The advertising for the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibition, at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, shows Anton Bruehl’s iconic shot of Louis Armstrong and Hilary Swank’s mid-air athelticism, captured by Norman Jean Roy. These are just two of the approximately 150 photographs to have graced the pages of Vanity Fair magazine, which are currently framed and displayed inside Queen Street’s National Portrait Gallery.
‘The Jazz Age’ opens the exhibit with black and white photographs from 1913-1936. H.G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, a young Charlie Chaplain, a shot of Jesse Owens which says so much, Einstein and a terrific photo of a bearded Monet, where his gazing eyes exude a wondrous creativity, are among the highlights. Vanity Fair, in the light of falling circulation amid the Great Depression, closed its operations until 1983. ‘Modern Vanity Fair’ with its colour photographs continues the exhibition with Demi Moore’s naked pregnancy shot, Harry Benson’s Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy dancing, Manhattan firefighters post 9/11 and many famous Hollywood actors and actresses; including what I found a rather sickly image of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and their daughter Suri posing high in some mountains.
The contrasts in Vanity Fair Portraits are significant; one of the first editions of the magazine runs an article entitled ‘The best known actress in the World’. Above the headline is a photograph of Mary Pickford, wearing a conservative dress and reading a book, but just a stone’s throw away are modern day photographs of scantily clad Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Aniston. Today’s camera friendly politicians are far more prominent in ‘Modern Vanity Fair’. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and the rest of Bush’s war counsel are grinning in one image. Nearby is a huge photograph of Baroness Thatcher, while next to her is Rupert Murdoch gazing up from his sailing boat.
Two of my favourite images are Jack Nicholson hitting some golf balls on Mulholland Drive wrapped in a dressing gown and the ‘Britpop’ defining image of Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit in a bed, complete with Union Jack pillows. Poignantly the exhibition ends with a huge portrait of Princess Diana, shot by Mario Testino weeks before her death: this photograph really works on every level.
It would be easy to compare the old photographs of Monet and Einstein with the modern images of Hollywood A-Listers and bemoan the dumbing down of the Vanity Fair publication. Personally, I’m not so sure. We are so familiar with today’s ‘mega stars’ it’s easy to let our minds falsely skew the balance of subjects Vanity Fair, at least in this exhibition, maintains.
Vanity Fair Portraits is a nice, pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable exhibition where you can point, speak and have the memory jogged to your heart’s content.
Vanity Fair Portraits ends at Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery on 21st September 2008.