Victoria Zhivotneva met with director of the gallery De Primi Fine Art in Switzerland and talked with him about the value of vintage photos, about different ways of collecting art, and about the element which defines an artwork

Saverio Repetto

Saverio Repetto. From the private archive

Bleek Magazine: Mr. Repetto, I would like to start our conversation from the past when in 2013 lots of mass media were talking about your extremely successful collection “NASA” displayed at the MIA fair. How can you explain such success? 

Saverio Repetto: Everything started as a private collection, so it was my personal passion. Having a degree in engineering, I started buying from all over the world the photos of NASA, regarding both the expeditions to the moon and the preparatory, so-called Project Gemini. During the past 10 years, I collected more than 200 photos of NASA. When I realized that there was such a big amount of pictures where one was better than another, we decided to make an exhibition both in the gallery and bring them to MIA (a fair for photography) in Milan representing them altogether to a big audience. Once collected together, these works gained significant art value. This is also confirmed by auction statistics as vintage photos (we are talking about the ‘60s and ‘70s) can reach interesting prices and, when gathered in a separate collection, has even more value, this is why we had big success.

Saverio Repetto

U.S Army. Atomic Bomb test Bikini Lagoon. 1946. Gelatin silver print. 20 x 16,8cm (20,9 x 18,2cm).  Courtesy of De Primi Fine Art

Bleek Magazine: Yesterday (Ed. Note: Feb. 4) you inaugurated “The Bomb” exhibition, composed also of the vintage photos. Was the collection shown exclusively in “De Primi Fine Art” gallery or somewhere else before?

Saverio Repetto: The photographs were made and printed, starting from 1947 to 1970, which represent a terrible expression of humanity, which are nuclear explosions. Two of them unfortunately were used at the end of the war. There were almost 100 explosions tests made in the whole world by Americans, Russians and Frenchmen. I had a passion to collect these photos in the last six to seven years as I find them extremely beautiful. The idea of the exhibition was born over a year ago when I was asked by a museum of Padua, which was preparing an exhibition on the war photographs, to insert my collection of 35 really rare works into their show. After Padua, I brought back my collection and now it is on display here in Switzerland and maybe after we will bring it to London as well. 

Bleek Magazine: Were you sure to repeat the success of the 2-year-old collection NASA and can we talk about documentary photography nowadays as one of the tendencies?

Saverio Repetto: My intention was to represent my collection to the public who shares the passion of documentary photography with me. Besides documenting a historical fact, these pictures reflect a limited period lasting about 30 years: 1940s-1970s; now, we can hardly find anything like that concerning the present times. I continue collecting works, by the way the Russian ones are still missing. Collecting started as a joke and became a serious devotion without profit purposes.

Саверио Репетто

U.S Army. United States Atomic Energy Commission. 1950. Vintage gelatin silver print. 19 x 24 cm (25.4 x 20.5 cm).  Courtesy of De Primi Fine Art

Bleek Magazine: I’m forced to ask this question: do you think that “The Bomb” collection somehow represents global tensions and uncertainty of the present time? Your gallery was contacted by Padua Museum, which considered it the right moment to display it.

Saverio Repetto: War always existed in the world, local or global. The idea of the curator of the museum was to remind everybody about the horror of war. The actual tensions between the states, terrorism and so on, brought this argument forward. In fact, in the past, we hosted very many guests which, frankly speaking, we did not expect. This is more similar to a documentary than art photography; the images are terrifying and beautiful at the same time, there is a mixture of love and hatred, between pain and joy, in other words fascinating. We did an interview for RSI2 (Swiss television), we have bookings for guided visits, and so the interest even surpassed our expectations. This exhibition is of current importance for sure.

Bleek Magazine: Based on your recent participation at ArteFiera in Bologna, what can we say about the tendencies in photography in general?

Saverio Repetto: The Art fair in Bologna first is a fair of modern art with a small section of contemporary art and an even smaller part dedicated to photography. There is a block of modern art for the works of the 1920s-1980s, then another block nearby for contemporary where galleries mix artists from the 1950s until our time and this current year it was added a block of photography and “solo show” for young artists. There were a lot of people and a lot of interest to art in general but photography was still treated with a bit of distrust and this happens especially in Italy. If we talk about a collector of a certain age, he is not gripped by this kind of art, he tend to consider it art of second choice, still not understanding this kind of artistic expression. Therefore, photography is preferred by the younger generation and those who have lower financial potential instead of the medium collector whom we are used to treat.

Bleek Magazine: Are we talking about photography in general or contemporary photography?

Saverio Repetto: Contemporary, because big names in classic photography like American artists (vintage photography, etc.) have in any case their market outside of Italy. On the contrary, in France and America, there are auctions dedicated to photography only, where there is a big culture and tradition of photography both for the old and hypercontemporary. We did an exhibition of photography here in Switzerland, now it is in London, and we sold two works to collectors from Los Angeles who did not want to see the photos in person, as for them it was enough that they knew the artist and his technics. Of course, it is a pity that there is such a big gap between an American client and an Italian one, but Italy and Switzerland need time and will come to the same predicament.

Саверио Репетто

Marine Française. Nuclear experiment. 1970’s. Gelatin silver print. 39,3 x 30,3 cm.  Courtesy of De Primi Fine Art

Bleek Magazine: If we are talking about Switzerland, we are expecting an important exhibition “Rodchenko” to be displayed in the LAC this month. He was one of the founders of constructivism and Russian design and became an absolute art protagonist of the XXth century. Also, in this case, we are talking about old photography.

Saverio Repetto: Of course, and it’s a curator’s choice. I understand that for a curator, especially of a public institution, it is better to offer acknowledged photographers and vintage photography. It is a technical choice. If the curator offers a contemporary photographer, he risks to be accused for promoting one or another contemporary artist and it becomes more complicated. For example, an exhibition of Burtynsky, Araki or Sugimoto; it may not avoid the critics of commercialization, also when the significance of the artist is not discussable. By my advisor, an exhibition of classic photography can be combined with the works of contemporary artists, which could be more appreciated by the audience, as it is closer to our reality.

Bleek Magazine: What is the choice of those galleries, which cannot be accused of promoting one or another artist?  We understand classic photography is a secure investment, but what about young artists? What as an expansion can a gallery offer as investments in the long-term outlook?

Saverio Repetto: For photographers, they can apply the same rule as for the artists using other expressive instruments, such as canvas, colors, sculpture, etc. There are two types of galleries: one, like ours’, which represents mostly artists with international recognition and another, which represents only young artists. The activity of these two types of galleries is completely different. They attend different fairs, organize different exhibitions, and have a certain type of audience. This is a choice a gallery should take from the very beginning. We did our 60 years ago, when we opened our first gallery in Italy, then in Switzerland and the last one in London. If we did a choice exclusively for young artists, we would have had to stay on local markets offering Italian artists in Italy, Swiss artists in Switzerland and so on. Because young artists have to go a longer way for international recognition. It is easier to work with big names, easier to make a deal. You do not have to explain who the artist is, how much the work costs. With a condition report, size, and images, a deal can be made without even seeing the client; it’s enough to be competitive on the international market and I think we are… We also offer young artists but for us it is more like “mission impossible”, but we do our work also in this direction.

Саверио Репетто

Astronaut David R. Scott with US flag. Apollo 15. 1971. Vintage C-print on Kodak paper. 27,7 x 27,5 cm.  Courtesy of De Primi Fine Art

Bleek Magazine: To obtain international recognition, what should contemporary photography have?

Saverio Repetto: The classic photography remained in history books, because of the artists who gave important signals. For example, Ansel Adams was not the only photographer of the time; there were hundreds of them. The fact is that besides making pictures for earning his living, he fell in love with Yosemite Valley and started taking pictures of the landscapes. Other photographers of his time continued to take portraits of rich families without devoting themselves to “art photography”. For this reason Ansel Adams was a genius. Another photographer who will remain as a big name among the classics is Edward Curtis who took pictures of Indian tribes. And these are only 2 names… For contemporary photographers, it is not a problem of a message or technics or a subject, the importance is the presence of an element of genius, that makes both a work which stands out against the average… Now we are so technologically equipped that everyone is a photographer, even with a cellular phone, and it can also become an artwork. But it’s always a human being to apply art to an artwork. So today or tomorrow there will be for sure a person who will stand out of the mass level, to say now who he will be is too early, only time will decide.

Саверио Репетто

Untitled. Ca. 1972. C-Print. Kodak Digital paper. 20,3 x 20,5cm.  Courtesy of De Primi Fine Art

Bleek Magazine: That is a bit sad conclusion. Will we never be able to decide who is the next outstanding artist?

Saverio Repetto: We will be able to make our selection. The works displayed at the fairs are a selection of galleries, and then a collector does his own selection. Unfortunately, we do not know about great artists who do not want to be exhibited or sold and maybe we will find out their names only after 10 years. However, we are all together already do a selection and the prizes and rewards are another filter to give further indications. There are museum curators who compose new collections. Then all these selected works should be valuated by a big audience. In all this mass of proposed works we are able to notice the tendencies.

Bleek Magazine: What are the tendencies today in photography? 

Saverio Repetto: There is a huge variety of cultures involved: American, Asian, African, Russian… Each artist represents his own culture. An artist should not follow fashion; an artist should follow his passion. It is correct that he resists from market impact and trends. We, galleries, try to follow and foresee the tendencies. For example, now after the period of big devotion to minimal art there is a return to the painted art (landscape, etc.), the public is getting tired of monochrome, cold paintings which reflect a certain historical moment.

Regarding photography it is not so easy, such big tendency does not exist.

Саверио Репетто

U.S Army. Atomic test, Nevada proving ground. 1952. Vintage ferrotyped gelatin silver print. Wirephoto. 23.7 x 16.6 cm (25.5 x 20.7 cm).  Courtesy of De Primi Fine Art

Bleek Magazine: What is your advice as a gallerist to a collector and advice to a young photographer? 

Saverio Repetto: I do not have advice for artists, as they have something to say and do it through an expressive instrument as photography and I just admire these people (Artists) in whatever they do because they are able to communicate to others what they have inside. So I say to all young artists: continue to do what you do, don’t follow the market tendencies, don’t compromise to create something what people ask you to do. Or do like Ansel Adams: portraits for earning money and landscapes for passion. In art one should follow his heart, perception and mind.

A real collector loves what he collects; art brings pleasure and joy to his heart. On the second place, it is an investment. In case we start thinking about big investments I always advise to do it with support of a gallery, which will give some hints and indications to the artists. If a collector does investments with the help of an art advisor and does not see an artwork, for me, it is not collecting, it is pure investment.

Turning back to photography, I believe that it is the future, it is the most fresh method of expression, it is modern, and the most contemporary which exists.

© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Victoria Zhivotneva.