Life through a lens: Vanity Fair Portraits

One thing I do look forward to every month is the new Vanity Fair. Although I relish its sharp and witty writing, it’s the photographs that I tear into first. They’re always sumptuous and reveal so much about their subjects.

Indeed, some of the greatest portrait photographs of the 20th century were taken for, or published in, the magazine. A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) gathers together 150 of these iconic images, from the magazine’s beginnings in 1913 right up to date with the present cover. The photographs are arranged in period order (1913–1936 and then 1983, when the magazine relaunched, to the present) and offer a chance to see the work of such legendary photographers as Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Baron de Meyer, Man Ray, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, all reproduced in spectacular prints. So many of the featured portraits have seemingly become part of our very DNA, such as the Reagans dancing, Demi Moore proudly displaying her bump, Mario Testino’s shots of a relaxed Princess Diana, the pensive Virginia Woolf and Louise Brooks’ feisty bob.

The sheer roster of celebrated subjects is staggering – in the first period come Einstein, Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Irving Berlin, Isadora Duncan, Noel Coward and so many more. The stars of the golden age of Hollywood, including Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant and Garbo. Sports legends such as Jesse Owens and Babe Ruth. Dancers such as Nijinsky, Pavlova, Massine and Josephine Baker (looking like an Oscar come to sexy life). And then come the writers: Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Shaw, Hardy and Welles.

With the relaunch, the pictures become full of colour, life and a real sense of fun, and include Princess Diana, Tom Cruise, Helen Mirren, Julia Roberts, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Redgrave clan, Lance Armstrong and the Bush administration. The exhibition also reflects one of Vanity Fair’s great strengths throughout its history – its ability to mix celebrities with authors, athletes, scientists, thinkers, business leaders and politicians.

Helen MirrenHelen Mirren by Lord Snowdon, 1995

© Snowdon

If there’s one criticism to be made of the exhibition, it’s that the space may be rather too small. We experienced great difficulties in seeing the early pictures, as the logjam of people made progression agonisingly slow. But, if you’re not too bothered about being a purist and seeing things in order, you can find gaps to tuck into here and there. And unlike many exhibitions where there’s one star exhibit you can’t get at, there’s a gem to be found at every turn here.

As I wanted to spend even more time drinking in the portraits, I did succumb to the accompanying catalogue, which features all 150 of the exhibited shots, plus a number of additional ones, as well essays on the history of Vanity Fair’s commissioning of photographs, and it’s well worth the £25 investment.

If seeing these wonderful images leaves you eager for more, the NPG will be hosting an exhibition devoted entirely to Annie Leibovitz’s work later in the year (‘Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life’, October 16 to January 25). Her images have become as much a touchstone for the magazine in its new incarnation as those of Steichen did at the beginning of the 20th century, and this is the first exhibition where their work appears side by side.

Helen MirrenJean Harlow by George Hurrell, 1934 © Estate of George Hurrell, courtesy of George Hurrell Jr/Image Courtesy Condé Nast Archive

‘Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008’ is at the National Portrait Gallery (020–7306 0055; until May 26. Timed entry tickets cost £10. It will then travel to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (June 14 to September 21).