Art | Finders Keepers

Contemporary photography

A collector’s interest in photographic art is piqued after a serendipitous meeting with a gallerist. Claire Wrathall reports.

July 26 2011
Claire Wrathall

“I wish I could say that we met at Gagosian in New York, or at Art Basel, or Frieze,” says Carlo Gentili, CEO of the Milan-headquartered asset-management company Nextam Partners, of his friendship with the Florentine gallery owner Isabella Brancolini. “But the truth is we met at a dingy printers in Florence.”

It was 2001 and Gentili, formerly a director of the Italian investment bank Euromobliare, had just founded Nextam. He was commissioning new business cards and brochures, while Brancolini was proofing the invitations for the private view of an exhibition of photographs by Massimo Vitali at her gallery, which had recently opened.

Gentili, who already owned a few black-and-white works by classic American photographers such as Robert Adams and Lee Friedlander, had seen an exhibition of Vitali’s work at the Photographers’ Gallery in London in 1997. Upon recognising the image on the invitations, he asked the printer to introduce him to Brancolini, who naturally invited him to the party.

Gentili duly went and Brancolini could sense that his interest was piqued, though he was prevaricating. He loved the bleached yet intense colour and the animated vibrancy of Vitali’s panoramic scenes, but he wasn’t prepared for their scale. Vitali’s London show had featured comparatively small prints, 63cm x 84cm. Brancolini, however, was showing immense works, 1.8m x 2.2m and sometimes arranged as diptychs and triptychs, making them challenging to display in an apartment or office. (As it is, Gentili keeps a lot of his collection in Brancolini’s storage facility.)

Brancolini sensed a sale, however, so she invited Gentili to meet Vitali while the photographer was on location at the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi. She remembers the day well: “We drove over there and had a nice lunch – spaghetti alle vongole, some prosecco – and watched Massimo work.”

Gentili was captivated by the infinitely patient, painstaking nature of the process: Vitali shoots his photographs from a high scaffold to give him a bird’s-eye view and then waits for the perfect shot – for the light to change, for the people to arrange themselves into what he sees as a form or pattern. “It was so different from anything I had ever seen. I had no idea that was how he worked.”

The image from that shoot was the first of three works by Vitali that Gentili now owns, though he hopes to acquire an image of the Duomo in Florence that he watched being photographed last November, but Vitali has not yet printed. And shrewd investments they’ve turned into. In April Nice, Negresco, a Vitali large-format beach scene, sold for $47,500 at Phillips de Pury in New York, and the record paid for one of his works, Rosignano, stands at $151,000. “When the auction results come out, it does make you feel good to see how prices have risen,” says Brancolini.

Gentili agrees, though he is adamant that his decisions are motivated by aesthetic appreciation over investment potential. That said, he adds: “Some prices just seem far-fetched and I would simply never be able to appreciate the beauty of something I regarded as too expensive. That’s my job, unfortunately: to see value in things.” He is frank, too, about the extent to which Brancolini has influenced his taste. “She has helped me form a collection, with themes and ideas. Without her, it would be a patchwork.”

The other Italian photographer whose work he collects is Olivo Barbieri, whose large-scale landscapes document gritty urban environments, notably in China. Indeed, Brancolini has curated an exhibition of these images at Nextam’s offices in Milan. “They’re in an amazing Renaissance palazzo, with these huge, high ceilings,” she says, and the contrast between Barbieri’s edgy, dystopian scenes and these gloriously palatial surroundings gave the pictures an added dimension.

However, Gentili’s interests are not exclusively Italian, for he has also bought creations by the US photographer Mitch Epstein, whose work he appreciates for its narrative quality. “The one I really like is Apartment 304, 398 Main Street from his “Family Business” project. It’s of a sink that’s been damaged in a house fire that has caused a family to go bust, so although it’s an anonymous scene, it communicates very clearly and immediately an intimate story about a ruined life.”

This notion that every picture tells a story also draws him to the still lifes of Canadian photographer Laura Letinsky. “They have a sort of Renaissance quality. There’s something very intimate about the way they suggest details of everyday life, though it’s left to your imagination to find the narrative.” And it’s this “sense of a strong story” that Brancolini says she has encouraged Gentili’s interest in.

As for the future, Gentili “would also love to collect work from the German school: Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth. But I’d have to think about that, given what they cost.” And Brancolini is steering him towards two British artists, Clare Strand and Sophy Rickett. Gentili looks blank. “Actually, you like their work,” Brancolini reminds him jocularly. “You saw it at Arte Fiera in Bologna.”

Yet though it’s authoritative, her manner is not prescriptive, and she is careful to emphasise that her role is as a friend and adviser, not curator. “I can only suggest,” she says. “It’s always his choice because he’s the one who has to live with it.”

Pressure of work, he says, means that they don’t see as much of each other as they’d like. But, Brancolini says, “We e-mail, we speak, we Skype, and we probably manage to meet a couple of times a month because we both have bases in Florence and London now” – for this year Brancolini opened a new gallery in Mayfair with her business partner, Camilla Grimaldi.

“It may still be a very young market in London, but there is so much good work out there to see, to discuss, to share… As Susan Sontag said, ‘To collect photographs is to collect the world.’ It’s a big, big subject.”