Social network: Vitali sees the big picture

For most photographers, it’s thrilling to have their images projected onto the giant screen at the Paramount Theater. Not so for Massimo Vitali, one of the three photo artists interviewed at the Paramount during the recent Look3: Festival of the Photograph.

Vitali’s sweeping vistas of people at play— on the beach, on the ski slope, in a mob on New Year’s Eve— are already enormous, measuring at least 5’ x 6’. The key to their success, though, lies in viewers’ getting up close and personal with the content, where they can appreciate the myriad small dramas taking place simultaneously. The distance between the audience and the screen at the Paramount, alas, thwarts such intimacy.

Fortunately, Chroma Projects, the venue for Vitali’s Look3 exhibition, “Natural Habitats,” offers an ideal setting for close encounters with the Italian photographer's complex compositions. The eight oversized photographs absorb the viewer in an ongoing and goal-less “Where’s Waldo?” game, as the eye moves from one social grouping to the next within each frame. Small gems await discovery, while the larger pictures tap into viewers’ idealized memories and visions.

Vitali began shooting his scenes of leisure at age 52, when he grew tired of doing commercial work and became disturbed by political changes in Italy.

“I wanted to do something that no one has ever told me to do,” he explained during his Paramount interview. Inspired by how Renaissance paintings are rife with figures, Vitali said, “My idea is also about doing complicated images— things you can’t understand in a second, that take some time.”

After erecting a scaffold, Vitali uses an 8x10 camera, which he affectionately deems “a horrible beast,” to capture large sections of territory dotted with people. By angling the lens at 45 degrees, he keeps both the foreground and distance in focus, a trick that gives equal weight to each drama unfolding within the frame. But Vitali also cleverly captures color relationships and gestural moments that make each photograph resonant— for instance the yellow, blues, and reds in “Coney Island Grande,” or the line of snow-suited children cutting horizontally across “Les Menuires.”

Vitali’s photographs offer endlessly fascinating slices of life, revealing ever more the longer the viewer looks. From a woman basking in the sun with eyes closed in the lower left corner of Vitali’s image of Venice’s Piazza San Marco, to a bride and groom on the lower left, every picture holds a hundred stories.

Presented by Look3: Festival of the Photograph, Massimo Vitali’s exhibition, “Natural Habitats,” is on view through June 25 at Chroma Projects, 418 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 977-3687.