All’s Fair at Vanity Fair – Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is hosting an exhibition of Vanity Fair Portraits to celebrate the magazine’s 95th anniversary. In a unique showcase of 150 classic portraits, the exhibition features many cultural icons of the last century and charts the rise of the genre of modern celebrity portraiture.
Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen, 1924
© Condé Nast Publications Inc. / Image Courtesy George Eastman House
Vanity Fair Portraits Exhibition
Since its launch in 1913, Vanity Fair Magazine has made a feature of portrait photography, commissioning the best photographers of the day to photograph leading artists, celebrities, athletes and industrialists.
Between 1913 and 1936, great photographers like Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Baron de Meyer and Cecil Beaton captured the icons of the Jazz Age and early Modernism. In a who’s who of the literary and arts world, elegant black and white portraits portray the likes of Noel Coward, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and Gertrude Stein. Even Albert Einstein was photographed.
The magazine also featured essays by the literary stars of the day and promoted the work of modern artists like Picasso and Claude Monet. Screen stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, Gloria Swanson and Anna May Wong are portrayed in pensive mood, poised, refined and dignified. Sharp contrasts, shadows and exquisite use of light bestow an air of mystique and glamour.
There are some glimpses into the personalities behind the images. Nickolas Muray’s portrait of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Joan Crawford relaxing back to back on a beach is both glamorous and natural. Greta Garbo running her hands through her hair is a private moment captured for posterity.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Crawford by Nickolas Murray, 1929
© Condé Nast Publications Inc. / Image Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
Jean Halrow by George Hurell, 1934
© Estate of George Hurrell, courtesy of George Hurrell Jr. / Image Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
Conde Nast introduced colour photography in 1932 and in December 1934 the magazine featured its first colour double-page photo spread – a photograph of Billy Rose’s Music Hall on Broadway, by Bruehl-Bourges.
In 1936, as America struggled with the Depression, Vanity Fair ceased publication. It was considered too snobbish and irreverent for troubled times. The magazine lay dormant for almost 50 years, until Conde Nast Publications resurrected it in 1983 and the magazine entered its second era.
It is this contrast between the two eras of the magazine which is the strength of the exhibition. Not only is it a celebration of the history of the magazine, it is a celebration of photography and culture over the past century.
The vibrancy and vivid colours of the 1980s confront the viewer in an assault on the senses. Sepia tones and pale ink give way to the lurid pink dress of Drew Barrymore, aged 9. Unsmiling portraits are replaced by naked flesh and images of the body beautiful. Herb Ritts’ erotic portrait of Kim Basinger, Hilary Swank racing with strength and grace along a beach, Lance Armstrong, naked on his bicycle. All are bold, inventive and beautiful. They are sensual, but never vulgar.
Helen Mirren by Lord Snowdon, 1995
The mastermind behind many of these portraits was Annie Leibovitz, chief photographer since the magazine’s relaunch in 1983 and synonymous with Vanity Fair cover shoots and epic group shots.
In the 1990s Vanity Fair launched a series of memorable covers. Demi Moore, naked and pregnant in August 1991 and Mario Testino’s portrait of Diana in July 1997, just twelve weeks before her death, are just two of the cover images etched into our cultural memories forever.
Over the years, portraits printed in the magazine have become more relaxed and natural, resulting in an easier, intimate style. Bruce Weber’s photographs of Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange show them being playful in front of the camera and Nan Goldin’s portrait of a young Rob Lowe in bed is so close you expect him to blink or breathe.
It’s not only the beautiful people who have graced the pages of the magazine. Leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the intellectual Susan Sontag have appeared. Documentary style photography has also been included in recent years, most notably the Fire Fighters near Ground Zero in 2001.
But, in the celebrity-infatuated culture of today, intellectuals and those less photogenically gifted have mostly been replaced with the young and beautiful stars of Hollywood. A Vanity Fair portrait is something to aspire to. It helps define a star’s public persona both beautifully and powerfully. The role of the photographer has been firmly established as essential in portraying the Hollywood dream.
Vanity Fair Portraits : Photographs 1913 – 2008 is on at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 26 May 2008
Julia Roberts by Herb Ritts, 1993
© Herb Ritts Foundation
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