Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008

Past exhibition archive
14 February - 26 May 2008

Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank by Norman Jean Roy, 2004 © Norman Jean Roy.

Throughout its history Vanity Fair has helped define the public persona of some of the most influential individuals from the worlds of music, sport, fashion, business, literature politics, theatre, cinema, and the arts. Vanity Fair Portraits brought together portraits of cultural icons from the magazine's vintage and modern periods with sitters ranging from Claude Monet, Amelia Earhart and Jesse Owens to David Hockney, Arthur Miller and Madonna, displayed with legendary Hollywood actors from Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo to Demi Moore and Tom Cruise.

This was a unique opportunity to see 95 years of iconic imagery by some of the most renowned photographers of the twentieth century, including Baron De Meyer, Edward Steichen, Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, as well as portraits by celebrated contemporary photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino, Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts.


Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker by George Hoyningen-Huene
© Conde Nast Publications Inc.
Courtesy of Staley-Wise, New York

Vanity Fair's first period was represented in the exhibition with a series of portraits of celebrated subjects such as Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Jean Harlow by legendary photographers, among them Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Baron De Meyer, Man Ray and George Hurrell.

From the magazine's beginning in 1914, British, Irish and American authors were frequently profiled and their writings published in Vanity Fair, and among the vintage portraits shown in the exhibition are iconic images of H.G. Wells, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw.

The magazine's mix of artistic seriousness and popular celebrity meant that commissioned portraits of these authors and artists such as Claude Monet, Augustus John and the leaders of the avant-garde (photographed by Man Ray), were displayed alongside profiles of actors, musicians and athletes.

Vanity Fair Portraits also presents a rare opportunity to see some of the definitive portraits of the 'Jazz Age', including now classic studies of Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker and Noel Coward. The selection of portraits also includes some previously unpublished and unseen images, including two portraits of author Virginia Woolf from a sitting with photographers Maurice Beck and Helen MacGregor in 1924.


Sean Connery & Michael Caine
Sean Connery and Michael Caine by Michael O'Neill, 1998
© Michael O'Neill

Vanity Fair suspended publication in 1936, but it would be resurrected in another period of decadence and excess, the 1980s. Once again, its purpose was to record modern men and women of culture, stature and talent and, as in the early period, portrait photography was the graphic bedrock of the magazine.

In the tradition of editor Frank Crowninshield (1914-36), the revived monthly commissioned the world's leading portrait photographers, among them Helmut Newton, Nan Goldin, Herb Ritts, Harry Benson, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber and Annie Leibovitz. From the magazine's re-launch in 1983, the exhibition features the works of these photographers and others, depicting a wide range of subjects from Arthur Miller to Madonna.

Vanity Fair's iconic photographs continue to make news. Since the magazine's re-launch in 1983, cover images including the Reagans dancing (1985), a very pregnant Demi Moore (1991), a formal portrait of President Bush's Afghan War Cabinet (2002) and most recently actresses Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley photographed naked (2006) have been embedded in the collective cultural consciousness and all of which were featured in the exhibition.

Steichen and Leibovitz

Legends of Hollywood
Legends of Hollywood (L-R: Nicole Kidman, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Vanessa Redgrave, Chloe Sevigny, Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz) by Annie Leibovitz, 2001 © Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images / Courtesy of the Artist

Annie Leibovitz has become the dominant image-maker of Vanity Fair, just as Edward Steichen dominated Vanity Fair's first period. Steichen (1879-1973), who created an unrivalled gallery of portraits of the dominant personalities of the 1920s and 1930s, has a worthy successor in Leibovitz and Vanity Fair Portraits was the first major exhibition to display their works together.

Photographs by Steichen in the exhibition included portraits of Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Anna May Wong and Paul Robeson. Photographs by Leibovitz, from the several hundred shoots she did for the magazine, featured Miles Davis, Kate Winslet, Lance Armstrong and some of the best examples of the group portraits that have become so closely associated with the magazine.