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LACMA Explores the Construction of Celebrity through the Enduring Portraits of Vanity Fair
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Crawford, Santa Monica, by Nickolas Muray 1929. Vanity Fair, October 1929. ©Conde Nast Publications Inc. / Courtesy Conde Nast Archive.

LOS ANGELES.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008, the first major exhibition to bring together the magazine’s historic archive of rare vintage prints with its contemporary photographs, on view from October 26, 2008 through March 1, 2009. The exhibition explores the ways in which photography and celebrity have interacted and changed, with portraits from the magazine’s early period (1913–1936) displayed in conjunction with works from the contemporary Vanity Fair (1983–present). The Los Angeles presentation, which is sponsored by Burberry, will be the only U.S. stop on the exhibition’s international tour.

“The exhibition is a timely consideration of portraiture in the last century in relation to magazines and photography,” said Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. “We’re happy to bring the show to Los Angeles from the National Portrait Gallery in London. So many of the early twentieth-century portraits originate in London and New York, and so many of the more recent portraits relate to Los Angeles—interesting evidence of our changing world.”

“It’s quite fitting that the exhibition show in Los Angeles,” says Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair editor, “and LACMA is the ideal venue—a place where the artistry of all of these incredible portraits can be appreciated, yet close enough to Hollywood that a picture of the governor on skis in his action-hero days seems almost right.”

Christopher Bailey, Creative Director of Burberry, says, “Burberry is privileged to be able to sponsor this exhibition of iconic Vanity Fair portraits at the prestigious Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to continue our history of supporting the arts.”

In 1913, Vanity Fair launched with the birth of modernism, the dawning of the Jazz Age, and the groundbreaking Armory Show that introduced avantgarde art to the American public. Publisher Condé Nast (1873–1942) partnered with editor Frank Crowninshield (1872–1947) to create a magazine that would engage with this vibrant modern culture—a magazine that would not only comment upon, but also champion all that was at the forefront of change and innovation in the arts.

The publication thus became a cultural catalyst, defining and celebrating key figures of the early twentieth century, from contemporary artists and literary talents to theater luminaries and silent-screen stars. To rightfully capture these icons, Crowninshield commissioned the world’s leading photographers including Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Baron De Meyer, Man Ray, and George Hurrell. The pairing of notable figures with these portraitists resulted in some of the most memorable images of the time. Among the exceptional sitters featured in the exhibition are Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Jesse Owens, James Joyce, Katharine Hepburn, and Fred and Adele Astaire.

The move to modernism in the early twentieth century influenced the era’s photographers, as many produced images that were as much about form and experimenting with format as they were about substance. The introduction of modernism into photography was particularly evident in the progressive work of Edward Steichen (1879–1973), who held the title of Vanity Fair’s chief photographer for thirteen years. Steichen was America’s leading photographer of style, taste, and celebrity, and perhaps best remembere for capturing actors, whose likenesses in print or on-screen helped shape popular culture. Many of Steichen’s iconic photographs will be seen in Vanity Fair Portraits, including those of Gloria Swanson, Louise Brooks, Anna May Wong, and Paul Robeson. The exhibition also showcases definitive portraits of the Jazz Age, including now classic studies of Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, and Noёl Coward.

Although Vanity Fair suspended publication in 1936, it would be resurrected in another period of decadence and excess—the 1980s—when Silicon Valley and Wall Street were buoyant, high society was in full swing, and the art market was exploding. Relaunched in 1983, the publication’s purpose once again was to define contemporary celebrity and identify the leading cultural figures. As in the early period, portrait photography was the graphic bedrock of the magazine. In the tradition of Frank Crowninshield, the revived magazine commissioned such leading photographers as Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Nan Goldin, Herb Ritts, Harry Benson, Mario Testino, and Bruce Weber.

Once again, these portraitists photographed cultural icons, but in a new period of celebrity and magazine culture. New platforms arose for entertainment and information–the CD and camcorder, satellite television, the personal computer, and MTV. Media consumers, in turn, became increasingly preoccupied with the figures that permeated the video clips, audio streams, and computer and movie screens. In this media-entrenched age, the news cycle continually became shortened, and even at a time when the news was frequently measured in minutes, Vanity Fair managed to break news as a monthly publication with exclusive access to interviews and photo shoots. In 2005 alone, the magazine revealed the identity of Deep Throat, the confidential source of the Watergate scandal, and also published the first interview with actress Jennifer Aniston after her publicly scrutinized separation from actor Brad Pitt. Since the magazine’s relaunch, various cover images have made news, including presidential couple Nancy and Ronald Reagan dancing in their formal evening attire (1985), a disrobed and pregnant Demi Moore (1991), a formal portrait of President Bush’s Afghan- War Cabinet (2002), and most recently actresses Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley posing naked with designer Tom Ford (2006).

The name of one photographer in particular has become synonymous with Vanity Fair and contemporary celebrity—Annie Leibovitz. Just as Edward Steichen dominated Vanity Fair’s first incarnation, Leibovitz elaborately chronicles today’s version of celebrity. Selected from the several hundred shoots directed by Annie Leibovitz—often collaborating with photography Director Susan White and features editor Jane Sarkin—portraits of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kate Winslet, Lance Armstrong, George Clooney, as well as Leibovitz’s signature group portraits of the great talents of Hollywood will be on view at LACMA.

To provide a greater sense of the process and creative mindset behind each portrait, LACMA will be introducing new elements to the exhibition, such as behind-the-scenes videos from key Vanity Fair shoots, including 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 an extensive wall grid of Vanity Fair covers from both its early and modern periods, along with memoranda and memorabilia drawn from the magazine's early twentieth-century archive, which reveal the characters and issues that define the spirit of Vanity Fair.

Featuring a remarkable selection of 130 portraits, Vanity Fair Portraits, conceived by Graydon Carter, was curated by David Friend, Editor of Creative Development of Vanity Fair, and Terence Pepper, Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London. The LACMA showing of this exhibition is organized by Charlotte Cotton, Head and Curator of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department. Before opening at LACMA, Vanity Fair Portraits was presented at the National Portrait Gallery, London (February 14–May 26, 2008) and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (June 14–September 21, 2008). After LACMA’s presentation, the exhibition will complete its tour at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia (June 12–August 30, 2009).

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