From the evidence of the New York photography auctions in October, it remains a distant promise that collectors will come to realize any real value in acquiring fashion photographs. Fashion photographs are beautifully crafted and often emblematic, yet as collectible art they are perhaps tainted by their commercial origins. The market for fashion photography is still in its infancy and therefore it seems most serious collectors feel it not worth the acquisition regardless of price.
For instance, at Sotheby's on Oct. 28, the two lots of Cecil Beaton photographs, both from Conde Nast shoots, were passed. And this at relatively low prices -- a 1943 print of The Designer Charles James with a Model carried an estimate of $4,000-$6,000, while the group of three photos of Models Posed in Surrealist Settings from 1936 was estimated at $4,000-$6,000. A portfolio of 11 signed prints by Richard Avedon published (in an edition of 75) on the occasion of the photographer's 1978 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, "Avedon/Paris," also went unsold over an estimate of $60,000-$90,000.
The auction did have some successes in the fashion field, of course. The second highest priced lot was George Hoyningen-Huene's Bathing Suits: A.J. Izod, Ltd., London (1930), which sold for $109,940 with premium, well over its $20,000-$30,000 presale estimate. But in the top 20 lots of the sale, the only other fashion photo was Irving Penn's 1950 portrait of model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, Woman with Umbrella, New York, printed in 1984, which sold for $13,145 (est. $10,000-$15,000). These examples suggest that the combination of highly recognizable names and widely published and exhibited images helps drive auction prices upward.
At Christie's on Oct. 22, several works by Penn, who is of course an auction-market favorite, sold for healthy prices. A 1976 print in an edition of 34 of Penn's 1950 Black and White Vogue Cover, New York (Jean Patchett) sold for $57,360 (est. $30,000-$40,000). Penn's Man Lighting Girl's Cigarette (1949/1971, in an edition of 15) sold for $50,190, well above the presale estimate of $10,000-$15,000. Is it a testament, perhaps, to an awakening collector consciousness that no buyer was found for Penn's non-fashion picture, Guedras in the Wind, Morocco (est. $15,000-$20,000)?
At Christie's, Richard Avedon's Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent, Los Angeles, California, June 14, sold just below estimate at $10,158. At Sotheby's the same image yielded similar results. The estimate was set at $10,000-$15,000. It sold for $11,950. Who hasn't seen this picture at least a dozen times? Hence, do frequent sightings translate to wise investments in the minds of collectors?
The current Avedon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum prompted similar visual identity results at Phillips. Although not in the fashion genre, Avedon prints of Noto, Sicily, and Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory both sold above estimate.
After all was said and sold (or passed), one question stood out in my mind; Why was there but one Louise Dahl-Wolfe photograph (a poor one at that) -- Christie's Gyorji in Bermuda, British West Indies -- when Dahl-Wolfe's contribution to fashion photography is paramount; her work, considered ahead of its time, procured a shift from the severe to a more elegant image of the late 1940s-50s woman, reflecting the beginning of the postwar and a more luxurious American lifestyle?
I realize that a Louise Dahl-Wolfe photograph rarely shows up at auction due to the fact that much of her work remains in the Louise Dahl-Wolfe archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. I wonder if photography collectors see the value in acquiring something not consistently paraded before the eyes of the public.
Whether by Penn, Avedon, Hoyningen-Huene or Louise Dahl-Wolfe, fashion photographs not only exemplify visually creative works of art but speak a dialogue of war and of peace, depression and prosperity in much the same way that paintings reflect political and economical periods in history.
I'd like to imagine a future when photography auctions mirror painting auctions in attendance, as well as, estimates.
RACHAEL LORENZ is a photography dealer in San Francisco. Our regular Art Market Guide columnist, Richard Polsky, will be back next week.