A large-format Helmut Newton and 110 fashion prints from the Susanne von Meiss Collection lead this spring’s photography sales at Christie’s Paris
‘Susanne von Meiss is a great connaisseuse,’ says Elodie Morel-Bazin, Christie’s European Head of Photographs. ‘Buyers like collections like hers; they feel they can trust them.’ The former journalist started collecting fashion photography after buying two vintage prints by Richard Avedon (1923-2004). Thirty years later she has amassed a collection of 600 prints, meticulously assembled around the theme of ‘Allure’.
Today, as the Swiss collector refocuses her collection around contemporary works, 110 of her prints are being sold by Christie’s Paris, 56 in Photographies, a live sale on 24 May, the others online in Fashion Photographs from the Susanne von Meiss Collection from 12-24 May. Together, says Morel-Bazin, they constitute a history of 20th-century fashion photography, from Edward Steichen (1879-1973) to Ellen Von Unwerth (b.1954).
Here, she talks us through some of the highlights from the sale.
Helmut Newton (1920-2004) was one of the biggest names in 20th-century photography. Born to a Jewish family in Berlin, he left Germany just before the Second World War broke out. He spent time in Singapore and Australia, and later worked for Vogue in Melbourne, London and Paris.
In Eiffel Tower (1974), the photographer’s characteristic ‘fascination for opulence and powerful, dominant women’ is combined with ‘witty references to France — the Eiffel Tower on the model’s G-string, the Citroën DS car, the copy of Le Monde — to dramatic effect’, says Morel-Bazin.
What makes this print rare is its large format, which compares to that of the photographer’s celebrated Big Nudes series. It’s also in colour, rather than Newton’s usual black and white — used, for instance, in his portraits of the model Iman and the actress Raquel Welch, which are also included in the sale.
In the words of his one-time lover and lifelong friend Patti Smith, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) are the ‘perfect New York City mix of leather boys, drag queens, socialites, rock and roll kids and art collectors’.
The New York photographer revolutionised the medium, bringing his classical aesthetic to still lifes and flowers (such as Pheasant and Lily, 1984, both in the live sale), the city’s 1970s BDSM scene, and portraits of celebrities and the female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon — as in Lisa Lyon (American Flag).
‘He didn’t photograph women very much, but he was fascinated by Lyon’s androgynous physique, the way it was sculpted like a classic statue,’ says Morel-Bazin. ‘Interestingly, in this work, the flag, the great symbol of America, is actually a dress by Castelbajac.’
The American photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009) also photographed still lifes, such as the two works from his Cigarettes series in the sale — as well as 165 Vogue covers, ethnographic portraits, and the Small Trades series that includes Station Sweeper, New York (1951). Shot against an unadorned backdrop, it enhances the dignity of its subject.
‘Penn did it all; he was a true master,’ says Morel-Bazin. ‘The Small Trades series was inspired by the work of the French documentary photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) and was expensively printed on platinum rather than silver. This particular image appeared in 1951 in Vogue under the title “A Gallery of the Unarmed Forces” — so it was a reference to the Black men and women who helped to build America.’
Among the contemporary photographs in the live auction is The Scream (2013-14) by Marina Abramovic (b.1946), the pioneering performance artist who grew up in Belgrade, Serbia, which was then part of Communist Yugoslavia. She has devoted her life to exploring the limits of physical and mental endurance and her relationship with her audience.
The Scream accompanied a project in Oslo’s Ekeberg Park, where Abramovic invited 270 of the city’s citizens to give vent to their emotions in the same spot where Edvard Munch created his eponymous painting, explains Morel-Bazin.
‘Nobody gets changed by somebody else’s experiences,’ says Abramovic. ‘I like to create a platform for interactions so people can experience something for themselves.’
Horst P. Horst (1906-99) is a fascinating figure. He studied under Walter Gropius, worked with Le Corbusier, and would go on to photograph fashion, Hollywood stars and American high society, as well as male nudes and nature. ‘He was meticulous,’ says Morel-Bazin. ‘His photographs are like paintings.’
Along with his 1937 portrait of Coco Chanel, which is also in the online sale, Mainbocher Corset (1939) is his most famous photograph: a beautiful image with a surreal, erotic charge that marks an important moment in history, as it was the last photograph Horst took in Paris before the Second World War.
‘I left the studio at 4am, went back to the house, picked up my bags and caught the 7am train to Le Havre to board the Normandie,’ he recalled. ‘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.’
Lillian Bassman (1917-2012) was the daughter of Jewish intellectuals from Ukraine who had emigrated to the US, and she grew up in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. She became a fashion photographer after working as assistant art director at Harper’s Bazaar and art director at Junior Bazaar under her mentor, Alexey Brodovitch, at a time when it was unusual for women to hold such positions.
Her fashion photography is painterly, experimental and highly distinctive. ‘There is always a lot of poetry in it,’ says Morel-Bazin. ‘When you see a photo by Lillian Bassman, you know it’s by her. Dorian Leigh was one of her favourite models.’
Among those commissioned by Lillian Bassman was Louis Faurer (1916-2001), a highly regarded photographer who is ‘still somewhat unknown, so his work is relatively affordable’, says Morel-Bazin.
He is best remembered for his street photography in New York and his native Philadelphia. His close friend, the photographer Robert Frank (1924-2019), called him an ‘extraordinary artist’ after seeing his sympathetic portraits of the ‘lonely people’ of Times Square, and his experimental approach was also admired by Edward Steichen.