Bette Davis thrills New York photography auction



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

“I would pretend I was blind,” she wrote. She heard people shouting around her, “Her eyes! and “a thrill of joy ran through me. I was in full control of the moment. I had never known such power.

The schoolgirl would become a legend of the big screen, with acclaimed roles in films such as All About Eve and What Happened to Baby Jane? Her 50-year Hollywood career included two Oscars and an Emmy, and she was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Award of Excellence in 1977.

These famous eyes got a lot of commentary as his fame grew. In 1936, writer and film critic Graham Greene said: “Even the most insignificant film. . . looked temporarily better than they were because of that precise, edgy voice, the pale ash blonde hair, the glowing, neurotic eyes, a sort of corrupt, phosphorescent prettiness. . . I’d rather watch Miss Davis than any number of relevant images.

The eyes were even immortalized in a 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, famous eyes are the inspiration for Sotheby’s Photographs New York Summer Sale, which opens Wednesday, July 21.


The Bette Davis Eyes and Other Natural Phenomena sale is anchored in the famous portrait of the actress by Victor Skrebneski. It was part of his 1970s black turtleneck series. The Chicago-based photographer, who died last year at the age of 90, was known for his glamorous fashion and advertising photographs and stylish portraits. Cindy Crawford recognized him as a mentor and his work for Estée Lauder sparked thousands of inquiries from people who wanted to know where to buy the furniture and accessories he was using in the pictures.

Skrebneski photographed Orson Welles in a black turtleneck in 1970. He later recalled that the actor arrived late for the photoshoot and when he started removing his sweater, the photographer asked him to leave it. He photographed it with a single light above his head in a style that reminded him of his childhood trips to the movies.

He wore 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 movie star’s favorite photo. He quoted her saying: “There is a portrait of me by Skrebneski which suits me perfectly, and which frightened me when I saw it for the first time.”

“I play a movie star, and I do it damn well – most would fall for it – but the lens of an artist, an artist who knows how to wield that ruthless eye of the camera, found me.”

Skrebneski said everyone wanted to be pictured in a black turtleneck after the photographs were released.

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

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


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

Bette Davis’ collage contains six gelatin silver prints, mounted together on cardboard, with McDowall’s stamp on the back, with the date 1981 ($ 3,000 – $ 4,000 / € 2,534 – € 3,379).

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

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.

The auctions open on July 21 and end on July 28. Many estimates start at just $ 1,000 and there are no reservations on the photographs, which should pique the interest of new and seasoned collectors.


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