The beauty of the image is undeniable: A regal model in a black-and-white gown nearly glows against the improbable backdrop of four prancing elephants. She rests one manicured hand on a trumpeting trunk and extends the other into space, as if to dissuade a dance partner wishing to cut in. A length of white cloth circles her waist and loops over at her hip, following her gently curving leg to the hay-strewn floor. The elephants each lift a foot, multiplying the graceful curves that characterize the scene.
Richard Avedon’s 1955 photograph Dovima with Elephants is one of the most unforgettable images of fashion photography. Last year, it became something else, too: the first fashion photo to break the $1 million threshold at auction. It put Avedon—and fashion photography—on the top 10 list of images sold at auction, ranking among works by Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz. And it raised questions about the genre: Has fashion photography arrived as a collectible with a promising future, or is it simply having, as the fashion world might say, a moment?
After decades of being stigmatized as "commercial work," this genre has been making recent, measurable inroads into the fine art realm. In particular, pieces by Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, and Herb Ritts, who made their names shooting stunning images for Vogue and other leading fashion magazines of the 20th century, have begun to garner notably high bids at auction, making the leap from smaller, fashion-centric galleries to the elite galleries of the art world. Shortly after the Dovima sale, Avedon’s estate joined Gagosian, a gallery with worldwide branches that counts Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Richard Serra, and Roy Lichtenstein among the artists it represents. Last year, the estate of Ritts, a photographer known for sexy, sun-kissed black and whites, moved to Edwynn Houk, a New York photography gallery that handles works byDiane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Man Ray, and Stieglitz. In 2009, the Getty museum devoted an exhibit to Penn, the studious master of the studio photograph; in 2012, it will do the same for Ritts. Newton’s first major U.S. retrospective is under way at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through September 25.
On the auction front, in April 2010, Christie’s New York offered a collection of Penn photographs owned by one of his assistants. Every lot sold to earn a grand total of about $3.9 million. Two years earlier, Newton’s Sie Kommen, Paris (Naked and Dressed), an oversize print originally shot for the French edition of Vogue, fetched $662,500 at the same house.
While appreciation is clearly growing, "People still, despite themselves, don’t quite give it the place as art as they will give to other types of photography," says Cathy Kaplan, a trustee of the Aperture Foundation, a member of the Whitney Museum photography committee, and a collector of fashion photography. "I think some people still get caught on the fact that it was made to sell a product."
Critics took more than a century to recognize photography as a medium with its own artistic merit, and when that happened, well into the 20th century, they favored images made purely for art’s sake. The medium’s value as a collectible took hold around the same time. Swann Auction Galleries in New York held the first photograph sale in America in 1952; it took about 20 years for Sotheby’s and then Christie’s to follow suit, both in London. A photograph—any photograph—selling for more than $1 million is also a fairly recent development: The first, in 2005, was Richard Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy), produced in 1989; it commanded $1.2 million at Christie’s New York. Many photography experts credit the contemporary-art market with boosting prices at dedicated photography auctions and broadening the market for fashion images.
"The prominence of contemporary artists making or fabricating photos in the studio made people more amenable to fashion photography," says dealer Edwynn Houk.
Philippe Garner was present at the creation of the modern auction market for photography. In 1971, Sotheby’s London gave Garner, then 22, the task of gathering suitable images to offer within a larger sale of 19th-century art and objects. The highlights of Sotheby’s first photography section were by William Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, and others from the dawn of the medium. There was no fashion photography, which was not considered collectible. Now head of 20th-century decorative arts and design and photographs at Christie’s, Garner has handled countless photograph auctions, including last year’s record-breaking Dovima. Fashion photography, he says, "is evolving, but there’s still a great deal of prejudice. I think there’s a lot of nonsense, presumed and spoken, on the hierarchy in photography."
It is evident, Garner notes, long before the hammer comes down. Contemporary artists such as Prince, Andreas Gursky, and Cindy Sherman (whose 1981 image, Untitled #96, sold for $3.8 million at Christie’s New York in May, setting a record for a photograph at auction) command higher prices partly because of how the art market classifies them. Prince and the others built their reputations through gallery and museum shows, and their photographs appear in contemporary-art auctions. Penn and his colleagues built their reputations in fashion magazines, and their work is sold in dedicated photography auctions. Of course, Penn, Avedon, Ritts, and Newton are not living artists, so they do not meet the literal definition of "contemporary." (Prince, Sherman, and Gursky are alive and active.)
Still, commercial work has been critical to Penn’s success at auction: Seven of his top 10 sellers are fashion photos. In 2004, Newton told Newsweek, "Some people’s photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, that’s fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire." That phrase "a gun for hire" became the title of a 2005 book of his commissioned images. Avedon apparently had mixed feelings toward his fashion work—going so far as to produce In Memory of the Late Mr. And Mrs. Comfort: A Fable,a curious 1995 spread in The New Yorker that paired a model with a skeleton—but he never turned his back on it. "We’re very fortunate at the Richard Avedon Foundation that he didn’t disavow his fashion work," says Paul Roth, the New York foundation’s executive director. "It has been important to secure his place in art history."
Ritts, born in 1952, was about 30 years younger than Penn, Newton, and Avedon—and he was apparently free of any qualms about producing commercial art. "He approached it as being there to make an interesting picture or to capture an interesting moment," says Mark McKenna, former assistant on Ritts shoots and executive director of the Herb Ritts Foundation in Los Angeles. "That’s why I think so much of his work is crossover."
Who will be next to follow Avedon past the $1 million mark? It is possible that Dovima with Elephants was an anomaly. It was a unique print with a dream provenance. When, in 1978, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered Avedon a show, he made a single oversize copy of Dovima. While it never hung on the Met’s walls, the photograph, which measured just over 7 feet high and more than 5 feet wide, appeared in the traveling version of the show; when the tour ended, Avedon displayed it in his studio’s reception area until he died in 2004. After the sale, the buyer was revealed: the house of Dior, maker of the gown in the image, not an individual collector. Images by Penn and Avedon have changed hands privately for seven figures, but experts speculate that some time may pass before that price threshold is crossed again at auction.
When it is, a number of factors point to Penn as the next seven-figure fashion photographer. Looking atthe top 10 best-performing fashion photographs at auction—and limiting the scope to images shot for fashion advertising or editorial—Dovima ranks first, Newton’s Sie Kommen is second, and places three through nine are occupied by prints of three Penn images (Black and White Vogue Cover, Woman in Moroccan Palace, and Harlequin Dress) that sold for $336,000 to $481,000 apiece. A 1956 Avedon image of Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall in Paris, which garnered $297,016, completes the list.
Penn spent decades producing limited editions of his images, typically ranging from 15 to 35 in number, but in some cases, they numbered as few as one and as many as 70. Moreover, he handled the darkroom duties himself rather than delegating them to an assistant. "He hand-brushed the emulsion, spending up to 50 hours per print to make," says Kim Jones, director of Pace/MacGill, the gallery that represented Penn during his life and now handles his estate. "From the early 1960s to the end of the 1990s, he was completely obsessed with his platinum-palladium prints."
Avedon, Newton, and Ritts also issued limited editions, but none match Penn’s efforts. They do, however, have something Penn does not: foundations that promote their work and safeguard their legacies. Newton’s foundation, based in Berlin, opened a show of his Polaroids in June. Avedon’s organization initiated the Christie’s Paris sale that included Dovima and approved the move to Gagosian. The Ritts foundation might be the canniest of the bunch: In 2007, it gave $2.5 million to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to fund the Herb Ritts Gallery for Photography. It opened last year and might be the only major museum gallery in the world named for an artist-donor.
Foundations aside, the best fashion photographs endure, thanks to their unabashed beauty and glamour, which transcend the ephemeral styles they were commissioned to showcase. Though the clothes may be outmoded, the images are timeless. "Fashion photography is very approachable and very attractive and easy to hang on a wall," says Willis Hartshorn, director of the International Center of Photography in New York. "There’s no postmodern ambiguity in the pictures whatsoever. It’s doing what it’s meant to do. It’s meant to sell you; it’s meant to seduce you. It’s why it’s made."
Next on the Runway
While Avedon, Penn, Newton, and Ritts are leading the way at auction, other makers of fashion images are also attracting collectors’ eyes.
Horst P. Horst
This German-American photographer shot one of the most iconic fashion images of the 20th century: Mainbocher Corset. The 1939 black and white, taken in Paris for Vogue, has inspired fashion figures from Donna Karan to Madonna, who re-created it in her 1990 music video for the song “Vogue.” Horst’s top three images at auction, as well as his sixth-best seller, are editions of Mainbocher Corset. The record-holder commanded $288,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 at Christie’s New York in 2007.
One of the gods of 20th-century photography, Steichen is credited with the first modern fashion photo shoot. Challenged by Lucien Vogel, a French magazine publisher, to produce artful images of women in fashionable clothes, Steichen borrowed gowns from couturier Paul Poiret and went to work. The results appeared in the April 1911 issue of Art et Décoration. None of Steichen’s fashion images have scaled the heights reached by 1904’s The Pond—Moonlight, which fetched $2.9 million in 2006 at Sotheby’s New York, but they can perform well. Last year his Illustration for Vogue (Hands over Head), shot in 1934, sold for $45,000 against a $20,000 to $30,000 estimate at Sotheby’s New York.
This American photographer liked to shoot outdoors under natural light, a practice that influenced Richard Avedon and continues to influence what collectors want at auction today. Six of Dahl-Wolfe’s top 10 images are iterations of a 1947 black and white Harper’s Bazaar outtake of a woman lying on the sand, her nude back set off by a pair of white towels draped around her waist and over her head. Her single top-selling image, Nude in the Mojave Desert, California, garnered $18,750 against a $5,000 to $7,000 estimate at Christie’s New York in April.
LaChapelle belongs to the current generation of artists that moves between contemporary art and fashion photography with ease. He has drifted away from fashion work, saying in 2007, “I did it, I had fun . . . and now I feel like it’s time to move on.” But his fashion images are finding favor at auction. Last year, a signed, limited-edition print of his Addicted to Diamonds—a 1997 color image for French Vogue depicting a topless blonde hovering over lines of gems on a mirror—sold for $79,300 against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000 at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York.
Christie’s, 212.636.2000, www.christies.com; Edwynn Houk Gallery, 212.750.7070, www.houkgallery.com; Helmut Newton Foundation, +49.30.3186.4856, www.helmutnewton.com; Herb Ritts Foundation, www.herbritts.com; Richard Avedon Foundation, 212.581.5040, www.richardavedon.com; Sotheby’s, 212.606.7000, www.sothebys.com