Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008
National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 21 Sep
Any exhibition that begins with an Ashkenazi Jewish songwriter (Irving Berlin) and ends with a sloaney celebrity culture muse (Diana, Princess of Wales) is worth a peek. Following New York magazine Vanity Fair’s trajectory from the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table through the Jazz age to its closure and 1983 resurrection, this exhibition brings to mind Norma Desmond’s assertion in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard that, ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’
Gloria Swanson, who played Desmond, and Wilder are both represented here, albeit on opposite sides of the Vanity Fair abyss. Edward Streichan’s beautiful 1924 portrait of Swanson (pictured) evokes a type of surrealism then being championed in photographic portraiture by Man Ray and Maya Deren. Wilder, meanwhile, is represented in Helmut Newton’s mildly suggestive 1985 portrait of the director and his wife.
These portraits and many others in this bewilderingly cluttered exhibition highlight the dichotomies and disappointments at the heart of any kind of progress. Small, intense but compulsive photographs of iconic talents such as HG Wells, Thomas Hardy and dancer Bronislava Nijinska (fearsomely caught by Man Ray in full war paint in 1922) ultimately give way to Nan Goldin, Herb Ritts, David LaChapelle and, worst of all, Mario Testino’s indulgent US boomtime monstrosities.
There is, of course, amazing work here from both periods in Vanity Fair’s broken history. Lusha Nelson’s portrait of Peter Lorre excites in the same way his eerie child killer performance does in Fritz Lang’s M, while portraits of black US Marxist crooner and actor Paul Robeson and musician Louis Armstrong catch the first growth spurts of the US’ civil rights movement.
Of the newer portraits, Dafydd Jones’ 1997 picture of Mick Jagger, Madonna and Tony Curtis, and Annie Leibovitz’s stunning 1995 picture of a bedraggled Robert Mitchum certainly bring home the grief and horror of life lived in the flashbulb. Elsewhere, it’s difficult to care. So what if Hilary Swank has the body of an Olympian or that Julianne Moore can be CGI-ed into a Rubensesque tableau? If nothing else this exhibition highlights the passing truths endemic in all photography.