Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vanity Fair Portraits 1913-2008

In a world where everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame, having one's portrait in Vanity Fair magazine seems to be the hallmark of celebrity. Originally called Dress and Vanity Fair at its launch in 1913 with the title shortened to Vanity Fair six months later, the magazine was a phenomenal success with its modern and bold approach. Writers included such luminaries as Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and Noel Coward. Photographers such as Edward Steichen, Man Ray, and Cecil Beaton forged new ground in portraiture. The magazine took in more advertising than any other magazine within two years. Vanity Fair suspended publication in 1936 and was relaunched in 1983. Annie Leibovitz has been the magazine's chief photographer since 1983 and her photographs alone are a fascinating chronicle of modern celebrity and culture.

A retrospective exhibition of 150 celebrity portraits from Vanity Fair opened at the Royal Ontario Museum on the weekend. At a packed preview last week, I saw many familiar cover photos from the magazine including the pregnant Demi Moore by Annie Liebovitz, Julia Roberts by Herb Ritts and Princess Diana by Mario Testino . I marveled at these exquisite images and especially enjoyed seeing them without text marring the image and in large format instead of magazine size. I also appreciated the rare privilege of viewing the vintage photo collection of ethereal black and white photos of Louise Brooks, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jean Harlowe, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.

There are no surprises in this exhibition. For me, the exhibition suggested that portraiture can be as much about the photographer as it is about the person being photographed. Given that Annie Leibovitz has dominated the pages of the modern Vanity Fair, the exhibition is, in a large part, about her. That in and of itself is not a bad thing given the depth of her talent, but it does suggest that we've defined modern celebrity through the lens of her camera.

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario Canada
September 26, 2009 to January 3, 2010