Essays:

> On the Beach: Massimo Vitali and Shirley Baker exhibitions in London

Simon Bowcock / On the Beach: Massimo Vitali and Shirley Baker exhibitions in London

May 2016

 

In the early 1990s, Massimo Vitali scoured the history of photography for pictures of populated beaches. He didn’t find many of note, but he did find some by the American photographer Joel Meyerowitz. But for Vitali, Meyerowitz’s pictures presented a problem: the people were not sufficiently visible. This was partly because of their tiny size in the prints, but also because they mostly had their backs to the camera as they faced towards the sea[1]. Since then, Vitali’s ongoing odyssey to photograph beaches – with his large-format camera sited at carefully chosen vantage points (sometimes in the water, often at the top of scaffolding) – and produce huge prints is, in part, an attempt to solve these problems.

Vitali’s latest beach pictures are evidence that he has more than succeeded. Even though the vast majority of each beach scene consists of the surrounding elements – the sky, a cliff, or the surrounding countryside – the enormous size of the prints (four square metres) means that each of the very many people in each image is sufficiently large and detailed for the viewer to be able to examine them individually. There is a feel of surveillance and almost anthropological dispassion, and fittingly almost all of the people in the pictures display no emotion. It sounds a bit boring, but when viewed at their full size, Vitali’s pictures are unexpectedly fascinating. The tendency towards giant prints in the past few decades may be much maligned, but in Vitali’s case it is entirely justified. These pictures work so well because of their great size. Here, bigger really is better.

When doing his initial research, Vitali was not aware of the 1970s black-and-white beach photographs made in Blackpool and the South of France by the late Shirley Baker (her work has only become well known in recent years). Where Vitali’s pictures are all grand, sweeping vistas – almost the landscape as subject – Baker’s keenly observed pictures are much more focused on the people. We are not told which pictures were taken where, but it is seldom difficult to identify the buttoned-up, knotted hanky-wearing Brits because they generally look so out of their element. The French, by contrast, are comfortable, unclothed, sometimes openly amorous, and inhabit the beach with panache. In one picture, we see a miserable-looking family on deck chairs, dad fully clothed and asleep, a freckled kid in long socks sitting on a depressed-looking mum. In the next picture, tanned, lithe bodies lie on the beach, a bikini top playfully stretched between two relaxed sets of toes like bunting. The curation is canny, and the juxtapositions never jar: both the photographs and their sequencing are subtle. The pictures may often be humorous, but they only raise a wry smile: Baker does not judge; she never seeks to ridicule or stereotype. The photographs are always warm towards their subjects.

So which of these two approaches works best? Baker’s pictures, which are small, monochrome, relatively unsung, warm and slightly paternalistic (or would be if made by a man)? Or Vitali’s outsized, colourful and fêted prints, their detatchment informed by the Düsseldorfer New Objectivity revival?

Both are very much of their time, and both are equally valid. There is more than one way to skin a cat. Over the last half century, photographs produced for gallery walls may have got bigger, brasher and more garish. But on this evidence, that is neither for the better nor the worse.

 – reviewed for Photomonitor by Simon Bowcock 

 

Massimo Vitali is at Ronchini Gallery, 22 Dering Street W1S 1AN until 18th June 2016

Shirley Baker: On the Beach is at Photofusion, 17a Electric Lane SW9 8LA until 16th June 2016

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[1] Based on a discussion with Massimo Vitali in London on 19th May 2016.