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photo-eye Book Reviews: Natural Habitats

Natural Habitats, Photographs by Massimo Vitali.
Published by Steidl, 2011.
Natural Habitats
Reviewed by David Ondrik
 Massimo Vitali Natural Habitats
Photographs by Massimo Vitali
Steidl, 2011. Hardbound. 200 pp., 76 color illustrations, 15x12".

Massimo Vitali's latest book, Natural Habitats, contains 70 photographs created between 2004 and 2009. The book is large enough that the color reproductions are approximately 11x14"; it's almost as if they were pulled directly off of gallery walls, and the detail they contain is worth the size of the book.

The photos in Natural Habitats are from multiple countries and are of the leisure class engaged in recreational activities at the border of water and land. The opening image is a stunning shot with all the basic elements of design and composition on gorgeous display: A white rock protrusion (nicknamed Mt. Fuji) with ant-speck-people thrusts into the crystal clear, teal ocean. Plant and mineral formations under the water supply rhythm, pattern, and texture, and the image could be an abstract painting, a gallery photograph, a vacation advertisement, or an anthropologic photograph out of National Geographic. The next several images were taken at the same locale, some from roughly the same vantage point and others so completely different that it's not immediately obvious that we're looking at the same spot. But in each case people have flocked to enjoy the water.

Natural Habitats, by Massimo Vitali. Published by Steidl, 2011.
 This is the general flow of the book: a beach filled with people shot from various perspectives and distances. Some beaches are more manicured and crowded than others, but they all share the bright sun and inviting shoreline. Just about the time one gets tired of postcard-perfect beaches, Vitali offers images of less picturesque watering holes, rocky rivers that, despite their inhospitable appearance, still attract people to relax on their shores.

The pull that water has on human beings seems to be the central theme that Vitali is exploring. Across the world, pretty much the same activity plays out where water and land collide; it's surprisingly difficult to determine where many of the photographs were taken. No matter the country, everybody appears to love the beach in the same way: float around, catch some rays, show off the body.

Natural Habitats, by Massimo Vitali. Published by Steidl, 2011.
 While the images are initially charming, even lighthearted, as the book continues the images pile up and start to feel oppressive. I was reminded of what Edward Abbey wrote regarding Lake Powell in Desert Solitaire: "Play Safe. Read the official signboards; ski only in clockwise direction. Lets all have fun together!" As photographed, many of these recreational sites appear recreational in name only. The experience of being at a public beach is heavily mediated and controlled. In the photo of a sacred Russian pool people are crammed so closely in a wading pool that it has the feel of a subway car. I can't imagine going to such a densely populated spot to have fun in the sun.

Natural Habitats, by Massimo Vitali. Published by Steidl, 2011.
 I found the essay in the back of the book to be an overwrought piece of academic art writing, but it did inform me that I had the experience Vitali was going for with his photographs. Across cultures, economies, and nations we instinctually intertwine recreation and water. But there's an undercurrent of despair to go with the beauty, a sense that, with so many people seeking the experience, it becomes virtually alienating. Vitali's photographs might appear straightforward and one-dimensional. But if you're willing to spend more time with them, it becomes clear that, as a group, they're quite nuanced, even biting.—David Ondrik


David Ondrik has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. He received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico and has been involved in the medium ever since. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.