Inside the Art Market: Lately Fashionable

The fashion photographer, whose importance has only been recognized in the last twenty years, is an extraordinary being.  He is generally a painter who could not paint, a designer who never drew, or an architect who never built. The leading dressmakers of the world are household names, but only those directly concerned with the magazine world have heard of any celebrated fashion photographer.

Cecil Beaton, Photobiography, 1951

These amusing words came to mind recently as I walked through the winding rooms of the “Irving Penn: Centennial” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  For here was a major museum retrospective for an artist known mainly for his work as a fashion photographer.

Taking in this lush presentation of photographs taken over the course of a long and celebrated career, most of them in black-and-white, I couldn’t tell if Penn had been more interested in shooting languid, beautiful women in silk and taffeta for the glossy pages of Vogue or fierce and scowling mud-caked tribesmen from the deepest jungles of South America.  But he imbued all his photographic subjects, whoever they were, with dignity.

Indeed, Irving Penn was so versatile and creative, so adored and lionized and celebrated by the fashion world that even his tribal studies in far-off lands were often, improbably, featured in the pages of Vogue amidst layouts for the newest Parisian fashion from the houses of Chanel, Dior and Schiaparelli.  What an artful, jarring juxtaposition of styles!

Some of these magazine layouts were shown at The Met exhibition, presented in glass vitrines like archeological artifacts, the oversized pages yellowed and fading; and they proved both compelling and startling to the viewers who took notice.  For these glitzy Vogue spreads from decades ago, published at a time when magazines ruled the world of advertising and had so much more informational power and potency than they do today, gave further visual proof of Irving Penn’s rare gifts as a photographer: for seizing the viewer’s attention, holding it tight.

One could say the same about Richard Avedon, and Cecil Beaton as well. Both earned great acclaim for their work as fashion photographers while also pursuing other interests.

Avedon, who enjoyed two solo exhibitions at The Met during his lifetime, earned fame for his ravishing work at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.  But outside this rarified world he was equally poetic in rougher settings, creating in his back-road travels stark and eerie portraits of drifters, miners, oil field workers, cowboys and truckers, broncobusters and slaughterhouse butchers.  His subjects, posed with minimal background, stared straight into Avedon’s 8 x 10 view camera poker-faced and possessed, as if being photographed by an anthropologist.

The vast repertoire of bleak and disarming pictures that Avedon thus created over many years of backbreaking labor and perfectionism was published, to great acclaim, under the title In the American West.  It was a best-seller, and Avedon became a celebrity.

The most famous people in the world thereafter made the pilgrimage to Avedon’s Upper East Side studio, in similar fashion to all those cowboys and wranglers he had shot out West, to be starkly posed and immortalized by the artist.  Thus in his long, illustrious career Avedon enjoyed popular as well as critical success.  He was an intense, intimidating presence in his studio; and his photographs, like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, could be exotic and dreamy, startling and disturbing.  Small wonder he became the first staff photographer at The New Yorker.

Beaton, on the other hand, was a man of lavish and flamboyant personality, a self-promoting showman through and through, more comfortable in the salons of Mayfair and Park Avenue or in the stately homes of England.  His work at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, both in London and New York, was noted by theatrical poses, dense lighting and sumptuous settings for his models. Moreover, his talents in costume design, both for Hollywood motion pictures and Broadway musicals and plays, earned him two Academy Awards (for Gigi and My Fair Lady) as well as four Tonys.  He adored celebrities, and they adored him.

Beaton was also a lively and colorful author, one of great style and humor, his six volumes of diaries filled with gossip and raunchy reminiscences, his own charming sketches and photographs enlivening the text.  Demonstrating his versatility as a photographer, Beaton managed to have one of his most famous images, a stunning portrait of a little girl in hospital, injured from wartime bombing in London and but bravely sitting up in bed with her stuffed animal, featured on the cover of Life.  Like Avedon and Penn, Beaton could do photojournalism with enormous flair and style.

Thus calling these three fashion photographers hardly does them justice. All three were pioneers and innovators, lyrical in their craft, versatile and inventive.  And yet they seem today best remembered for their work in one specific photographic endeavor—shooting models and clothes for glossy magazines. This glamorous endeavor paid well; but perhaps it also diminished them in some measure for being too commercial.

And yet the art market today is all about commercialism. 

This is certainly true of photographs, a field exploding with vigor, flamboyance and new money.  Hence it is not surprising that prices for the most coveted photographs by the genuine stars of this market have risen astronomically.  A whopping (73 x 143 inches) color print Rhine II by the German photographer Andreas Gursky, for example, brought an eye-popping price of $4.3 million in 2011, still the record for any photograph sold at auction.  This Warhol-worthy price symbolizes not just a new threshold of high prices for photographs but, moreover, a seismic shift in tastes by collectors.

Traditionally this market was all about vintage black-and-white images by Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and other titans of 20th century photography.  But they have been eclipsed.

Now the market craves newer, more contemporary work, notably the large-scale color photographs by artists such as Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand, Elger Esser, Robert Polidori and Cindy Sherman, works that are monumental in size, painterly and gripping, with an edgy narrative twist, deeply-saturated colors to dazzle the eye, dramatic, sweeping tableaux.

It is thus no surprise that this newer, hipper generation of photographers finds their work featured not only at the trendiest art fairs worldwide but in the sleek, big-money Post-War and Contemporary Art sales at the major auction houses.  A recently-offered Untitled Film Still by Cindy Sherman, by way of example, was recently offered in the elite evening sale of Contemporary art at Christie’s.  It appeared in the catalogue in a six-page spread with pull-out illustration and fawning scholarly comments, positioned after an oil painting by Sigmar Polke and before a silkscreen by Andy Warhol—literally wedged in-between paintings selling for many millions.  What star power!

This sublime new high-end stature and presentation for photographs is a far cry from how they were long offered by the auction houses.  These twice-yearly, meat-and-potatoes sales mainly comprised black-and-white prints by the warhorses of yesteryear, with many of the very same images offered in sale after sale, the prices rarely changing much except when a truly exceptional vintage print appeared or a great museum collection was being deaccessioned.  These sales still go on today, but interest in them seems to have flattened, at least in their current, well-worn and static format.

The very top end of this market, on the other hand, featuring supersized color prints by mostly European photographers, seems aimed squarely at the most affluent new-money collectors in the art market.  Superstars like Gursky and Sherman are thus pampered and promoted in ways Walker Evans or Paul Strand in their day could never have imagined.

One wonders how Richard Avedon, if just starting out, might have fared in today’s market.  Perhaps like Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami he would have been sought after and seduced by Louis Vuitton, offered fabulous riches to design new handbags emblazoned with images of cowboys and rodeo hands from out West.  Oh the possibilities of becoming an avatar of luxury branding in today’s art market!

But then, Richard Avedon was from another, more innocent era, a time when artist careers evolved slowly, almost invisibly, and one’s reverence for craft was an old-fashioned, almost quaint quality. Artists had not yet been discovered as great pitchmen for leather goods and the like.

Today an artist in any field of endeavor must be a self-promoter and trend-setter, savvy and nimble about career strategies, catching and holding the elusive favor of collectors and critics in order to command media coverage and achieve brand distinction.  One must think big, for overnight success in today’s art market is not a fantasy or a dream.  It’s a goal.

In such a hopped-up market, where value and noise seem the only constants, it is hardly a surprise that collectors in every field of interest are looking deeper and wider for pockets of opportunity.  They are dazed and jaded by sensory overload in a market that keeps pumping out new artists whose work all seems to look the same.

Hence they ask: “What has been overlooked and undervalued?  What niches of this or that collecting field have masterpieces hiding in plain sight, great artists undiscovered or forgotten, art of genuine quality from another era that now warrants reevaluation?”

Which brings us back to fashion photography.

Despite a longtime interest in photographs I had not known anything about Louise Dahl-Wolfe until recently, when I noticed a book on her life and career published by Aperture.  I was immediately enthralled by her photographs, which had nearly all appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 30s, 40s and 50s, lush color compositions dramatically staged for showing off the latest fashion by dress makers like Balenciaga, Dior, Jacques Fath.  As she pioneered the use of natural lighting in fashion photography, many of her shoots took place outdoors and on location, in Spain, the Bahamas, Tunisia, the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  Her models were caressed by architectural backdrops that tease and tantalize the eye.

Here is a model in silk finery and high heels walking joyously over rubble, like a ballerina, amidst ruined buildings in Paris in 1947.  A gorgeous model is glimpsed in a floral dress and long leather gloves, squeezed into the propellers and wings of an old plane, with the intriguing caption “Meanwhile in Mexico, 1938.”  And here is the heavenly Suzy Parker, Paris 1950, standing before the Tuileries in a heavy fog that nearly shrouds her exquisite black dress but rivets your attention on the bright diamonds adorning Suzy’s ears and the crest of her Dior hat. What mise-en-scene!

The Aperture monograph on Dahl-Wolfe casts a wide net on her diverse interests as a photographer. There are Hollywood glamor shots of Carole Lombard walking her dog on the studio lot and Vivian Leigh peering soulfully into a mirror; studies of calla lilies and nudes; startling formal portraits of Edith Sitwell, Boris Karloff and various cultural luminaries of the day.  But Dahl-Wolfe also wandered far afield in search of the poor and the faceless people in squalid, backwater places like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.  And there are many glorious covers she shot for Harper’s Bazaar over the decades, with soothing postwar bylines like “The Paris Scene for May 1948.

Here surely was a career worthy of a Met retrospective! And perhaps it will come one day.  Richard Avedon himself said of Dahl-Wolfe, she was “the bar we all measured ourselves against.”

Born in San Francisco in 1895 of Norwegian immigrants, Louise Dahl-Wolfe studied at the San Francisco Institute of Art, aspiring to be an artist.  She later became a sign painter, and eventually moved to New York and took up photography.  As Olivia Maria Rubio recalls in the Aperture volume, Dahl-Wolfe “photographed food for Woman’s Home Companion and, later, took fashion photos for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller” before staring her career at Harper’s Bazaar under editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, with Diana Vreeland the fashion editor.  This was a time when fashion photography was just developing and thus was wide open to innovators like Dahl-Wolfe.

This was the early days of Kodachrome and color photography. The great pioneer of color in fashion photography was Anton Bruehl, then working for House and Garden and Vogue.  Dahl-Wolfe soon embraced the creative splendors of color for the pages of Harper’s Bazaar:

From 1937 on, when I did my first color for them, I corrected all my own proofs.  By and large, most color photography was pretty mediocre at the time, with the exception of the work of Anton Bruehl.  I started with still lifes and accessories (I did shoes until they were coming of my ears!), but I wanted to work with people, and within a year I was doing portraits and fashions.

Working from a studio in the Sherwood on Fifty-Seventh Street, an old red-brick building dating from 1860, shooting with a seven-pound Graflex camera for black-and-white or an 8-by-10 view camera for color, Dahl-Wolfe ruled her own creative kingdom for twenty-two years at Harper’s Bazaar.  During that long run she published more than six hundred color photographs in the magazine, as well as eighty-six covers and thousands of black-and-white pictures.

But she loathed oversight of any kind.  And when a new advertising manager at the magazine had the audacity one day in 1958 to visit her studio and observe her work, Dahl-Wolf quit.  She soon retired altogether from photography, taking up things like bookbinding, knitting, tailoring and French lessons.  She moved to Frenchtown, New Jersey, where she died in 1989 at the age of ninety-four.

While the market for fashion photographs was for many years a secret, it has grown enormously of late, with a sharp increase in prices and a growing number of artist retrospectives.  Staley-Wise Gallery in Soho, founded in 1981, is the undoubted leader in this specialized market, with frequent exhibitions of work by the greatest masters, such as Patrick Demarchelier, Lee Miller, Norman Parkinson, Helmut Newton and, naturally, Dahl-Wolfe, Avedon and Beaton.

A recent exhibition of theirs was “Deborah Turbeville: 1977-1981.”  Sadly, I learned about it the day after it closed.  It featured the most extraordinary, intensely-personal photographs by someone who caught my attention years ago with a book called “Newport Remembered.”  It was a dark and brooding book, showing ladies of fashion in some of the great houses along Bellevue Avenue, but in gauzy and grainy color images that looked bleached, lending the women, and the rooms they were in, an almost nightmarish and haunted aura.

Here was another type of fashion photography, a truly spectacular one, very different from the pictures of Richard Avedon or Irving Penn or Cecil Beaton but deeply compelling and painterly, and from an artist who, like Louise Dahl-Wolfe and so many others in this enchanting realm of the art market, remains, at least for the moment, little known and underappreciated.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Vogue 1959. Two models seated on wicker basket at the beach, wearing bathing suits in red, one with criss-crossed straps over scoop back, the other with shock of pink running back to front. Condé Nast via Getty Images.)