What you see: Mainbocher Corset, Paris, 1939, shot by Horst P. Horst for Vogue magazine. Christie’s estimates the gelatin silver print at $7,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Anne Bracegirdle, specialist in Christie’s photographs department, and the head of the Face of a Century auction.
First, to clarify–when did he change his name to Horst P. Horst, and why? He was born in East Germany, and his name was Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann. By the early 1940s, he had emigrated to the States, and he was concerned that his name would be confused with that of a famous Nazi, Martin Bormann, so he legally changed it.
Horst shot Mainbocher Corset in 1939, and it showcases a piece of underclothing most women no longer wear routinely. Yet it remains the most iconic image Horst ever shot, and it’s one of the most iconic fashion photographs ever taken. What makes it so powerful? Keep in mind the timing of the image. Horst is one of the first fashion photographers to be celebrated. He influenced generations of photographers at Vogue. Only a handful of fashion photographers have been championed as great artists. [The strength of the image comes from] an ability to recognize the effects of strong lighting and strong angles. Horst was known to use many, many spotlights at one time. If Mainbocher Corset is considered as a series of lines and slopes, you can see a sense of balance in the composition, an effect which creates a “pleasing” photo, a sense of geometric balance. And it was revolutionary to do at the time.
What made this a revolutionary photo in the 1930s? The corset is half untied and partly off her body. The ribbons are hanging off the sides of the shelf. It’s clearly being removed. Erotic implications are unusual in 1930s publications. The corset was meant to be pulling further away from her body, on the left, but that was considered too risqué.
Do we know how much time Horst spent setting up this shot? We don’t, but he was known to take very great care. It was very well-planned, with multiple spotlights in the studio. Every image we know of his was staged very well in advance. It was taken the night before he left Paris, for fear of the Nazi threat. [Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and this image appeared in the September 1939 issue of Vogue.] He left his studio after this shot, at 4 am. He took the early train to Normandy and emigrated to the U.S. This is a very emotional image for him. It represents his career in Paris, and what he left behind.
How much of Mainbocher Corset‘s power as a fashion image comes from the fact that we can’t see the model’s face? Does that add to its power? I think so. And it was taken to sell the corset. This is a commercial image. It’s more about the composition, and less about her identity.
The lot notes say it was “printed later,” which I take to mean after it appeared in Vogue in 1939, and before Horst died in 1999. Is it possible to narrow the date of the limited edition down from that six-decade span? If we don’t know with certainty which decade it was printed in, we err on the side of “printed later.” This was the late 1970s, the early 1980s, or in the 1990s, before he died. The market didn’t fully develop until the 1970s. That’s when the commercial secondary market [for photography] was created, and when fashion photographers were looking back at their images and realizing that a market was being created. It was not fully known then that edition printing was needed to create a value structure. Many did not edition.
Do we know how many Mainbocher Corset prints Horst made? There are so many prints of this image, there’s no way to determine how many exist.
Do we know how many limited editions of Mainbocher Corset there are? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The reality is that some images are so iconic, there are many different editions in different sizes.
Is this particular print regarded as a good size for Mainbocher Corset? Yes. This is the more standard size, which is more available frequently. [The sheet measures 13 7/8 inches by 10 7/8 inches; the image itself is 9 7/8 inches by 7 7/8 inches.]
Is this print more desirable for being part of a numbered limited edition of 50? The estimate you see is the same estimate we’d use for the same size print from a later, not-limited edition. The premium is really given to larger-format prints, and platinum prints, which are much more rare, and vintage prints [which were made around 1939].
This print is number four of 50. Does that matter? Do collectors prefer earlier or later numbers in a Horst limited edition? At auctions, at least in my department, there’s no value on earlier or later [numbers] in an edition. It’s not a factor for us, and it really shouldn’t be to the buyer either.
I guess Mainbocher Corset prints are similar to Abraham Lincoln memorabilia–there’s a lot floating around, but it holds its value or rises because the demand is there. Exactly. Ansel Adams is really prolific. There’s no way to know the number of iconic images that exist, but we can estimate them strongly because the demand exists. Any time an image rises to the level of an icon, it stands the test of time. Mainbocher Corset represents the height of fashion photography. It’s an icon of the medium. It’s important socially and politically, and in how modern it is. It really is a timeless icon. I would advise clients who are risk-averse and interested in focusing on images that we know will retain their value–this is one I’d recommend.
What’s the world auction record for a Horst photograph, and for a print of Mainbocher Corset? The highest prices for Horst and for fashion photography were in the early 2000s and the late 2000s. That was the boom time for this imagery. The three highest Horst results were achieved then, and all three were this image. The market became flooded with this image. What ended up happening is you’d see it up for auction every season, and there was less incentive to bid if it was going to come up next season. In the past two years, we started offering iconic Horst images less frequently, to let the market recover.
So the record for any Horst at auction and for Mainbocher Corset are one and the same… It was in 2007, in a specific Horst sale at Christie’s, a single-owner collection from Gert Elfering, who owned the Horst estate. It was a 23 1/4 by 17 inch platinum palladium print from a limited edition of five, and it sold for $288,000. The second-highest was a vintage version of this image, estimated at $120,000 to $180,000 and sold for $216,000.
How involved would Horst have been in the printing of this limited edition? Would he have done it himself, or would he have supervised someone else, or would he have handed off the work entirely? He always printed himself until he became elderly. Ricky Horst, his partner, who he eventually adopted as his son, oversaw Ricky [after Horst was too old to do the work from start to finish in the dark room].
Do collectors prefer prints made by Horst to those made by Ricky Horst under his supervision? No, there’s no market difference. What’s more important is the condition of the print.
What’s the condition of this particular print? There are no condition issues. With these later prints, which do come to market frequently, we have high standards for them. When there are many prints available on the market, collectors demand [they be] in very good condition. If they’re not, there are more available.
What is the print like in person? One reason photographs are so special is their qualities as objects. One quality of a gelatin silver print [which this print is] is it’s printed on glossier paper, which creates a sheen that emphasizes the contrasts. It creates a depth to the darks and emphasizes the highlights. It’s a result of the paper and the print process. Platinum prints have a very matte surface and a texture almost like a charcoal drawing. For collectors, it’s almost a personal preference. Each print process brings out different qualities of the image. Gelatin silver prints have more vibrant grays, and are inherently cooler. Platinum prints are inherently warm. This can be overlooked when you’re consuming photographs digitally. They have a tactile quality.
How to bid: Mainbocher Corset is lot 163 in The Face of a Century: Photographs from a Private Collection, taking place on April 2, 2019 at Christie’s New York.
If you think you’ve seen Mainbocher Corset before, you almost certainly have–it’s been a fashion inspiration since the day it was printed. Maybe the most famous reference to the image is Madonna’s “quote” at the end of her 1990 music video for Vogue.
Horst P. Horst has a website, and hey, guess what’s shown right there on the landing page? Yep.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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