Bette Davis eyes mesmerise in New York photography auction

Sotheby’s sale features Victor Skrebneski photograph of Davis billed as her ‘favourite’

Victor Skrebneski’s signed and dated portrait of Bette Davis has an estimate of $1,500-$2,500 (€1,267-€1,690)

Victor Skrebneski’s signed and dated portrait of Bette Davis has an estimate of $1,500-$2,500 (€1,267-€1,690)

 

Bette Davis realised the power of her eyes at a young age. She was playing Santa Claus at a school fair when she got too close to the candles and her costume went on fire. She recalled in her autobiography that she started screaming in terror before she was wrapped in a rug. When the rug was taken off, she decided to keep her eyes closed for dramatic effect.

“I would make believe I was blind,” she wrote. She heard people shriek around her: ‘Her eyes!’ and “a shudder of delight went through me. I was in complete command of the moment. I had never known such power.”

The schoolgirl would grow up to become a silver screen legend, with acclaimed roles in movies such as All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Her 50-year career in Hollywood included two Oscars and an Emmy and she was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, in 1977.

Those famous eyes were much commented upon as her fame grew. In 1936, writer and film reviewer Graham Greene said: “Even the most inconsiderable film . . . seemed temporarily better than they were because of that precise, nervy voice, the pale ash-blond hair, the popping, neurotic eyes, a kind of corrupt and phosphorescent prettiness . . . I would rather watch Miss Davis than any number of competent pictures.”

The eyes were even immortalised in song in 1974 when Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon wrote Bette Davis Eyes. Kim Carnes made the song her own in 1981, winning a Grammy for her version. And now the famous eyes are the inspiration for Sotheby’s Photographs summer sale in New York, which opens on Wednesday, July 21st.

Skrebneski

The Bette Davis Eyes and Other Natural Phenomena sale is anchored by Victor Skrebneski’s famous portrait of the actress. It was part of his black turtleneck series of the 1970s. The Chicago-based photographer, who died last year, aged 90, was known for his glamorous fashion and advertising photography and his elegant portraits. Cindy Crawford credited him as a mentor and his work for Estée Lauder sparked thousands of inquiries from people who wanted to know where they could buy the furnishings and accessories he used in the images.

Skrebneski photographed Orson Welles in a black turtleneck in 1970. He later recalled that the actor arrived late for the photography session and when he began pulling off his sweater, the photographer asked him to leave it on. He photographed him with a single light above his head in a style that reminded him of his childhood trips to the cinema.

He brought a black turtleneck when he went to photograph Davis in Los Angeles in November, 1971. According to the New York Times, the result was the film star’s favourite photograph. It quoted her as saying: “There’s a portrait of me by Skrebneski that pegged me perfectly, and that frightened me when I first saw it.

“I’m playing movie star, and doing it damn well — most would fall for it — but the focus of an artist, an artist who knows how to wield that unforgiving eye of the camera, has found me out.”

Skrebneski said that everyone wanted to be photographed in a black turtleneck after those photographs emerged.

“For decades after, whenever people wanted their portrait done, they would come to me and say, ‘Can I put on that black turtleneck that Bette Davis wore?’,” Skrebneski said. His gelatin silver print is signed and dated in ink in the margin ($1,500-$2,500/ €1,267-€1,690).

Roddy McDowall’s photographic collage of Bette Davis is estimated to sell at between $3,000-$4,000 (€2,534-€3,379)
Roddy McDowall’s photographic collage of Bette Davis is estimated to sell at between $3,000-$4,000 (€2,534-€3,379)

Collage

The auction also includes Roddy McDowall’s striking photographic collage of Davis. He published four volumes in his Double Exposure collection of photographs of actors and entertainers including Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen O’Hara and Judy Garland.

The Bette Davis collage contains six gelatin silver prints, mounted together to board, with McDowall’s credit stamp on the reverse, with the date, 1981 ($3,000-$4,000/€2,534-€3,379).

Other auction highlights include Edward Weston’s portraits of Tina Modotti and Charis Wilson; Yasumasa Morimura’s self-portrait in the guise of Frida Kahlo, and William Wegman’s reimagining of the tale of Cinderella.

There are also cityscapes by Berenice Abbott, Bill Brandt and Garry Winogrand; landscapes and seascapes by Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, and Karine Laval; still life studies by William Eggleston and Andy Warhol; interiors by Diane Arbus and Matthew Pillsbury; and surrealist-inspired montages by Jerry Uelsmann.

Bidding opens on July 21st and closes on July 28th. Several estimates start at just $1,000 and there are no reserves on the photographs, which should pique the interest of new and seasoned collectors.

sothebys.com

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