A Touch of ‘Vanity’ in LACMA

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is currently presenting “Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008,” the first major exhibition bringing together the magazine’s historic archive of rare vintage photographs and magazine covers with its contemporary photos.
The exhibition, which opened Oct. 28, 2008, explores the ways in which photography and celebrity have interacted and changed, with portraits from the magazine’s early period (1913–1936) and the contemporary Vanity Fair period (1983–present) as well as behind-the-scenes videos from key Vanity Fair shoots. These include footage of photographer Mark Seliger shooting the members of John F. Kennedy’s inner circle, and Annie Leibovitz and Michael Roberts’s epic “film noir” story from the 2007 Hollywood Issue. Additional elements of the exhibition include a wall grid of Vanity Fair covers from both its early and modern periods, along with memoranda and memorabilia drawn from the magazine’s early 20th century archive.
In 1913, Vanity Fair was created at the birth of modernism, avant-garde art deco and the dawn of the Jazz Age. Publisher Condé Nast partnered with Editor Frank Crowninshield to create a “smart” arts magazine that would engage with this vibrant modern culture — a magazine that would not only comment on, but also support and highlight all that was at the forefront of change and innovation in the world of the arts. To rightfully capture these icons, Vanity Fair commissioned the world’s leading photographers including Edward Steichen (the chief photographer at Vanity Fair for thirteen years), Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, Immogen Cunningham, Alfred Stieglitz, Baron De Meyer, Man Ray and George Hurrell.
The coupling of notable figures with these portraitists resulted in some of the most memorable and iconic images of the time. Among the exceptional subjects featured in the exhibition are Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, James Joyce, Katharine Hepburn, Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire. The exhibition’s most symbolic image from this era is that of Gloria Swanson, taken by the legendary Edward Steichen. Swanson peers intensely from behind a black veil of lace, pupils dilated and glaring, making for one of the most visually stunning images ever seen in the pages of Vanity Fair.
Although Vanity Fair suspended publication in 1936, it would be resurrected in another period of decadence and excess that seemed to mirror the vibrant cosmopolitan culture of the 1920s. Re-launched in 1983, the publication’s purpose once again was to define contemporary celebrity and identify the leading cultural figures. The revived magazine came back more vibrant and colorful than ever, commissioning such leading photographers and image-makers as Annie Leibovitz (who took over as the magazine’s chief photographer), Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, David LaChapelle, Herb Ritts, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber. Selected from the several hundred shoots directed by such photographers are some of Vanity Fair’s most iconic images including portraits of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher, Julia Roberts and Jack Nicholson.
The excess and glamour that characterized the cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s and 1990s is reflected in the portraits from the contemporary era of Rob Lowe, Joan and Jackie Collins, Madonna and Mick Jagger. While Vanity Fair portraits of this era are still dedicated to capturing images of celebrities, the time of soft-focus, black-and-white glamour shots of carefully posed screen sirens had ended. The images were bigger and bolder, just like the celebrities of the time. Images of flappers and Broadway dancers with bobbed hair were replaced by photos of semi-nude models and actresses. Despite the changes, the photos in Vanity Fair maintained their excellence, not only as photographs, but as lasting works of art.
Some of Vanity Fair’s most controversial photographs and covers are on display, such as the famous portrait of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore and of Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly in the nude. These infamous shots by Annie Leibovitz are just some of the exhibition’s highlights. Leibovitz’s work best represents what Vanity Fair has stood for — discussing and highlighting the most important figures in the world of the arts. Her work makes up a large portion of the second era of Vanity Fair photographs in the exhibition. Her photographs of Hollywood’s greatest legends have become part of popular culture iconography, and have contributed to the magazine’s success as a publication devoted to championing the arts.
The Vanity Fair portraits in the exhibition are not only some of the most recognized images in photography or popular culture — they are works of art. From the glamorous portraits of the bastions of old Hollywood to the glitzy shots of celebrities of the past two decades, Vanity Fair has never ceased to be a guiding light of culture and art, and the LACMA exhibition shows the magazine’s work at its finest.