Fashion photography is having a moment. In the midst of a chaotic world, filling our walls with resplendent haute couture imagery makes everyday life feel more glamorous. That’s why buyers from around the world recently took part in two landmark auctions at Christie’s in Paris, where sartorial splendor was on full view.
But why now? Why are glossy style photos so in vogue? Surely recent blockbuster museum exhibitions have helped frame the conversation. This year’s Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Louvre in Paris, the 2019 Christian Dior retrospective at London’s V&A Museum and the 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have all contributed to our passion for fashion.
Although it’s often the designers themselves who spark the greatest interest, fashion photographers have garnered star status as well. In the early years, these creatives were simply responding to a commercial need. But starting in the 1950s, icons like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn began to insert their own artistry into their work, creating striking and sublime images.
Models, meanwhile, have always brought their own bravura. Collectors are keen to snap up portraits with familiar faces from their youth. “People who once dreamt in front of Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington or Kate Moss are now willing to afford one of the famous images,” says Elodie Morel-Bazin, Christie’s European Head of Photography.
All this explains why buyers near and far clamored to take home iconic fashion photography from the Christie’s sale of the Susanne von Meiss collection earlier this year. The Swiss journalist and entrepreneur is refocusing her world-class assortment to concentrate on contemporary works, selling off 110 covetable collectibles. “Susanne von Meiss is a great connoisseur,” notes Morel-Bazin. “Buyers like collections like hers; they feel they can trust them.”
Meticulously chosen around the theme of “allure,” the items represent the crème de la crème of fashion photography through the 20th century. Fashionistas bid online and during a live evening sale on the stellar images, which all carry a posh provenance. And while some sold for impressive amounts, others went for more modest sums, allowing even first-time collectors to join the fun.
The work “Brigitte Bauer” (1966) by German photographer F.C. Gundlach captures the Twilight Zone–infused zeitgeist of the swinging sixties with a woman posed in a psychedelic black-and-white swimsuit. “He was able to reflect in his photographs a mix of elegance and modernity in line with the graphic designs of this era,” Morel-Bazin points out. The work sold for €8,820, smashing estimates.
It’s all about high society panache in the 1970s image “Portrait de femme au chapeau” by American photographer Henry Clarke. Oozing with elegance, the model is posed on a diagonal, her bold hat and long gloves the essence of refinement. The final price tag was €882, an absolute auction house bargain.
Unsurprisingly, snapshots of famed actresses proved popular. A 1955 photograph of the ever swan-like Grace Kelly by Elliott Erwitt sold for €3,780, while a 1971 wind-blown portrait of Brigitte Bardot by Terry O’Neill took in €8,820. The dazzling close-up shows the famous beauty smoking a cigarette.
But sometimes it’s all about the backstory. One of the most iconic images in the sale turned out to be the most intriguing, too. “Mainbocher Corset” (1939) by Horst P. Horst features a woman from behind, donning a lace-up corset with long ties cascading below. The work, which carries a surreal, erotic charge, marks a historic moment for the photographer, who was about to flee Paris on the eve of World War II.
Horst later recalled: “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. We all felt that the war was coming… and life would be completely different after. This photograph is the essence of that moment. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.” With an estimate of €10,000, this unique work ultimately failed to find a buyer during the prestigious sale, which sometimes happens in the fast-paced auction world.
The star lot of the evening was undoubtedly one of the fashion world’s most admired photographs, “Rue Aubriot” (1975) shot for Vogue France by Helmut Newton. Captured on a dimly lit backstreet, it shows an androgynous model with slicked-back hair in a classic Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking suit holding a smoldering cigarette. In the end, this utterly timeless image sold well above the estimate for €60,480, epitomizing the famous words of Saint Laurent himself: “Fashion fades; style is eternal.”