check out that Manchette, either as a novel or a graphic novel or both.

  3. Hmm, I may have given the wrong fractal term, but if you flip through "The Fractal Gometry of Nature" (of which I suspect you;ve sold a number of copies) you ought to find something that rem inds you of those folks on the beach.

  4. I'll see if we have a copy lying around when I'm in today.