Vanity Fair Portraits

Graydon Carter and the Editors of Vanity Fair
National Portrait Gallery

For anyone wondering whether a book of photographs from Vanity Fair magazine is fair game for a Theatre website, the vision of Condé Nast, the publisher who created it (as Dress and Vanity Fair) was to "touch on all that is of interest in the drama, the opera, and music, both at home and in Europe".

He expanded this: "We shall discuss all that is new and worthy in the Fine Arts and in Books . We shall not lack authority and those things which go to make the smart world smart".

This extract is part of a combined overview of the magazine presented by, amongst others, Christopher Hitchens and its current editor, Graydon Carter. This though is just the hors d'oeuvre before the Michelin starred feast.

Whether the 2008 version of the magazine quite fits in with these goals need not be debated but this gorgeously produced volume of photographs is fit for any coffee table, provided that the owner is muscular enough to raise it off the surface.

The subtitle of the book, "A century of iconic images" is somewhat misleading since Vanity Fair might have first appeared in 1913 but suffered a lull in publication from 1936 to 1983. That leaves less than fifty years of photos but many of them are legendary and still much used today.

Ignoring the often sinister-looking politicians (if one ever can) and sportsmen, the majority of these images relate to people in and around the performing arts.

From the front cover portrait of Kate Moss imitating Marlene Dietrich to the final picture featuring George Clooney at Universal Studios surrounded by a dozen women in expensive underwear, actors and the like predominate.

It is easy to give a flavour by selecting a few of the most appealing examples, although almost every one has its merits.

Kate Winslet is portrayed in Titanic form looking rather like a Damien Hirst shark, though presumably swimming in water rather than embalmed in formaldehyde. Noel Coward appears mysteriously in semidarkness, while Edward Gordon Craig and Isadora Duncan are dwarfed by Notre Dame and the Parthenon respectively.

Arthur Miller relaxes at home by a natural pool with wife and dog, George Bernard Shaw seems whimsical while George Gershwin is featured hard at work, as is a very young-looking Irving Berlin.

The editor likes to theme so four generations of Redgrave's are seen opposite a quartet of Barrymores, while an exotic Merle Oberon is pictured facing an erotic Daryl Hannah.

Nicole Kidman is seen in a very arty pose, but that is nothing compared to Julianne Moore who auditions to become a model for a modern version of Ingres' Grande Odalisque.

There are many images drawn from performance, a couple of the best which are Paul Robeson playing the Emperor Jones and Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

Humour is never far away either, with Dorothy Parker portrayed attached to one of her poems, while Chris Rock appears to be a flying supported by nothing more than a water jet.

A mark of the quality of the photography is that the pictures say so much that one could easily write an essay about almost any one of them.

The two stars behind the camera were in the early days Edward Steichen and more recently, Annie Leibovitz, both on a regular basis providing work that is highly individual and almost always unforgettable. They received great support from the very best of their peers including Cecil Beaton, Lord Snowdon, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Mario Testino and even Henri Cartier Bresson.

With the finest of photographers and subjects both beautiful and of interest for their achievements this is such a special book, which will give pleasure to anyone lucky enough to buy or be given a copy.

There is a big cross over between Vanity Fair Portraits and Annie Leibovitz - A Photographer's Life, 1990 - 2005 showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 February 2009.

The exhibition pairs many iconic photographs from the period with what are effectively snapshots of the photographer's life with the author, Susan Sontag.

It includes a number of the images in the book but goes far wider. There are once again many photographs of interest to lovers of the performing arts. These include Tony Kushner, Daniel Day Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino playing it cool, as well as Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson and Brad Pitt looking hot. In addition there is a fascinating Film Noir double act between Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes.

Great poignancy is added not only by the many portraits of Sontag both in happy days and as she was succumbing to cancer but also a family group featuring Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.

Visitors to the National Theatre earlier this year will immediately realise that Dunne was the subject of the Didion's incredibly moving The Year of Magical Thinking, the one woman homage to her late husband, performed by Vanessa Redgrave.

From other forms, comedian Chris Rock is seen in white face, from the music world The White Stripes are portrayed in carnival mood and Mick Jagger bare-chested. Additionally, there is strong representation from the world of dance with Baryshnikov airborne on the beach, as well as Bill T. Jones and Mark Morris in action.

Altogether, this book and the exhibition provide a wealth of riches for anybody interested in photography or the performing arts but more significantly, those fascinated by beautiful, rich and famous people.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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