Vintage Fashion Photography Gaining Market Momentum

Images by noted photographers including Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts regularly appear in the Top-10 lists of photography auction results, and prices for iconic shots are rising.
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The most iconic fashion photograph of all time: Richard Avedon’s “Dovima with Elephants,” 1955, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, featuring Domvina wearing an evening gown by Dior and posing with elephants; number ten from an edition of fifty; $615,000.

The most iconic fashion photograph of all time: Richard Avedon’s “Dovima with Elephants,” 1955, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, featuring Domvina wearing an evening gown by Dior and posing with elephants; number ten from an edition of fifty; sold at Christie's in 2019 for $615,000.

Although fashion photos have long been an important feature of photography auctions, Christie’s specialist Jude Hull says that there was an increase in momentum in the market in 2019, and it continues to boom.

Fashion magazines are filled with idealized images of glamour and beauty and the best of these photographs, which Hull said intersect fantasy and the sublime, have become increasingly collectible in recent years. She said that images taken by noted photographers including Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts regularly appear in the Top-10 lists of auction results. Other iconic fashion photographs have been taken by Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, Irving Penn, Erwin Blumenfeld and more.

Smart collectors are taking notice. While prices for fashion photographs were particularly strong in 2019, Hull said that momentum has been building for a while and prices for iconic images are rising. One example is Avedon’s “Dovima with Elephants,” one of the most famous and influential fashion images of all time. This photo was taken in Paris in 1955 to showcase designer Christian Dior’s latest collection and features one of the world’s most famous models at the time, Dovima, wearing the first Dior dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent and posing with circus elephants. By moving models out of the studio and placing them against exciting backdrops, Avedon helped blur the line between commercial fashion photography and art.

The photo set a world auction record for the artist in 2011 when it sold at Christie’s in Paris for $1.2 million, and last 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. Two copies also sold at Sotheby’s last year for a more “affordable” $62,312 and $52,500.

“Lifetime prints such as Avedon’s ‘Dovima’ are important because they have either been made by the 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,” Hull said. ”This does not necessarily mean that posthumous prints are not approved, or authorized by the artist,” she added, “but having a work signed in the artist’s hand always adds value.”

Besides showcasing beautiful people and clothes, Hull said that 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 theater of a fashion shoot.

These elements come together with famed American-German photographer Horst P. Horst and his most celebrated and recognized fashion image, “Mainbocher Corset.” Taken in Paris in 1939, the photograph is laced with an elegant eroticism, charged by the semi-nude model, Horst’s ingenious lighting, and the corset itself. It has also inspired numerous photographers and fashion designers.

Horst P. Horst’s “Mainbocher Corset,” 1939; $6,875.

Horst P. Horst’s “Mainbocher Corset,” 1939; $6,875.

According to Huxley-Parlour Gallery, at the time, Parisian lingerie was considered highly desirable and the corset had come back into fashion in the 1930s after a period of unpopularity during the previous decade. By 1939, American women were spending more than $100 million per year on brassières and corsets. As an item of clothing, it came laden with obvious sexual connotations that brought Horst’s photograph a certain notoriety.

Taken on the cusp of World War II, Huxley-Parlour said the photograph is not only emblematic of a key period in fashion, but also marks the end of an era — both for Horst and Europe. Horst had been working from Paris as a principal photographer for French Vogue since the early 1930s, but by the summer of 1939, the Nazi threat had grown to such an extent that he felt compelled to leave Paris for New York. “Mainbocher Corset” was taken the night before he left.

Speaking about the photograph, Horst said, “It was created by emotion ... it was the last photo I took in Paris before the war. I left the studio at 4 a.m., went back to the house, picked up my bags and caught the 7 a.m. train to Le Havre to board the Normandie. The photograph is peculiar for me. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”

According to Huxley-Parlour, not only does the photograph mark the end of key period in Horst’s early career, it also marks the end of a golden age for Paris as a center of culture and fashion, as the avant-garde moved across the Atlantic to the haven of New York.

Hull said that over the past decade, prices for “Mainbocher Corset” have doubled. A check on various auction sites shows that the image has been selling anywhere from $7,000 to $46,000.

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, Hull said.

The recent boom in the fashion photography market has put Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer and other big models of that decade firmly back in the limelight, with top prices realized for works by Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts, among others.

Last June, Lindbergh’s 1991 “The Wild Ones,” taken in New York and featuring Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Helena Christensen, Campbell and others looking like a chic biker gang, sold for $205,000 against an estimate of $76,000 to $110,000, while Ritts’ 1989 portrait of Crawford, Campbell, Patitz and Christy Turlington realized $219,000 — more than double its low estimate.

“Biker Girls,” Peter Lindberg’s shot of iconic models of the 1990s including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer; $205,000.

"The Wild Ones," Peter Lindberg’s shot of iconic models of the 1990s looking like a super chic biker gang; from left: Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Helena Christiansen, Linda Evangelists, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Karen Mulder and Stephanie Seymour; $205,000.

Hull advised that new collectors buy something they love, and try to ensure that it’s signed/stamped by the artist, or comes with an accompanying certificate of authenticity. Also be sure it’s in good condition, look for solid provenance, and focus on the smallest edition number possible.

Iconic images by famous photographers may be bringing huge prices at auction, but plenty of affordable options can be found online. At LiveAuctioneers, fashion photos by noted photographers, including Penn, have been spotted for under $200; there are also many fashion photos from the 1980s being offered for under $30. On eBay, a variety of general fashion photos from all decades have been spotted for $10-$50, while you can expect to pay a bit more for photos featuring noted models or photographers. Some work by Penn and Ritts have been spotted in the $50 to $200 range, and $200-$500 for work by Newton.

Hull offered a few care tips for your collection:

“As important as light is in creating a photograph as a fixed image, it is also the biggest threat to condition,” she noted. “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.” 

Here are some other fashion photographs that have been selling recently: