The fashion for fashion photos: any exhibition that deals with fashion is guaranteed box office success

A rising market for the Vogue shot: two shows, one at the V&A, the other at Hamilton’s


Culture and commerce are well served by fashion photography. Although this particular photographic predeliction is often dismissed as frivolous by the cognoscenti, it is a subject with enormous public appeal, and any exhibition that deals with fashion is guaranteed box office success. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Appearances: Fashion Photography since 1945” is likely to have attendances exceeding 100,000 during its run from 13 February until 28 April 1991.

Such a triumph would augur well for the show’s commercial counterpart, “Photographs by Richard Avedon”, being held at Hamilton’s Gallery from 15February to 6 April, and would be underscored by the steady demand for fashion photographs in the salerooms.

Both exhibitions are being curated by Martin Harrison who, having worked at Vogue alongside Cecil Beaton, Helmut Newton and David Bailey, is well placed to evaluate the various ways photographers have represented haute couture since the war. “Appearances” eschews the depictions of superficial glamour and emphasises instead the influence of innovative and highly-regarded photographers, many of whom are not usually associated with fashion, such as Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus and Martin Munkacsi. Works like Arbus’s “Petal Pink for Little Parties” (Harpers Bazaar, Nov 1962), and “Havana” (1932) by Walker Evans are of sufficient gravity to support Harrison’s major academic reassessment of fashion photography.

Historically, the exhibition takes the rise of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon in the mid-1940s as its starting point, and conscientiously charts all the major developments up to recent contributions from Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville, Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh.

In all, seventy photographers are represented by 200 works. Some of the photographers included are unknown or forgotten, and many of the pictures on show have never been seen or reproduced before. However, this is balanced by numerous works by the medium’s established elite, including Bill Brandt, David Bailey, Horst, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Also included in the show is work that reflects a climate of violence and sexual provocation that was prevalent during the 1970s and 1980s, and encapsulated by Guy Bourdin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton.

Recent trends indicate that Harrison’s companion exhibition of Richard Avedon’s work will sell very well. Tim Jefferies, a director of Hamilton’s, cites the recent shows of Irving Penn, David Bailey and Karl Lagerfeld as the benchmarks of success.

The biggest selling Penn show was in December 1989, where a high proportion of the photographs (from editions of forty) were sold, some for £10,000 ($19,000). David Bailey’s exhibition offered prints which were more modestly priced at £1,000 each, but without any restrictions on printing. The Karl Lagerfeld show held in May 1990 was completely sold out, partly due to his Messianic status and devoted following, with the proceeds going to charity. He showed forty photographs in editions of three: one for sale (£1,000 ($1,900) per print), the other retained by Lagerfeld, and one for donation to an anonymous French archive. The Avedon exhibition will include approximately thirty works selling for between £4,000 - £20,000 ($7,600 - $38,000) from editions with average runs of fifty.

Tim Jefferies recognises definite crazes for specific eras in fashion photography. Ten years ago, the 1930s and 1940s as seen by Horst and George Hoyningen-Huene were the most popular decades.

More recently the demand has been for the 1960s, by photographers like Bailey and Terence Donovan. The likelihood is that this demand will endure until the turn of the century.

In expectation of this, the gallery will be holding its first exhibition of David Bailey’s work from the Sixties at the end of 1991 or early 1992.

The demand for fashion photographs from the 1960s has also been noticed in the salerooms, especially in New York. However, according to Lindsay Stewart of Christie’s Department of Photographic Images, most individual fashion prices fetch under £1,000 ($1,900). Only when the photograph is unique, with the negative lost or destroyed, does the price increase dramatically, as with the Irving Penn Vogue cover printed in 1968 from a 1950s negative, which sold for $7,700 ((£4,050) in New York last year.

Although the issue of proliferation acts as a restraint in the marketplace, it is precisely the relative cheapness of contemporary photographs in general that has sustained sales throughout the past year. Christie’s November 1990 sale of Photographic Images was more successful than might have been expected, with 83% sold, of which about one-third was twentieth-century material.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The fashion for fashion photos'