Vanity Fair Portraits
In an age of warts and all paparazzi photography Vanity Fair Portraits indulges in some unabashed stargazing, which Mark Robertson thinks isn’t such bad thing
We didn’t need Princess Diana to die to know we live in a celebrity-obsessed age. The love/hate relationship between the people and the famous is now more fraught than ever. Fame has never been so easy to come by, but we seem to take even greater joy in seeing anyone with an ounce of public recognition suffer. After all, would the paparazzi still exist if no one wanted to look? With this in mind, the controlled environment of the 150 images in Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 should seem almost quaint in its contrivance. Yet, this new exhibition, which could well prove the mainstream art hit of the summer, proudly throws up its starry credentials in emphatic style. But this is Vanity Fair, after all, that’s sort of the point.
Over the years, Vanity Fair magazine has become one of the last commercial bastions for high-end, big name photographic portraiture. The exhibition, a labour of love for co-curator and VF editor of creative development David Friend and his collaborators at the National Portrait Gallery in London, lifts 150 portraits from the two ages of the magazine: the jazz era, during which the publication ran until 1936 (before the Great Depression put a stop to it), and its re-launch 25 years ago amid the prosperity and hedonism of the 1980s. The exhibit is split evenly between the two ages and documents some of the cornerstones of photography, from Man Ray, Harry Benson, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber to Vanity Fair’s photographer in chief for much of its second run, Annie Leibowitz. The longlist of choices for the exhibit ran to thousands, and the selection process was a long but satisfying one.
‘Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter says: “It’s not about who you invite to the party, it’s who you don’t invite that makes it”,’ laughs Friend. ‘The images were based on three criteria: that they define Vanity Fair, that some were surprising or revealing in some way and others spoke definitively about either the subject, photographer or era they were taken.’
Vanity Fair’s privileged position has meant they have created a body of iconic images that run the gamut of Hollywood and beyond. Yet, despite its strong political and cultural leanings, the magazine has always had a big crush on those who light up the silver screen and this adoration peppers the entire exhibit. While the subjects rarely overwhelm the viewer, the photographs go beyond simple pap shots. Friend rightly considers them true art.
‘Graydon treats photographers like auteurs,’ he says. ‘There is a trust not only between photographer and subject but also photographer and the magazine. And that’s reflected in the pictures. Our publication commands a certain respect and that’s reflected in the access we get. We tend to elevate the subject in magazines as lush as ours.’
In revisiting the magazine’s near and distant history, Friend and Vanity Fair have helped illustrate how portraiture has changed. Einstein atop a mountain in ski boots and shorts like Arnie? I doubt it, somehow. Julianne Moore posed up like a Reuben-esque model? Not bloody likely. What is impressive is the scale and scope of the exhibition, and while it may not ask too much of us, there are some genuinely breathtaking photographs here, which is all that really matters.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 14 Jun–Sun 21 Sep.