The couple just wanted artwork to decorate the place. But on the recommendation of their interior designer 15 years ago, they visited the Staley-Wise Gallery in SoHo, which specializes in fashion photography, and were soon hooked.
Today their home has 30 classic fashion photos displayed throughout the main floor. The centerpiece is a long stretch of hallway — a catwalk of mostly black-and-white images of stunning women in stylish clothes taken by some of the most revered photographers of the 1940s and ’50s, including Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Lillian Bassman.
It turns out that the Laxes were ahead of the curve in the current, yes, fashion for fashion photography. In the last decade, it has attracted a wide audience, and many images are worth far more than the haute couture they were used to market.
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“Prices are going up, up and up,” said Etheleen Staley, who, with Takouhy Wise, owns the SoHo gallery. “In the past five years, prices for the classics have easily quadrupled.”
Fashion photography “by its very nature is chic, and, at the moment, is very much in vogue,” said Merry Foresta, the guest curator for a new museum show, “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” the first retrospective of Penn’s work in nearly 20 years, currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
“There’s such a big nostalgia and fascination now for the period from the late ’40s into the ’60s — what I call midcentury modern fashion photographers such as Penn, Avedon, William Klein and Bassman,” she said.
The Smithsonian’s exhibition features work from all stages of Penn’s career: street scenes from the late 1930s, photographs of the American South from the early 1940s, celebrity portraits, fashion photographs, still lifes and private studio images. This is Penn “in a full retrospective mode, from beginning to end,” said Ms. Foresta, the museum’s photography curator from 1983 to 1999.
In the auction and gallery world, you don’t have to look hard for evidence of fashion photography’s cachet: At the fall auction at Phillips, a Lillian Bassman photo from a 1950 test shoot of the model Margie Cato sold for $10,625, above its estimated price of $7,000 to $9,000.
A contemporary fashion image by David LaChapelle, whose work has appeared in Details, GQ, Vanity Fair and Vogue, typically starts at about $18,000 for a 20-by-24-inch image and $35,000 for a 30-by-40-inch.
A print by Patrick Demarchelier, who has worked for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and has shot international advertising campaigns for designers like Dior, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Ralph Lauren, might change hands for around $8,000 and rise to around $15,000 for a large image.
“In the case of both of these photographers, however, prices can go well above $100,000 for their most popular images,” Ms. Staley said, referring to Mr. LaChapelle and Mr. Demarchelier.
Then there are the six-figure prices regularly paid for classic works by Penn and Avedon. In April, a signed, limited-edition 1950 Irving Penn gelatin silver print, “Black and White Fashion With Handbag,” featuring the model Jean Patchett, sold at Phillips for $106,250, far above its estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.
At the Sotheby’s May sale in London, an Irving Penn selenium-toned silver print, signed and printed in September 2005, showing a Chanel feather hat designed by Philip Treacy and worn by the model Nadja Auermann, sold for $107,766, more than triple the presale high estimate of $31,350.
But for decades, fashion photography was largely ignored. “There was this mind-set that fashion photography was separate because it was done for a client in a commercial world,” said Andy Grundberg, an art critic and professor at the Corcoran College of the Arts and Design, part of George Washington University. “It was thought by artists and dealers to be somehow less pure. But that has been challenged and overturned.”
Today aesthetic appreciation is driving the new commerce of fashion photography. Christopher Mahoney, head of Sotheby’s photographs department, said the photography was significant “not just as documentation of fashion, but really as art.”
“The reason that happened is because the work of a handful of photographers like Penn and Avedon, working in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, really pushed fashion photography beyond its editorial purpose — or advertising purpose — and pushed it into the realm of fine art,” he said. “They broke the rules.”
What’s the overarching appeal? “Fashion photographs are visually beautiful, and you don’t have to work too hard to understand them,” Ms. Staley said.
There is something else, too. “They are also culturally and historically full of signification, making it a really interesting thing to collect and show,” Mr. Grundberg said.
Vanessa Hallett, senior director and worldwide head of photographs at Phillips auction house, said of the photos: “What I love is there’s so much thought that goes into them. It’s not just a snap of a picture of a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress.”
Nuances make the works desirable for even connoisseurs of fine-art photography. “Irving Penn, for instance, is fascinating,” Mr. Mahoney said. “He does interesting things that you wouldn’t think would work, but they work beautifully — the inclusion of the edge of a backdrop, the edge of the seamless paper in the studio — something that is typically designed to dissolve into the background.”
He added, “It gives you a sense of the space of the studio, placing you in the studio, while at the same time presenting these impossibly beautiful models and these impossibly beautiful fashion designs, which look completely otherworldly.”
Then Penn incorporates “a certain grit and dirt in his images — the unswept floor that you see in a part of the image, the less-than-perfect-looking backdrop, a crushed cigarette,” Mr. Mahoney said. “The inclusion of that sort of detail might have thrown a photo editor into a conniption fit, but it throws the beauty of the fashion and the model into greater relief.”
So much goes into what makes a print valuable, said Daile Kaplan, a vice president at Swann Auction Galleries in New York. “There’s the reputation of the photographer,” she said, “the celebrity or status of the subject, the size of the photo, the edition size of the photo, the technique, the provenance of who owned it previously, and if the photographer signed it or has notations on the back of the image and, of course, if you want to live with it.”
Images printed close to the time the camera shutter clicked are valued by collectors, especially those never published by a magazine and new to the market, Ms. Foresta added. Rivaling them are later platinum or palladium prints by photographers like Penn, recognizable by their matte surface, rich tone and wide range of grays.
Even uncredited fashion images, called vernacular photographs, are becoming a “hot, hot new genre right now,” Ms. Kaplan said.
“They can be commercial studio photos, or images that are cool and curious, and we might not even know who the photographer was because they are uncredited, but the image rises to the top and is very much a compelling picture, a statement, an observation,” she said.
At the most recent Swann sale, a group of three fashion images taken by an unknown photographer in the late 1950s to ’60s sold for $975. “They’re just marvelous and fun,” Ms. Kaplan said.
And collecting has certainly been fun for Larry and Melissa Lax. The true worth of their collection, they say, is how the photos make them feel.
“We’ve become attached to each one,” Ms. Lax said. “I love them all. They make me smile.”