Photography As Theater – Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008

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Vanity Fair Photos

Most travel photographers work casually, keeping an eye out for the serendipitous or waiting for a mashup of subject, action and light in one magic “aha!” moment. Unlike Disney, I have never chased lemmings over a cliff or like Geographic, lit a cave with a thousand flashbulbs. My highest level of management is usually simply waiting for something to happen: for the light to change color and move across a landscape, or two tots on a teeter totter to teeter just right (the fat kid on top and the skinny on the bottom). Sometimes I anticipate a moment and prepare for it, rushing in front of an oxcart so it will line up perfectly with a temple when it passes by.

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art  illustrates a different kind of art: photography as theater.

It hearkens back to the Fox Talbott days of glass plates and interminable exposures which meant that everything had to be staged and everyone had to sit still. Ironically, the birth of Vanity Fair in 1913 coincided with the birth of the photographers’ liberator, the tiny Leica 35mm camera, which gave them the freedom to abandon their tripods and big black boxes and which later, through the eyes of photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, made candid, spontaneous photography both a new art form and a medium for duffers.

But Vanity Fair was not about spontaneity, it was about stagecraft. It was about creating the mythology of fashion, image and celebrity during the Roaring 20s and the Greed is Good 80s and 90s (Vanity Fair went bust during the depression and was revived in 1983). My favorite photos were by perhaps the ultimate stage director photographers of their time: Edward Steichen, in Vanity Fair’s early days and Annie Leibovitz today. A series of films on display show both at work, how both ran their photo shoots like film productions, managing everything from styling and makeup, lighting and fog machines through retouching. Steichen was depicted as a cigar chomping dandy in a three piece suit. A film of Leibovitz’ re-creation of George Clooney directing a soundstage on the beach crewed by half-naked beauties shows that soundstage within her own soundstage, theatre depicting theatre. If you look at the final print, you will see that the spotlights and the ocean background are Photoshopped in. (There are celebrity Photoshop geeks in New York and Hollywood on par with fashion designers and hairdressers). Alas I know a few purists who are still shooting film and slopping around in the poisonous potions of the darkroom.

Along with prints from Steichen, and Leibovitz, Cecil Beaton, Harry Benson, Julian Broad, Imogen Cunningham, Man Ray, Mary Ellen Mark, Steven Meisel, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Mario Testino, and Bruce Weber, the show features a collection of Vanity Fair covers, some of which were controversial, like the Leibovitz take on Demi Moore nude and pregnant.

Now, in this era of economic upheaval and social and technical change, I just wonder what direction photography as art will go. The cult of Vanity Fair and celebrity grew up in the 20s and 80s, two periods of “irrational exuberance” followed by bubbles and crashes. The Great Depression buried Vanity Fair, despite a huge circulation, just as our current economic meltdown is destroying current media. Crappy homemade video of gifted dogs and cats is challenging established over-the-air television for viewership. One of my favorite new expressive tools is Qik, which lets you stream live video over your mobile phone to the world over the web for free. Most of the videos you see are dogs and cats and the floor, people trying it out and saying “whee,” I can do this. Will there ever be art in this? Maybe not. But it is spontaneous, instant and can be collaborative and that is the way much art is going.

Even so, I think there will always be pleasure and indeed art in careful, elaborate stagecraft, heightened reality that titillates us and suspends our disbelief…especially during hard times.

Unfortunately Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 will only be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through March 1. After that, its gone. No more US shows.

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