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Massimo Vitali’s Teeming Beaches

Massimo Vitali’s latest series of large-scale prints, on display at the Benrubi Gallery in New York City until June 30, features the type of imagery for which he’s famous: Dramatic landscapes dotted with tiny human figures. In “Disturbed Coastal Areas,” the Italian photographer turns his gaze on the coast of Portugal and Spain, showing colorful crowds at the water’s edge. At first glance, these sun-drenched scenes seem to capture innocent summer recreation, but the show’s title hints at something more.

Vitali shoots from an elevated perspective, so in many photos the beaches, coves and manmade tidal pools take up the lower stratum of the frame; the rest of the composition is devoted to sea and sky or something that looms over the tiny beachgoers. In a photo of an inlet on the island of Ibiza, for example, the face of a rocky cliff rises high above sunbathers. In “Praia de Torre Fortress Europe,” the gray stone fortress that encloses the beach blocks our view of the horizon, and seems to imprison the swimmers and sunbathers. As we look at each of Vitali’s images, our eye is drawn first to the people—a girl turning a cartwheel on the sand, or a woman walking with a towel hitched around her waist. Once we start to take in the scale of what Vitali has captured, however, the figures seem less significant and more vulnerable.

As the gallery’s description of the show notes, “There is always an imminence in these vast scenes, as if, if the beachgoers waited long enough, something will happen.” In a photo of saltwater pools built on an inlet in Portugal, the sun bleaches the rock dazzlingly white. The pools are crowded with people in colorful swim clothes, but beyond them, the sea is empty of people, and the horizon is shrouded in mist. Looking at Vitali’s seascapes is not unlike sitting by the seashore. We find ourselves staring across the waves, wondering what lies just beyond the horizon.

Vitali started out as a photojournalist, then worked for a while as a movie camera operator before he became a fine-art photographer. His work remains cinematic. Working on a grand scale, he creates a sense of narrative within a single frame, always suggesting the possibility of something else coming into view. —Holly Stuart Hughes

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