Peter Fetterman has spent over 40 years immersed in photography. After falling in love with the medium and becoming a collector, he opened his eponymous gallery in Santa Monica, California in 1994. His Gallery has one of the greatest selections of classic 20th-century photography in America.

Horst P. Horst, Mainbocher Corset, 1939 © Estate of Horst P. Horst/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

In an interview with RA+C contributing author Olya Voronetskaya, Peter Fetterman opens up about his favourite fashion images, the sources of artistic inspiration and his admiration for Russian culture.

Olya Voronetskaya: Let’s wind back and talk about your enormous collection of photographs. Is there a story behind how you purchased one of your first photographs? Was that the moment when you decided to start collecting?

Peter Fetterman: It happened in 1979. I just arrived from London and moved to Los Angeles with the thought of pursuing a film career, which I started in England. I was taken to a dinner party, and I saw a group of photographs on a wall. It turned out that the host was selling these photographs, and I asked, “Well, how much is this one?” He said, “$400.” It was an image of a movie premiere, which resonated with me. I think at that time I had $2,000 to my name, and I was driving this beat-up car, which didn’t really have any brakes… But I did the most irrational thing and said, “Ok, I’d like to buy that.” So I just spent about a fifth of my total net worth on a piece of paper I knew nothing about! If I had been very rational, I would have spent the $400 on buying new brakes instead.

That sent me on a trajectory to find out more about photography. It became very addictive. So whenever I had the opportunity, and back then, you could buy great photos for very little money, I kept buying. It made me happy to be surrounded by all these photos, so I thought, “Well, why can’t I be happy all the time? Why can’t I have a different life?” That’s what’s great about America: you can reinvent yourself. And that’s what I did. Then my collecting became so obsessive, that I had to figure out a way to do it full time and that’s the story, I changed my life.

Olya Voronetskaya: You now have a whole auction of fashion photographs, all sourced from your collection — what was the inspiration?

Peter Fetterman: I was looking at all these beautiful fashion images and realised that if you sequence them correctly, something wonderful was going to happen. So it’s a case of when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The images are beautiful and I think they make people feel good. We all need a little bit of escapism and dreams at the moment. It’s not to negate the seriousness of what we’re all going through, but it’s a little bit of psychic relief for me and, hopefully, for other people.

I have limited resources myself, so I decided to collaborate with a big auction house. I have my friends at Philips, they have a wonderful team, and we’ve had two successful sales with them before, so, here we go, round three. Let’s hope the third time is lucky! We begin another adventure, a cyber adventure. It’s the first online sale I’ve ever done, and I don’t have to pack up anything or ship crates!

Melvin Sokolsky, Over New York, 1963 © Melvin Sokolsky/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

Olya Voronetskaya: What would you say are the defining moments in the evolution of 20th-century fashion photography?

Peter Fetterman: Fashion photography is more than just about photographing dresses. It captures a spirit of an era, it captures an energy. You can learn a lot from these great photographs that transcend just pretty images of dresses. The makers of these photographs were incredibly sophisticated and intelligent, they understood light and design. So it’s a great genre to experience the power and beauty of photography.

Olya Voronetskaya: You could even say that the photographers who were able to make dresses seem like a whole lifestyle, have made haute-couture fashion and commercial campaigns that much more attractive to a greater audience?

Peter Fetterman: I think people can relate to it. Obviously, there’s an aspirational element to it, when you look at these incredibly beautiful clothes, but there’s also an empowering element. That’s what really attracted me to it. You look at the work of Lillian Bassman, and there is some deep psychological stuff going on between what she’s doing, her assignments and the models she’s working with. You realise that there is a different result and a different psyche.

Lillian Bassman, Paris Gala Night, Barbara Mullen, dress by Patou, Paris, 1949 © Estate of Lillian Bassman/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

When a woman photographs a woman, as opposed to when a man photographs a woman, she manages to get into the inner soul of the models. She is able to become their friend, and there is an intimacy between them that perhaps wouldn’t exist with a male photographer. So I hope more people will be exposed to appreciate the work that these great women photographers were doing.

Lillian Bassman, Paris Gala Night, Barbara Mullen, dress by Patou, Paris, 1949 © Estate of Lillian Bassman/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

Olya Voronetskaya: Lillian Bassman, whose parents were émigrés from the Ukraine, started out working with Alexey Brodovitch, the famous art director of Harper’s Bazaar. He was born in St. Petersburg, lived in Paris, then came to New York. How important is the connection between a magazine art director and a photographer?

Peter Fetterman: Well, in my opinion, all the great fashion images came from collaboration. And that’s a key word in this genre. People like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Jerry Schatzburg, Lillian Bassman — they were all working for a magazine. But they were all fortunate to have somebody in charge of the magazine from a design aspect, who brought out the best in them. So it was a true collaboration.

Brodovitch was an inspiring man. He was so cultured, which is due to his great Russian heritage. You’re so lucky to come from Russia. You have a country that’s rich in culture on so many levels and historical scope. It’s a rich, rich heritage that he brought with him to New York in the mid-1950s and inspired everybody around him.

Olya Voronetskaya: Have you been to Russia before?

Peter Fetterman: I have not… I want to go! So maybe if this auction is enormously successful (laughing), I can actually take some time off and just go. I’ll probably meet up with my friend from Finland, Pentti Sammallahti — he’s hugely interested in Russian culture. In Finland, the climate is somewhat similar, isn’t it? It’s so cold in the winter. So you guys have to have a strong spirit to survive it! Pentti is also one of my favourite photographers in the world.

Olya Voronetskaya: I really like Pentti’s photographs of Russia and the Solovki Islands. Could you tell us a little bit more about Pentti’s work? 

Peter Fetterman: Well, in 2003, Henri Cartier-Bresson opened his Foundation in Paris, and the first show featured his favourite photographs. One of them was by Pentti Sammallahti: it was the image of a dog on a motorbike in the snow. I was totally bowled over by this image. Also, the fact that Henri — a man who’s seen every photograph in the world, and every photographer would love to be blessed by him — Henri blessed Pentti, it’s a big deal.

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea, Russia (Dog on Motorbike), 1992 © Pentti Sammallahti/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

Pentti is such a special man; his prints are the greatest prints available in the photography market for the least amount of money. He’s so uninterested in fame or money, which is so rare for a contemporary artist. All of his photographs are like little intimate gems, and you’re forced to connect with them because of their scale. Wherever we go in the world, we take Pentti with us.

Olya Voronetskaya: Another Russian-born photographer was George Hoyningen-Huene, who collaborated quite a bit with Elsa Schiaparelli. What are some other famous 20th-century photographer and fashion designer connections?

Peter Fetterman: There is amazing colour photography in the sale, principally by Sarah Moon, who is one of the doyennes of French photography. What’s incredible is that these images she took have never been at auction before. It’s so hard to shoot a dress, so hard to do something different, to give movement and structure, to tell a story about a piece of clothing. That’s an incredible gift to have — to bring alive these very static objects.

If you’re a designer, to have Sarah shoot your collection, it’s like winning the jackpot. Designers all over the world call her all day long and try to get her to shoot their collections. They know that she understands the creative process and that she’s going to add another dimension to what they have created, to bring it alive and make it incredibly dreamlike, even more beautiful. So many great designers like Issey Miyake and Yamomoto have all wanted her to shoot their collections. What an honour for them to have somebody of Sarah’s calibre to be willing to do it.

Sarah Moon, Fashion 4, Yohji Yamamoto, 1996

Blues, 1996 © Sarah Moon/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

Olya Voronetskaya: This brings me to my next questions: how important is photography for freezing or distilling a time period? Does photography do it better than painting?

Peter Fetterman: Many great painters spend years on a single painting. Photographers don’t have that luxury, especially when they have been commissioned to shoot by a magazine or by a designer. You have to deliver to the client and for yourself immediately. You obviously think about it before you get on set or take the model outside of the studio, but you have to be quick. You better know what you’re doing, or have a strong idea of what you want to do.

You also hope that the photo gods are on your side that day and some magic happens. If you have the incredible technical skill and have a strong rapport with whom you’re shooting, hopefully, it will happen. So at the end of the day, it’s all about talent. Everybody is a photographer, but very few people have that incredible eyesight, the sense of originality to do something that hasn’t been done before and to be able to execute it on a supreme level.

Olya Voronetskaya: Horst P. Horst is another legendary photographer and several of his images are in the auction.

Peter Fetterman: He’s one of the gods too. There’s a beautiful image in the auction, probably one of my favourites, called Bombay Bathing Fashion. It was shot in this house that Horst had built and designed. It was like a salon, where all the creative greats of that time used to come and hang out in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Salvador Dalí, Chanel, Noël Coward — everybody who had a creative spirit in them tended to come to this house. It’s just an extraordinarily sophisticated, lyrical, beautiful, amazing photo.

Horst P. Horst, Bombay Bathing Fashion, Oyster Bay, N.Y., 1950 © Estate of Horst P. Horst/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

Olya Voronetskaya: Photographers were and are often interacting with other artists, so there must be influence of art and photography on one another?

Peter Fetterman: If you are a sensitive person and you’re an artist, how can you not be influenced by other artistic mediums? To be a great artist, you have to be open to every other medium that you kind of consciously or subconsciously borrow from, because you’re just open to experience, emotion, storytelling. You get that from books, from music, from painting, from sculpture from dance, from the performing arts — from everything!

Olya Voronetskaya: It seems even a bear can be inspired by the arts, as seen in the work of Gregori Maiofis. He is a Russian contemporary photographer and you represent him at your Gallery. Could you tell us how you came across his work?

Gregori Maiofis, Taste for Russian Ballet, 2008 © Gregori Maiofis/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

Peter Fetterman: I saw one image of his, and it just put a smile on my face. There’s this incredible ballerina dancing for this bear. I thought, “This is totally amazing!” The hardest thing in my job is to find something new and fresh, which inspires you to want to go out and fight for the artist. That’s why when somebody like Gregori comes along with such beautiful work, you just embrace it.

There’s a little video that shows Gregori working with the ballerina, the bear, and the bear’s circus trainer to create this magic. It’s not easy. The ballerina, my God! Hats off to her. What a brave ballerina — this is a big bear, and he is kind of scary! But she’s giving such a great performance in front of the bear, that he seems to be totally in love with her.

Olya Voronetskaya: What is it about ballet, and particularly Russian ballet, that is so captivating for the photographer?

Peter Fetterman: In our gallery, we have a lot of great photos of dance, very rare ones that Henri Cartier-Bresson took at the Bolshoi Ballet, as well as Cornell Capa. These were the first two great Western photographers to be allowed even to photograph in the Soviet Union. But because they were held in such high esteem, they were given access. They were invited in to photograph the Bolshoi Ballet, which no one had ever done before, especially from the outside.

Cornell Capa, Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow (Vertical), 1958 © Estate of Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

There’s so much emotion in the performance, and technical skill that the ballet performers possess, which is acquired over so many years of incredibly rigorous training. To be able to do what these performers do, you don’t just walk on a stage and do it — it’s years and years and years of being instilled with knowledge and practice. It’s the same for any great artists. You have to dedicate your whole life to reach that kind of level of talent, skill and experience. So there’s the camaraderie.

If you watch a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet and you’re not inspired, then there’s probably something wrong with you! And if you’re listening to Prokofiev’s music, oh my God, that’s my favourite composer! So there we are, it all comes full circle. So much rich culture in your country!