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Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008

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Photographic portraits exhibit at the National Galleries of Scotland.

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      02.11.2008 18:09
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      95 years of Vanity Fair, and its chosen celebs

      I'm not the world's biggest fan of glossy magazines in general, and confess to never having even picked up a copy of Vanity Fair! However, when an exhibition opened in Edinburgh covering almost a century of portraits featured in the magazine's history, it felt time to let a bit of culture into my life!

      It was immediately obvious how many of VF's portrait shots have achieved a fame well beyond that of the magazine - the first (huge) picture as you go in is the famous shot of Princess Diana, taken by Mario Testino, for instance. However, I wasn't here to see copies of much-reproduced photos! There were several things to take from this show, in my opinion: how times have changed in that 95-year period; how both photography and publications have changed in that time; who was considered 'worthy' of both the magazine and the exhibition, and perhaps why.

      I'll kick off by saying the full 95 years are not represented here, and the exhibition is by no means as huge as that time span might lead you to fear! First launched in 1913, Vanity Fair stopped publishing in the 1930s before being relaunched in the 1980s, and obviously the display here reflects that. I'm bad at guesstimates, but I'd suggest there were maybe 100-150 photos, maybe more, split more or less equally between the two time periods.

      That split and long gap made the differences all the more striking, in my opinion. The 1980s-onwards stuff was all quite familiar, in tone and style. Arguably, they were the more interesting: by the 1980s it was all high-gloss and little staged scenes, rather than straightforward portrait shots. However, the change between the two time periods was fascinating. In the early days of the magazine's run, there were two main differences: the type of person included, and the style/quality of photography.

      Looking at that first point, VF is no different to today's magazines in who gets page space: actors are the big celebrities! Some of my favourite shots were Raquel Welch (1980s) looking absolutely delighted surrounded by a very carefully positioned Olympic Gold-winning swimming team... in the buff!; George Clooney (1990s) in a very cinematic shot, surrounded by water and women in their underwear; and my top shot: Julianne Moore (2000s) posed as Ingres' 'Grand Odalisque' (the latter proving that while I claim to prefer photography exhibitions, the art history classes have left their mark!). Since these are the current 'style', I suppose I conform to general modern tastes of enjoying the more posed and theatrical shots staged for the modern audience. Even the ones I didn't pick out previously are still quite posed: Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and baby in saccharine family group; Arnold Schwarzenegger poised at the top of a mountain in his skies; Sean Connery and Michael Caine in matched poses facing the camera.

      However, going back to the start of the exhibition (actually, you could chose to work forwards or backwards chronologically, depending on if you turned left or right on entering the room - and whether you were willing to fight the shuffling crowd the whole way!), and the difference is startling. Whilst the later 1920-30s shots are perhaps a little more 'obvious' - Gloria Swanson pouting behind a veil, Jean Harlow draped over a bearskin rug, Jesse Owens posed athletically - going back to the start and we're talking writers, scientists... faces I wouldn't have recognised, even if the name was more than familiar. More, these are as far from glossy posed shots as you could imagine; many look like family snapshots, taken in back gardens, slightly fuzzy, not particularly well composed.

      I found it utterly fascinating to view this change of times. The quality of photography on the one hand, but also what was said about our changing culture: one cannot imagine Einstein submitting to wearing a building-shaped hat, a la Philip Johnson; or Virginia Woolf donning a bikini to run down the beach as Hilary Swank would later do. How times have changed: would scientists and writers even make it into glossy magazines these days, really? (apparently Vanity Fair do feature the likes of Philip Roth, just not in this exhibition!). Perhaps it's not so surprising that today's celebrities are willing to do daft things for photo shoots, dressing up or going completely naked (think Demi Moore, pregnant or body painted!), when these days the biggest celebrities are actors, well used to being told what to wear, where to stand, etc.

      That there was so much to read into the cultural significance of the shots really made the experience for me. Which is just as well, as I was rather disappointed by the exhibit's own additional information - by which I mean the cards displayed alongside the photos. What I really wanted to see was information about the shot - why it was composed the way it was, what was going on at the time in the subject's life/career that made them a chosen subject. Alas, all you really got was the name (useful at the start, slightly redundant when you're looking at Julia Roberts!), date, and photographer - and the latter also could have done with expansion. While some names - Mario Testino, Annie Leibovitz - were familiar, I really didn't learn much about the people who put shots together, nevermind why.

      Talking of the placards, a brief word on the rest of the set-up: Obviously the content - the photographs - is the main thing, but I was disappointed by the way the Scottish Portrait Gallery chose to display them: around three walls of four 'rooms', right up into the corner of each, with glass displays of the actual magazines on the back walls. The room wasn't a great design, people got in each others' way, the whole thing asked for queue pile-ups. And I would have to suggest that people in wheelchairs didn't stand a chance of seeing a thing, with all the photos at a standing eye-level (and half glinting with the reflected lights, making it hard enough for the rest of us). It was just a bit not-thought out, I felt, which was a shame - it really just could have done with more space.

      I'd have to suggest the whole thing was overall a bit on the shallow side - which didn't do much for my opinion of the magazine. Most of what there was to take from the show wasn't obvious from what was actually on display, if that makes sense. It was only afterwards I really started to ponder the differences between the time periods, what it says about modern society that we like our celebs dressed up and displayed in tableaux. I'm glad I went, I came away with a lot of ponderings, but it would perhaps have been all the more interesting at the time with just a little more thought from the organisers.

      I paid £6 (£4 concessions) to see this in Edinburgh's Portrait Gallery. Alas, my computer glitches hit just at the wrong time for this review, and the exhibition is now closed. It was showing in London before coming to Edinburgh, so I was hoping it would move elsewhere, but I haven't been able to track it down. Don't despair, though! As 2008 is the 95th anniversary of the magazine, a book has been published covering the first part of the exhibition (and more from that time period) - there's a link on the Vanity Fair website (see end).

      It's also unfortunate that Dooyoo obviously couldn't get permission to reproduce any of the shots for the category description (I did submit a link!), but a quick google for 'vanity fair portraits' brings up a lot of images, many of which were in the show.

      So to sum up: a selection of photographs featured in almost 100 years of the Vanity Fair magazine, which revealed as much about changes in society as the history of the magazine. Definitely interesting, if not as well put together or insightful as it could/should have been.

      *Wanna look?*

      Some of the earlier shots can be seen here:
      http://www.condenaststore.com/ VanityFair/ ProdList.aspx?prodcode=1001 &utm_source=VFS &utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=VFPORTRAIT
      (spaces need removed)

      and google has plenty of more recent examples!


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