The Return of Sante D’Orazio

A poster-child of the supermodel era, which he helped construct, the career of fashion photographer Sante D’Orazio seemed to burn out prematurely as a result of the excesses and pressures of the times. But with a new show at Christie’s, D’Orazio is staging his comeback and cashing in on some of his iconic images.

Left: Linda Evangelista; Right: Keith Richards | Photo: Sante D'Orazio

NEW YORK, United States — Sante D’Orazio typified an era. From the moment Andy Warhol gave the Brooklyn-born photographer his first job, D’Orazio became somewhat of a poster-child for the hedonistic fashion world of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Along with peers like Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier and Herb Ritts, D’Orazio was part of a generation of photographers whose highly stylised, hyper-sensual imagery captured the pulse of their bullish time. This was the heyday of supermodels and of Azzedine Alaïa, a time when a voluptuous larger-than-life feminine ideal reigned supreme. Now, after a 7-year absence from fashion, D’Orazio is staging an exhibit of some of his most famous shots at Christie’s New York, a move meant to herald his comeback — and hopefully earn the photographer new commercial commissions.

D’Orazio’s covers for Allure magazine and his provocative nudes of models like Christy Turlington, Helena Christensen and Cindy Crawford, for the pages of Italian Vogue, Interview, and Vanity Fair, among others, are so representative of their time, that they fill entire threads on online forums like thefashionspot.com. They have also become collector’s items, a fact D’Orazio is leveraging with the private sale of large-format prints of some of his most iconic images. BoF reached the photographer at Christie’s space on the 20th floor of New York’s Rockefeller Center, as he was putting the final touches on his show, “Other Graces,” which opens on Monday.

D’Orazio’s career remained strong even after his trademark, overtly sexual style went out of fashion. In the early 1990s, when photographers like Corinne Day ushered in the grunge era in magazines and advertising campaigns, Sante D’Orazio found demand for his glossy work in Hollywood, where he shot the likes of Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer and Keith Richards. “My pictures were more sensual and glamorous and the whole grunge movement and all that was just not my cup of tea. That is what dissuaded me from continuing to work in the fashion field because I just didn’t see women that way.”

Around 2005, however, after a major gallery show of explicit portraits of Pamela Anderson, things got quiet around D’Orazio. “I had been doing the fashion and beauty stuff and the portraiture and the celebrities for a good 25 years, so I had to stop all the commercial work.” D’Orazio, who had trained as a painter under Philip Guston in his youth, turned away from fashion, he says, in order to return to his more abstract, fine art work.

But his split with the system seems to have been motivated as much by burn-out as by a need to explore his neglected interests. Much is made of the pressure fashion designers face in today’s constant-output world, but as D’Orazio describes it, top fashion photographers are subject to similar strains: “The shootings consume you. There’s pre-production, production, post-production — and if you have four or five of those a week, they are all-consuming.”

It didn’t take long for his magazine and advertising work to dry up. Clients simply stopped calling, he recalls. “People think that you’re not into it anymore, and in many ways my head wasn’t, I was concentrating on other things. That basically was my commercial demise. After a couple of years it became hard to get work, because I had basically disappeared from the scene. The way it works is a lot of the commercial work starts with editorial work and when you’re not in the mix with people, at the fashion shows, socialising…. It is a political game as well, if you’re not in the scene, Paris-London-New York-Milan, and you’re not seen and you’re not showing up in editorial pages anymore, people just think you died.”

But D’Orazio claims he was very much alive, just preparing for his comeback. He is ready now, he says, and in some ways the Christie’s show is D’Orazio’s pitch to land commercial work again. “Now that I have discovered and developed a language for myself, I have a lot to go on that people have yet to see because it hasn’t been displayed anywhere. At the same time I miss a lot of what I did before, portraiture and beauty and editorial. And the truth of the matter is, at this point I have a lot more to give.” So far, D’Orazio says he doesn’t have any major editorial or advertising projects in the pipeline. “But I have a joy for it once again and I am going to approach this with a whole new vision. I’m excited about it.”

According to D’Orazio, eight of the forty-six prints in the show (each of which comes in editions of three and ranges in price from $55,000 to $120,000) have already sold to contemporary art and photography collectors, and that’s before the show has officially opened. That should be good news for the photographer, given that, apart from reigniting his commercial career, the sale also appears intended to finance the photographer’s livelihood. “I have been friends with so many great artists and collected their work over the years. For the last couple of years, it’s been Andy Warhol who has financed my life, or rather the sale of one of his canvases which I owned. It went for over a couple of million dollars.”

Other photographers, like David LaChapelle, have tried to cross over from commercial photography into fine art, with mixed results. For D’Orazio, right now, the question is whether he can cross over back into fashion.