As the art world flees urban landscapes in search of sun-soaked vistas this summer, there is one contemporary photographer whose work epitomizes the essence of the season’s leisure activity. Born in the lakeside village of Como, Italy in 1944, Italian photographer Massimo Vitali draws on his experience in photojournalism and cinematography to create expansive beach landscapes that depict anonymous figures basking in the hot summer sun.
But there’s more than what meets the eye when it comes to his idyllic seascapes. Vitali responded to the political upheaval in Italy in the 1940s, and launched his beach series in the mid-1990s as political commentary on mass tourism and social complacency. While Vitali’s photographs appear to be focused on depicting the paradisal appearance of each location he captures, his work is actually centered on the individuals featured in the composition and their collective response to society itself. Our editors take a closer look at Vitali’s work and recent auction results below.
After attending the London College of Printing for photography, Vitali worked as a photojournalist for various European magazines and agencies in the 1960s. Due to a belief that photographs lacked the ability to capture the true reality of the image, his career took a turn toward cinematography in the 1980s. Despite this shift, his passion for photography remained with him and he continued working in the medium as a “means of artistic research.”
Following Italy’s political turbulence in the 1990s, Vitali packed his equipment and headed to the coast with the goal of capturing the reactions of beachgoers during this tense period. There his iconic landscapes were shot from high vantage points, capturing not just the expansive view itself, but the subjects basking in them as well. Using the beach as a platform for social research, Vitali sought to photograph sunbathers at their most vulnerable in order to document society in its most natural state.
The majority of Vitali’s body of work captures tourist hot-spots in Italy, as he preserves the idea that taking quality photos doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to travel outside of their local community. Some of the famous locations found in Vitali’s work include Spargi Cala Corsara, Cala Mariolu, Porto Miggiano, and Cefalù, Viareggio, however Vitali has since expanded past the borders of Italy to vacation spots in Brazil, Greece, Turkey, and Spain.
Since the inception of his iconic beach series, Vitali has continued to explore natural surroundings, but instead has focused on the impact of human disturbance on nature. In contrast to his coastal scenes, Vitali has photographed a new kind of series that focuses less on the pleasure and leisure of individuals and instead on the complex relationship between humans and their impact on their environment. His most recent series entitled “Disturbed Coastal Systems” (April 2017), reveals an implicit message of the built tension between man and nature. Whether focused on a crowded beach or a modest group of swimmers, Vitali’s message remains steadfast as he strives to examine what he calls the “conflict between man and nature.”
In today’s market, Vitali’s photographs can start around $12,500, and many of the artist’s works come in an edition of three, four, five or six. His most expensive piece ever sold is “Resignano” (2004), which hammered for a staggering $151,000 at Phillips in 2008.
Here are 10 of the most expensive Massimo Vitali works sold in the last decade:
Auctionata, New York, NY (September 24, 2015)
Realized Price: $12,500
Heritage Auctions, New York, NY (May 2, 2011)
Realized Price: $17,925
Artcurial, Paris, France (June 1, 2010)
Realized Price: €15,300
Phillips, New York, NY (October 6, 2016)
Realized Price: $23,750
Phillips, New York, NY, US (October 1, 2014)
Realized Price: $37,500
Sotheby’s, London, United Kingdom (May 23, 2015)
Realized Price: £37,500
Sotheby’s, New York, NY (April 3, 2016)
Realized Price: $52,500
Artcurial, Paris, France (April 8, 2008)
Realized Price: €73,113
Phillips, New York, NY (April 4, 2017)
Realized Price: $81,250
Phillips, New York, NY (March 21, 2008)
Realized Price: $151,000