bal harbour blog

John Varvatos' Photo Finish

Q&A
Nirvana underwater for their "Nevermind" cover shoot in Beverly Hills, California in 1991. Photo by Kirk Weddle courtesy of Rock Paper Photo.

By Tali Jaffe

John Varvatos is very good at creating atmospheres. Each one of his stores—including the recently opened shop at Bal Harbour—has a unique persona. In addition to the fashion and accessories, the photography that hangs on the walls is a major part of the John Varvatos spirit—and practically an extension of the brand.

Rock Paper Photo has been collaborating with Varvatos since 2011, showing exhibitions in each of the stores. Here, we speak to Mark Halpern, CEO of Rock Paper Photo, to get the scoop on this unique partnership.

Marvin Gaye photographed for the album cover of "What's Going On" in Detroit, Michigan in 1971. Photo by Jim Hendin courtesy of Rock Paper Photo.

What led to the founding of Rock Paper Photo?
Both Guy Oseary and I were immersed in great photography but we saw how hard it was for others to discover these great photographs. So we created Rock Paper Photo with the mission to be the online hub for discovering great photography from the last 75 years of pop culture. We also wanted to develop a marketplace where photographers could sell their great work, which is so often unknown. You would be amazed at how many negatives to this day have not been scanned and have before been published and shared with a world that has become obsessed with imagery.

Did John play an active role in choosing the initial photography featured in store?
Absolutely. John has curated each and every show that is in his stores.

Have you seen a change in the photography market since the time you co-founded the company?
We launched our website in 2011. Since then it seems that everyone has become a photographer—using smartphones, uploading to Instagram. A half of billion images are shared every day! So there is just an enormous interest in photography. The fine art photography we sell at RockPaperPhoto.com is in limited supply - both in terms of the small limited editions we print in and the rareness of images that have captured cultural icons in their prime. People appreciate the skill and impact evident in these photographs even more now that they consider themselves amateur photographers.

Fashion photography has seen a major spike in collectibility. Do you feel there's a similar pattern occurring in music photography?
Absolutely. We’re now celebrating the 50-year anniversaries of many of the most significant moments in music history - the 60’s. Much of the important art we sell is just now ripening. The world has changed dramatically since then and it’s not only baby boomers who appreciate our collective past. There’s a huge audience of people who appreciate beautiful imagery of very special moments. But I also want to point that our collection is more than just music. We are also seeing a rise in collectibility of Hollywood icons, theater and television personalities, sports stars, even authors.

Tell us a bit about your background—you're steeped in photography from all sides!
My family has been in the photography business for as long as I can remember but I personally became involved in 2001 when I joined WireImage, an entertainment-focused photo licensing agency. Ultimately the Company was sold to Getty Images but that’s where I met hundreds of photographers who I continue to work with and discovered how little of each photographer’s archive is truly available to the public.

Can you share your most memorable (or even most recent) backstage memory caught on camera?
I love the entertaining pairings that are often captured backstage. Either John McEnroe backstage with Stevie Ray Vaughan or Elton John with Barry White. They’re always fun.

How do you curate the selection for the John Varvatos stores? Does each location have a different exhibition?
The photography collections for sale in many boutique locations have particular themes. We have a show that consists of all live concert photos as well as another that’s all portraiture. We have a punk show at the NYC store on the Bowery and a show with a summer vibe in East Hampton. Rock Paper Photo has also introduced outside guest curators such as Slash from Guns N’ Roses to showcase his favorite photos from our collection - this has been on view at the West Hollywood boutique.

Who are some of your favorite photographers?
It's difficult to point to one favorite. That’s like asking to choose between my children. I’m into photos that are rare that most people have never seen before, photos that shine a different light on icons that we all think we know so well. Intimate and candid photos.

What was the first piece of photography you acquired?
The first piece I bought from Rock Paper Photo was an image of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein by Roberta Bayley kissing in front of a moving subway train. It’s a beautiful photo. Almost doesn’t even matter that it’s Debbie and Chris but cool that it is. It’s a cibachrome print which is a rare and dying printing process and it’s in a small edition of only 25. Love this photo.

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