Massimo Vitali

Dive into our conversation with the legendary photographer about morning rituals, bicycles, cybertrucks, life, love and the lockdown...
August 30, 2020

Photo by Alberto Zanetti at Massimo's house in Zucca, Italy

Ciao Massimo! I'm Hugo and this is my partner Sarah Discours, who supports me with Present. We love your work and wanted to know what is going on in your life and how you are you doing in this special time. So first of all: thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

You are very welcome! And I’m sorry for yesterday, it was a disaster in the studio, there were five people running around trying to fix some technical issues. When you have so many people saying different things and shouting it’s not the best moment for an interview, so we I had to postpone it. 

No worries, I hope you could figure it out! How were you dealing with the quarantine during the last months?

I mostly stayed in my house, which is a beautiful old church so I was really well. In the beginning it was all quite shocking, it felt like a bad dream. Every morning I woke up like what’s happening?! — but unfortunately it wasn’t a dream. When it started I was a bit sick, but in the end it was okay and it turned out to be even a good time.

So it was on time for you to get some time off?

Yes, it was a good break for me. Now I even wish it back a bit, I would like more lockdown!

We had the same feeling, we had nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to attend. Life slowed down, and it felt like a necessary break.

Exactly. And as a photographer I would have had the possibility to go out but I just didn’t. I rather stayed home, I was feeling safe, it was nice, my plants were growing like crazy. Together with my wife we started to move things around the house, and got rid of a lot of stuff. This was another good thing, we made our life lighter! 

Massimo Vitali with his team in the atelier in Zucca by Alberto Zanetti

How do you manage your personal and your work life? Is there a clear separation between the two for you?

Always separate for me. The studio is not far from my house, a nice place where I can go by bike. I remember years ago I had my studio and my home in the same place … impossible! The simple act of riding my bicycle for four minutes changes my mind into studio mode and when I go home I think about home. I consider myself a professional photographer, because I have always been a photographer. I’ve done many things but mainly a lot of pictures. At one point my way of taking pictures changed and I became an artist, but I’m still a photographer, really. Someone recently found a magazine from 53 years ago, which is amazing, it’s a long time ago! I was already taking pictures at that time. Today I can be both a photographer for commercial jobs and an artist. I like it because it helps me being part of real life. I don’t like the idea of being just an artist who only thinks about art. I prefer doing both. Photography gives you the possibility to be a photographer and an artist at the same time. It’s nice. Sometimes being an artist is a bit too heavy for me. 

You also did both for a long time...

Yes. In the beginning I was doing photo journalism. Now I’m very much against photo journalism. I have tried it, so now I can say it isn’t my thing. Rather than a very unique point of view of a scene, I prefer to see 50 people with their phones out taking pictures of something that’s happening. It’s much more real. You can see it even more now with all the problems with police brutality. Did professional photo journalism do anything for it? We get the news from the people on the streets filming, and that’s very effective. It’s all already there, we don’t need one polished point of view. This applies somehow to my own pictures as well. I don’t want to explain anything to anybody. Inside the pictures people can discover what they want, if they want. They can also find it very boring and that’s ok. If you have an interest in it then you can start studying it and it is in a way a collaboration between me and the people looking at the picture. You have to be engaged. The viewer has to work a bit!

Beaches Series by Massimo Vitali

How does a regular week look like for you, do you have morning ritual? Do you maintain a specific rhythm or is it more spontaneous?

I wake up early and I read on the iPad for an hour and a half, The New York Times, Corriere della Sera, Medium. Then I go through my e-mails. That’s between 7 and 8:30am. I want to start the day with a full mind already. Then I bike to the studio, I have calls or I organize things, and then I usually research new places to photograph.

What keeps you healthy and happy?

I guess my work! I also make plans as if I was 50 but I’m 74 so I can’t actually make plans for the next twenty years like before. I still do though, because it feels good and it gives me energy. Last week I bought a new bicycle, but who knows how long I will be able to ride it, you know? Maybe I didn’t need it, but it’s a pleasure to treat yourself sometimes. I also ordered the Tesla Cybertruck!

Massimo photographed by Alberto Zanetti

Oh, when will this arrive? It will probably take some more years, no?

Exactly, but you know, that’s what keeps you alive, long term plans.

On your Instagram you are very transparent with your process, and that’s very inspiring to see. It’s encouraging, especially for those starting out on a similar path, to notice we all sit in the same boat. We normally only see the final outcome, the perfect picture, without realizing the process to get there. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the person is simply a genius, and that no real work was required…

Yes, because everything comes out of this box. I’m very transparent because I guess a lot of people want to find their own way of doing things. I’m generous with my communication. I’m very normal, I do very normal things, I tell everyone everything I do, so I have a more democratic approach to my art, which I like. I like to share a lot of what I do. When I search for a new place, I take only my phone, make a picture, and I share this with everyone. I’m never thinking too much before showing a picture.

Vaschette by Massimo Vitali

You started your famous beach series in the beginning of the 1990s when you were 51 years old. Do you have any tips for young people that are afraid that they are already "too old"?

Never be afraid to be too old. I started taking pictures when I was 12 and I was taking bad pictures. The work I was doing was mediocre. So you do some mediocre works and you have bad results, but the moment you have something good, somehow it comes through. It’s not like a century ago, where you would have this fantastic painter and nobody knew about him and then he died and years after we would find his work and he becomes famous, but unfortunately too late! We’re lucky it’s not like this anymore. If you do a good job, you have a great chance of being recognized. Everything is based on communication. But nowadays everyone wants to break through too quickly. When I started with the beach series I already went through a lot of experiences, I lived a full life and I put my life in the pictures.

Talking about the past, is there a failure that turned out to be actually a good thing, a great lesson you learned from?... it seems you realized already that photojournalism isn’t your thing.

"What Italian Photographer Massimo Vitali Can’t Live Without" from Wall Street Journal Magazine. Surrounded by lemons, wisteria and roses gathered from his garden in Lucca, Italy, the fine-art photographer shares his most treasured objects. (more)

Yes, the fact that I was never a good photojournalist turned out well! But photojournalism is part of me and the way I take pictures now. I think in situations where dramatic things happen, there is always also something totally unimportant happening. Something from common life. A tragic scene, and behind it a woman is buying flowers at the florist. This is what reality is made of, not just the tragic scene or any scene that goes in one direction, but the many things happening at the exact same time. This is the complexity of life. We don’t want life to become just one TV show. At least we must have three or four TV shows going on at the same time! (Laughs)

In the last years, which news habits or rituals improved your life most?

Once you are doing something that you believe in and you have some sort of recognition your life changes. It’s not about the money but the fact that you do something and it’s recognized by the public. My gallerist once said "sometimes people have the wallet on the same side of the heart". Recognition gives you strength. Therefore your work becomes stronger. 

What do you feel most grateful for in your life, Massimo?

Many things! I have a nice family and good friends. If you give something, it always comes back. I’m always trying to be kind with everybody, so there are a lot of people that are kind with me. I have a good relationship with my colleagues. This is important because it makes your work better. My assistant is boringly meticulous (laughs). And I’m the opposite. When I’m taking a picture and he’s with me, looking at the screen and saying “this is not sharp”, I answer “what do you mean this is not sharp?” And this thing goes on for half an hour, but at the end I’m very grateful that he is telling me those things. It’s always worth it. I always want to do it quickly, but then they stop me immediately. I would take so many pictures but they insist that instead I take perfect pictures, which is not easy, but I try my best. 

Massimo Vitali with his wife, Annette Klein, and their son, Otto. This photo is from the New York Times article "Massimo Vitali Moves Into a 14th-Century Church". Photo by Stefano Baroni (more)

You reflect the way you are behaving and the way you are living your life back on your environment. And the people around you feel good and comfortable if they see that you are loving your work and enjoy what you’re doing. And if you’re kind then they are kind too, also with the people they are dealing with when you are not around.

True, it all works together.

Massimo, what does being present means to you?

Ah, lots of things! Being present means being interested in life, interested in what is happening right in front of you. And being able to share your knowledge with other people, being able to give back. I try to be very much present. It is not easy but it is what I try to be all the time. Sometimes my wife says “you didn’t tell me that you’re doing this!”, I forgot, because I’m too present when at the studio but also too present at home. I try to be present everywhere.

Massimo Vitali for VOGUE Italia's Hope Issue

Yes, you seem wonderfully present! I think it has to do with what you said in the beginning, to be very open to the world and to be very life-loving. To embrace everything life throws at you and follow what you really like, and it seems that you’ve done this in your life.

Yes, exactly!

Thank you so much, Massimo, we’ve learned a lot!One last thing, I have to say your house is one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen!

Oh, thank you! Especially during the lockdown I was so glad we have this place. I went a few times out for shopping, and every time I came home I was so happy. This house is a big part of my work and my life. I’m super lucky, but I also worked hard to get here. But I’m not living for the excess, if I would have three beautiful houses, I’d be unhappy. Stay simple. Simple is good.

What a great morning! We will take this energy with us. Have a good day, Massimo!

Thank you, have a great day too, ciao!

Photo by Alberto Zanetti