Time to snap up fashion photos

Photography used to be a poor choice for collectors. But James Sherwood sees prices rising in the world of fashion

Amere 20 years ago, the art market was suspicious of photography. How could an image with the potential to be infinitely reproduced compare to a unique canvas? Fashion photographs shot for commercial purposes, albeit commissioned for the glorious, glamorous pages of Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, had the added taint of "trade".

Great fashion photographers such as Beaton, Horst, Avedon and Penn strove for perfection and were therefore considered anodyne and sterile compared with artists such as Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman who tend to celebrate flaws. "Considering some of the greatest images of the last century were made for the fashion industry, it's incredible that commissioned as opposed to personal work was looked on as compromised," says Sotheby's photography expert, Juliet Hacking.

On 27 April 2004 Sotheby's New York sold a 1924 fashion portrait of Gloria Swanson shot for Vanity Fair by Edward Steichen for $153,600. The recently deceased Helmut Newton's Sie Kommen, Dressed/Sie Kommen, Naked, shot in 1981 and printed in an edition of 85 in 1984, made $114,000. Bear in mind the art world knows there are 84 other editions of these images extant and you realise that Newton is infinitely more desirable than Damien Hirst.

Because it was shot to seduce the eye and sell frocks, great fashion photography is an accessible, immediate "in" for new collectors. Great fashion moments are captured when the model, the couture gown, the location and the photographer are in perfect alignment. Richard Avedon's Dovima and the Elephants is one such moment. The auction record for an edition of 50 is $40,000.

Shot in 1955, Dovima -- the supermodel of her era -- is between two elephants at the Cirque D'Hiver in Paris wearing a Dior column dress and elbow-length gloves. She recalls: "We took 1,000 pictures in an hour." Only the single frame printed in Vogue is THE image. For collectors, Dovima and the Elephants is as close to heaven as a fashion plate gets.

"In the 20 years since I've been in the business, we've seen the market grow by 1,000 per cent," says Tim Jefferies, director of Mayfair's Hamiltons Gallery. Jefferies deals in masterpieces by the century's old masters of fashion photography, including George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst P Horst, Sir Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Sir Norman Parkinson and Helmut Newton. Irving Penn plates have risen from £5,000 to £50,000 in a decade.

"The mark of a truly great fashion photograph is its ability to stand up outside the context in which it was made," says Jefferies. "Does it transfer from the glossy page of a magazine to a gallery wall?"

Michael Hoppen, director of Chelsea's Michael Hoppen Gallery, agrees. "I don't think anybody comes close to Richard Avedon in the 1940s and 1950s," says Hoppen. "This was also the time when Avedon was consulting on the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire fashion film Funny Face."

Hoppen's Avedons are editions of 75 and sell for £12,000 to £13,000. Compare this with $900,000 (£514,000) for an original group of Harper's Bazaar contact sheets sold through Avedon's studio and they begin to look like a bargain.

Photographers tend to outlive their sell-by date. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died this week, was 94. At 84, with a Vogue contract and a mission to work in his studio every day, Penn is an exception, as is his rival Avedon. The later work of Beaton, Parkinson and Horst didn't have the resonance of their golden ages between 1920 and 1960. According to Jefferies, when a photographer does shuffle off this mortal coil, "prices go through the roof".

Rules such as posthumous price hikes do have exceptions. Cecil Beaton has never realised auction prices that the quality of his work should demand. "It's a slow burn with Beaton," says Hacking. "All it will take is one of his great images to break auction records and the rest of his work will follow." But, for the present, a Beaton can still be had for under £1,000.

Gallery endorsement will usually reassure the secondary market. Photographers given major museum shows in the past decade include Man Ray, Horst, Avedon, Penn, Newton, David Bailey and Guy Bourdin. Glossy books also support the value to posterity of the fashion old masters. On 1 September the National Portrait Gallery publishes Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion with text by former Vogue picture editor Robin Muir. A small NPG exhibition will accompany the book as will a selling show of Parks' greatest hits at Hamiltons (15 September to 9 October).

The Hamiltons show is a gold rush for collectors, as was Hoppen's show when he introduced a new generation to the old master fashion photographer Martin Munkacsi.

Michael Hoppen believes there are anything between 10 and 20 truly great images by any photographer and all of Parks' iconic images will be represented, including Golfing at Le Touquet, Simpsons Suits (1939), Wenda over the Rolls (1950) and After Van Dongen (1959). Sotheby's broke Parks' auction record last year with £12,000 for a Jerry Hall dyptique.

New collectors may question why Parks' Le Touquet is priced at £7,500 and £12,000 by Hamiltons. The £12,000 print is vintage (ie: contemporary to the image being shot). The £7,500 is printed later. "It is virtually impossible to find a vintage print," says Hoppen. "One would have been printed for the magazine, one for the photographer and maybe one for the model.We've got to a stage now with Bourdin, for example, that printed-laters are highly prized because vintage prints are almost non-existent."

Not all collectors place such a high price on vintage prints. As technology advanced, photographers refreshed archive images by executing larger, glossier platinum prints instead of the neat little silver prints.

Property investor Louis Berrick, whose collection includes Steichen, Horst, Parkinson, Bourdin, Newton and a stellar group of fashion portraits by Irving Penn of his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, says: "I prefer the gloss of a platinum-printed image. Penn is also meticulous about signing, dating and editioning his work so when I frame a Penn, I have Perspex on the back. It's fascinating to look at the viscera behind the perfect image."

A silver print/printed later of Horst's most famous image, The Mainbocher Corset (1939), was estimated by Sotheby's London at £5,000 in its 8 July 2004 sale. It realised a bargain £3,800 considering the image has previously sold for $17,000. Had it been a vintage print, a nought could have been added to the price tag. Not only is The Mainbocher Corset one of the most famous fashion photographs in the world. It is one of the most famous photographs. For the fashion collector it is highly prized for the legend surrounding it. The image was taken at the very end of a studio sitting when the model had been terrorised sufficiently by Horst to make her cry. In his exasperation, the photographer demanded she turn her back on the camera and this image was made.

Another shift Jefferies has seen in the market is the auctioneer's insistence on rarity, condition and provenance. Rarity (unique prints or short editions) and provenance (the photographer's stamp and signature) remain important, but condition is less of a concern. "Condition used to be paramount," says Jefferies. "Now, signs of pedigree are appreciated. The patina becomes an added attraction."

Prints are already assuming the mantle of relics of a bygone age because of the digital revolution in photography. "In the old days, guys working on magazines would have access to all the photographer's contact sheets," says Arena Homme Plus director Douglas Lloyd. "Digital has removed that access." This means that the only prints a photographer has to produce today are if his work merits a museum show.

Contemporary fashion photographers Mario Testino and Steven Meisel enjoyed recent retrospectives at the National Portrait Gallery and Jay Jopling's White Cube respectively. Though Jefferies says it is far too early to set Meisel's and Testino's market value in stone, a Meisel of Christy Turlington shot for US Vogue in 1989 made £3,840 at Sotheby's. Hugh Grant collects Testino and David LaChapelle, as do Sir Elton John and David Furnish.

Terry Richardson, Corrine Day, Juergen Teller and Inez Van Lamsweerde have also featured in gallery shows and, thus, printed editions.

But what of the young ones to watch who work solely with digital? Tim Jefferies' advice is to get out to the galleries, look at fashion magazines and educate your eye before buying, then seek the advice of an expert photography gallery.

After a very dull, uninspiring period of fashion magazine photography, we're seeing a young generation willing to embrace glamour again. It is led by Mert & Marcus, Steven Klein, Solvo Sundsbo and Norbert Schoerner. If you have the chutzpah to approach their studios directly and commission prints, then go right ahead. If you don't, then ally yourself to a gallery and get them to broker the first deal.

My advice would be to haunt the auction rooms and snap up the old masters while they're still in the £1,000s rather than £10,000s. There's plenty of time to speculate on the young ones.

FASHION PHOTOGRAPHERS

* OLD MASTERS

Man Ray, Martin Munkacsi, Edward Steichen, Lillian Bassman, Erwin Blumenfeld, Clifford Coffin, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Horst P Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, William Klein, Cecil Beaton, Sir Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin.

* MODERN CLASSICS

Steven Meisel, Nick Knight, Patrick Demarchelier, Herb Ritts, Hiro, David LaChapelle, Sara Moon, Francesco Scavullo, Paolo Roversi, Albert Watson, Ellen Von Unwerth, Bruce Webber, Mario Testino.

* BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS

Corrine Day, Inez Van Lamsweerde, Juergen Teller, Mert & Marcus, Terry Richardson, Solve Sundsbo, Steven Klein, David Sims, Norbert Schoerner.

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