Why smart collectors are focusing on fashion photography
Fashion pictures have long been an important element of photography auctions, but 2019 has seen an increase in momentum in the market. Specialist Jude Hull explains why
The pages of fashion magazines are filled with idealised images of glamour and beauty. The best of these photographs, which present an intersection of fantasy and the sublime, have become increasingly collectible in recent years, with images by the likes of Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Peter Lindbergh regularly appearing in the top-10 lists of auction results.
While prices for fashion photographs have been particularly strong in 2019, momentum has been building for a while — in 2014, the New York Times was confidently proclaiming ‘fashion photography is art’s rising star.’
In the same feature, Mark McKenna, executive director of the Herb Ritts Foundation, stated that in economically challenging times the appeal of these pictures lay in the fact that ‘people wanted to surround themselves with images of glamour and beauty as things were tough, and fashion photos represented the opposite of what was happening in their day-to-day lives.’
Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington from 1989 to 2016, added that she believed the social media age had played an important role, chiefly because it has seen us move ‘from high art to an all-embracing visual culture’.
There has certainly been an increasing number of exhibitions exploring the theme in recent years. Tim Walker (b. 1970) is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the V&A (until 8 March); Vogue celebrated its centenary with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London; Cecil Beaton will have an exhibition at the same venue from 12 March next year; while at Tate Modern the photography of Dora Maar, including her early work in fashion, is on display (until 15 March).
Rising prices for iconic images
Among the millions of fashion photographs that have been taken, some have achieved iconic status. One such example is Richard Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants, which made a world auction record for the artist in 2011. Earlier this year, a large-format print of the image sold at Christie’s for $615,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $350,000-550,000.
‘Lifetime prints such as Avedon’s Dovima are important because they have either been made by artist, or produced under their supervision, usually signed by them, which confirms their approval of their condition and that they should be on the market,’ explains specialist Jude Hull.
‘This does not necessarily mean that posthumous prints are not approved, or authorised by the artist,’ she adds, ‘but having a work signed in the artist’s hand always adds value.’
Another photographer whose work is synonymous with ideals of classical beauty is Horst P. Horst (1906-1999), who was the subject of a major retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2014. Over the past 10 years prices for Mainbocher Corset, 1939 have doubled.
‘As important as light is in creating a photograph as a fixed image, it is also the biggest threat to condition,’ notes Hull. ‘The simplest way to look after your photograph is to avoid hanging it in direct sunlight.
‘As you would for paintings, avoid humid environments and where possible ensure the photograph is protected — either in the form of a frame, or by covering it with acid-free tissue paper in a secure mount.’
The Supermodels of the 1990s
Every generation has its own ‘pin-ups’ — faces that come to represent an era or style. Images of Lisa Fonssagrives (1911-1992), who was hailed as the world’s first supermodel, would have appealed to an older generation of collectors in the same way that the ‘supermodels’ of the 1990s are driving the current trend.
The recent boom in the fashion photography market has put Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Karen Mulder, Claudia Schiffer and Stephanie Seymour firmly back in the limelight, with top prices realised for works by Peter Lindbergh (b. 1944) and Herb Ritts (1952-2002), among others.
In June, Peter Lindbergh’s ‘Biker Girls’ sold in Paris for €187,500 against an estimate of €70,000-100,000, while Herb Ritts’ portrait of Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana and Naomi realised €200,000, more than double its low estimate.
A social document of their times
Fashion photography can also stand as a social document of the times in which it was produced and exhibited, not only through clothes pictured but also the surroundings, choice of models, architecture — even the implied social codes displayed in the theatre of a fashion shoot.
Terry O’Neill’s celebrated 1977 image of Faye Dunaway, the night after she won an Oscar for Best Actress in Network, has all the glamour and beauty of a great fashion photo, but is also a work of reportage. The actress lounges in an exquisite silk dressing gown, surrounded by newspapers carrying headlines of the previous evening’s award ceremony alongside other world events.
The picture was shot at The Beverly Hills Hotel, which had been an important celebrity hang-out since the 1930s.
As we move farther from the 20th century, such pictures assume even greater importance as documents of the past. And with Terry O’Neill’s passing last month, lifetime prints of such images will become increasingly scarce on the market.
Certificates, provenance, condition
‘Buy something you love,’ Hull advises new collectors, ‘and try to ensure it's signed/stamped by the artist, or comes with an accompanying certificate of authenticity. Be sure it’s in good condition, look for solid provenance, and focus on the smallest edition number possible.’
See below to browse iconic fashion photographs taken by Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), Norman Parkinson (1913-1990), Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton (1920-2004), Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) and more — all of which are offered in our special online sale.