Vanity Fair: The tales behind the ultimate portfolio

From the stunningly intimate to the truly spectacular, 'Vanity Fair' sets the benchmark for celebrity photography. As its greatest portraits go on show, Rob Sharp tells the tales behind the ultimate portfolio
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The Independent Culture

Imagine you are a Hollywood agent, managing a gamut of demanding A-List clients, including people who can claim to be among the most recognisable faces on earth. In all likelihood, there are quite a lot of things on your "to do" list. Get them a spot on Letterman. Check. Make sure they are snapped emerging from the restaurant du jour with a photogenic twentysomething. Check. Make sure they don't advocate any slightly ridiculous religions on YouTube. Er, check.

But at the top of this list – several hundred rungs above it, in fact – there is one photograph worth a thousand television appearances. This one will mark your client's ascendancy into a pantheon of celebrities that are seemingly not of this world; a collection of Olympians who have appeared in a publication, which since its inception nearly a hundred years ago, has documented the crème de la crème of the world's famous in all their glittering guises. You will lie, cheat and steal to get your client into its hallowed pages because that publication – if you dare speak its name without a sharp intake of breath – is Vanity Fair.

If Hollywood is a dream factory, then this magazine is its ethereal brochure.

Established in 1913 by the publisher Condé Nast, Vanity Fair has always been at the cutting edge of high-society magazine journalism, a fact made clear by its abundantly good looks. Think of any classic celebrity photography during your lifetime – Mario Testino's shots of the late Princess Diana, Annie Leibovitz's pregnant Demi Moore – and the chances are they were first published in this magazine. It has launched the careers of a who's who of magazine photographers since its inception – Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Bruce Weber, Helmut Newton, Testino, Leibovitz, to name a few.

"They seem to me to be the ultimate documenter of our time, in probably the most sophisticated way," says Testino, who first shot for the magazine with Madonna in November 1996. "Before working for them I was always amazed by the content, the constant surprises. You never really knew exactly what you were going to see."

Next month sees an exhibition of 150 of Vanity Fair's defining images open at the National Portrait Gallery in London – a selection of which are published here. Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 aims to show the diversity and breadth of the Vanity Fair portfolio. Those featured are just a small taster of what is to come. But what a taster.

From Julia Roberts, shot in crumpled couture by Herb Ritz in 1993, to Hilary Swank leaping down Malibu Beach in front of the lens of Norma Jean Roy in 2004, each picture captures the bright young things of their day. Even the archive shots have a freshness and vigour in them that, decades later, still seems incredibly contemporaneous. Take the 1929 shot of actors Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Joan Crawford sitting back to back on the beach. Its breezy candour is miles ahead of its time.

"Douglas Fairbanks Junior was a columnist for the magazine, as was his father before him, and he and Joan Crawford were recently married," says exhibition curator and Manhattan-based Vanity Fair creative David Friend, of the shot. "They posed in a similar way to the way his father had in a photograph at a beach in Malibu. The photographer, Nickolas Muray, was a fencer with Fairbanks Senior and Junior became friends with him. So, it was him and his new bride. It's pretty rare to see a picture that feels so fresh: it feels almost like a 35mm photograph. At that time you would often see a square or vertical picture, but this has a really modern feel to it. Even though it is clear the photographer has set it up – it's too perfect not have been massaged – there is a spirit in the picture that feels more relaxed."

The picture shows us a naturalism which has always been a Vanity Fair staple. Whether it is Fairbanks and Crawford relaxing by the beach, or Weber's intimate shots of Sam Shepard and wife Jessica Lange sharing a moment, the pictures have acted like a portal to another world for readers, giving them unparalleled access to their heroes.

But if there is a leitmotif for which Vanity Fair has become known more recently it is the group shot. These celebrity saturated portraits are seen, most famously, as a glossy gatefold image every year on the cover of the magazine's Hollywood issue and shot by Annie Leibovitz. These celebrity-heavy get-togethers, which may result from more than one sitting seamlessly stitched together, have budgets that can stretch into hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the results cleverly construct the idea that all celebrities are essentially old mates and that only Vanity Fair holds the key to this exclusive club.

In 2006, Mark Seliger was commissioned to take a picture of the Royal Shakespeare Company to mark their Complete Works festival. The photographer wanted to assemble some of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time – including Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen – to promote theatre company. David Friend had to organise the group portrait. "Mark Seliger is very good at groups," says Friend, "and at making big-name talent feel comfortable in front of the camera. I received a call from a publicist in America saying there was this anniversary at Stratford and he named some names and said, 'why don't we get them in one picture?' We worked for two months to get people shot in one place –many of them happened to be in London, though there may have been another session in New York. Mark is great at animating people, and this was a high-powered group – he put them in an august surrounding."

Each shoot requires painstaking organisation, but the results can be spectacular, as you can see here in this image of Run DMC in a semi-submerged low rider, cruising past Liberty Island. "We can work for months on a shoot," says Vanity Fair features editor, Jane Sarkin. "Especially the Hollywood cover because of the number of people involved. There's the scheduling of the subject or subjects and the photographer, finding the right location, choosing the right stylists and creating the concept. Then there are the shoots that come together very quickly; the stars are in complete alignment and everything goes like clockwork."

Perhaps predictably, when you are dealing with these kinds of egos, there can be hiccups. When Julian Broad was asked to shoot Radiohead, not the most media-friendly of bands, they were in the middle of the Italian leg of a gruelling world tour. It was 2000 and the five-strong band were at the peak of their post-OK Computer fame. Broad, a veteran of Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Harper's Bazaar, was late for the shoot, which was to take place at the historic Giardini di Villa Reale in Monza, owing to heavy traffic.

The band were being prickly. When Broad asked Radiohead's introspective singer, Thom Yorke, about posing on a battered sofa in the green room, he was met with a typically outré reply. "You can shoot me on the sofa," said Yorke, "but only if I happen to sit on it. We are not going to pose," he insisted. Broad, already befuddled by a band he describes as looking "like they'd swallowed dictionaries" waited his turn as they moved from room to room and ignored him, baulking at the prospect of having their image managed. Broad only managed a half-dozen shots, capturing Yorke and only two others of the band. But in that instant – he maintains – he added one of the most unique and honest shots to his already superlative portfolio.

He sums up the prestige of shooting for Vanity Fair thus: "It still has an amazing resonance; the people that have been working on it have been working on it for a long time. [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon [Carter] commands a serious loyalty and that filters down to the photo department. They are so down to earth and straightforward."

The exhibition will create quite a stir. "From the beginning of the magazine you'd have athletes and industrialists at the height of the Jazz Age and we've continued to gather together people from various walks of life," says Friend. "You see the vintage prints and the modern contemporary prints and put them together and you think, 'my gosh' – here's a picture of Gary Cooper and you start to get a sense of what he stood for. You see a Cocteau and then, suddenly, you think here are the modern filmmakers, Spielberg and Lucas, and look at how each is rendered in their contemporary setting.

"You get this sense of time compression and how one magazine created the canvas for this: creating a public sense of public image of these celebrated figures in all these areas."

To all intents and purposes, Vanity Fair is not just a window on the dream, it is the dream.

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008, sponsored by Burberry, opens at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on Thursday 14 February. Ticket bookings on 0870 013 0703; www.npg.org.uk. The exhibition tours to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 14 June to 21 September.

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