Vanity, thy Name is Portraiture
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Vanity, thy Name is Portraiture

Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen. © Condé Nast Publications Inc. / Courtesy George Eastman House

We can’t seem to get enough of looking at people, and famous faces are a whole other matter. Whether it’s subconsciously analyzing bone structure to gauge attractiveness, or searching for the unspoken in an subtle expression, we are captivated by images of each other, with celebrities the ultimate draw. The ROM is banking on this in their new exhibition, “Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008.” Showcasing 150 photos from the magazine’s archives, it celebrates the act of looking at people, and of looking like you’re famous. The show is half of a joint venture with the AGO, who are presenting the work of Edward Steichen during the fifteen years that he was the principal photographer at Vanity Fair. Steichen forms the link between the two shows, with his work appearing in both.
William Thorsell, the director and CEO of the ROM (who recently announced his resignation), introduced the exhibition as part of a larger programmatic thread about the nature of celebrity, also referencing the “Green Porno” installation featuring Isabella Rossellini now on display in the museum. There is, however, no deeper thinking on this revealed at any point during the show, and in the absence of any evidence of critical thought or discourse on the subject, this thread may be as tenuous as “exhibitions and events with famous people in them somehow.” Perhaps Meryl Streep’s talk at the ROM next month will deepen the conversation to a meaningful level.

Katharine Hepburn by Cecil Beaton. © Condé Nast Publications Inc. / Courtesy Sotheby’s

Thorsell also introduced the new language of wall structures that were designed and built for this exhibition space (which Torontoist reported on last week). While their necessity reveals the Crystal’s inability to properly display almost all of the potential exhibition content the museum may encounter, their forms host these portraits with a sophistication that is a testament to the show’s designers.
The exhibition is divided into two main parts, “Vintage Vanity Fair,” which covers the era from the magazine’s inception in 1913 to its closing in 1935, and “Modern Vanity Fair,” which spans from the magazine’s re-launch in 1983 to 2008. This near fifty-year gap in the chronology saves the exhibition from becoming a chronicle of developments in photography, and allows for a unique comparison between early and contemporary photographic portraiture.

Philip Johnson wearing model of PPG Building by Josef Astor. Costume designed and constructed by Joseph Hutchins, Works N.Y. © Josef Astor

The vintage era portraits tend towards a more formal staging and framing of their subjects. In some cases, it’s so early on in broad access to celebrity photography that a famous face, good lighting, and some depiction of personality could satisfy the audience. Simple props or locations suggest the sitter’s profession or claim to fame. David Friend, the director of creative development for Vanity Fair, described looking at these photographs as “seeing the birth of modern, twentieth century portraiture as we know it today.” Talent, skill, and artistry abound, but within a predominantly literal approach.

Mick Jagger, Madonna and Tony Curtis by Dafydd Jones. © Dafydd Jones

It’s in the modern collection where the lines are blurred and crossed, and things get really interesting. Jonathan Becker’s 1998 photo of Robert Mapplethorpe & admirers mingles documentary photography with portraiture. Captured in a frank moment at the opening of an exhibition of his own artwork, Mapplethorpe is heart-wrenching and complex. Diagnosed with AIDS and allowed out of the hospital only for this event, he died the next year. Dafydd Jones’s Mick Jagger, Madonna and Tony Curtis was taken at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in 1997. It is raw and real, despite the highly surreal nature of the content. However, it’s the principal photographer of Vanity Fair’s modern era, Annie Leibovitz, who takes the magazine’s contemporary portraiture into a bizarre new realm.
There is one moment of ingenious contrast in the exhibition, where the two eras, vintage and modern, meet in one space. Two video screens face each other, one a documentary about the studio practice of Edward Steichen filmed in 1935, and the other a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Annie Leibovitz and Michael Robert‘s Killers Kill, Dead Men Die photo shoot. The space that bridges the two instantly reveals the dramatic differences between the professional worlds in which these two principal photographers have worked. The former is a depiction of simplicity and ingenuity, and the latter a veritable celebration of excess.

Legends of Hollywood by Annie Leibovitz. © Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images / Courtesy of the Artist

Leibovitz, with budgets previously unheard of, and access most only dream of, takes the opposite of a literal approach. Her subjects are not just actors, they are acting. She introduces deceit into the photo through complex narratives and layered symbolism. The Killers Kill, Dead Men Die portfolio was staged as a film noir, complete with a still-frame plot and a cast of characters played by the subjects. She also brings focus to the act of her photography through seemingly impossible groupings of famous people. In 2001’s Legends of Hollywood, she stages the sitting of ten of the most well-known female actors. Real or not, it is the incredible idea of having these women together for the photograph that makes it compelling. This elevates the taking of the photograph to the role of core content. While most photographs are artefacts, Leibovitz’s are events. Majestic and extravagant in their execution, they implicate the photographer in the vanity of it all.
Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 opens this Saturday, September 26 and will run until January 3, 2010.