Gloria Swanson by Steichen

Today I visited the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a fascinating collection of photographs ranging firstly from the 1910s-30s and then from the 1980s to the present day. 

The magazine folded in 1936 only to be revived in 1983 but began remarkably early. In 1913 Condé Nast brought out the first issue of what was then known as Dress and Vanity Fair and those early issues published portraits of personalities such as a young Irving Berlin and an old Thomas Hardy.

Through to the twenties images of movie stars become a staple of the Hollywood magazine: Fred and Adele Astaire, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., W.C. Fields, Garbo, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks & Pickford, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Paul Robeson, Charles Laughton and Peter Lorre.

It also published portraits of writers: H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, as well as dancers, composers, scientists and high-profile directors: Nureyev & Pavlova, Stravinsky, Einstein & Eisenstein, and Ernst Lubitsch. 

Vanity Fair, then, became a great portrait of the age during which it was published. Three parts fan, fashion and Hollywood magazine it both revelled in and further circulated the image of Hollywood and its stars as perfect and ethereal.

However these photographs seem to do two things at once: on the one hand provide a stylised image of its subject, and on the other capture a candid, revealing portrait of them. The formal composition, pose and lighting creates a barrier between the image and the viewer while the connection with its subject pulls that barrier back down.

Photographers of the original Vanity Fair included Baron de Meyer and the versatile Edward Steichen, who took the enigmatic and powerful shot of a veiled Gloria Swanson (above). The revived Vanity Fair included such famed photographers as Herb Ritts and Annie Liebowitz, and during the past 25 years has continued to publish many of the iconic photographs of movie stars during that recent era.

The exhibition continues until 26 May 2008 so if you happen to be in town, make sure you take a look. Below is a snap I took on exiting: Jean Harlow looking over London.

Jean Harlow in London

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