by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Vanity Fair and Harry Benson

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When Conde Nast and his editor Frank Crown­shield launched the first in­carn­a­tion of Vanity Fair in 1913 - the year that the American public were in­tro­duced to “modern art” by the groun­d­break­ing Armory Show - the idea of celebrity was in a state of flux, and it shows in the early pho­to­graphs on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

There are actors, actresses and dancers aplenty, and even a few char­ac­ters mostly famous for being famous, but pol­it­i­ci­ans are absent, while authors and artists, even the most avant garde, are set on a level with the more frivolous famous. Virginia Woolf looks decidedly Victorian in a three-quarter-length portrait, Aldous Huxley glowers in­tel­lec­tu­ally into the frame, George Bernard Shaw flashes jauntily the lining of his suit jacket with an eyebrow raised, James Joyce thinks deep thoughts behind his specs and eyepatch, and the beautiful Frida Kahlo poses proudly with fellow artist and husband Diego Rivera.

These simple, straight­for­ward, almost doc­u­ment­ary shots are set against rather more hammy fare - Isodara Duncan in robes at the Parthenon, a moody Augustus John clutching a paint­brush - and, in es­t­ab­l­ish­ing these two modes of celebrity por­trait­ure, the pioneers at Vanity Fair es­t­ab­l­ished the standards followed to this day.

Indeed, when the magazine was re­sur­rec­ted in 1981, the tics and tactics of the celebrity pho­to­graph­er­ had been set in stone, and, aside from a wil­l­ing­ness on the part of celebs and pub­l­ish­ers alike to show some skin, there is next to no di­f­fer­ence between the images of the 1900s and those from the 1980s and beyond. The merely famous are given a veneer of gravitas by the solemn, full-face portrait in black and white, now out of choice rather than necessity, shown to be real people, relaxing at home (not their own, more often than not, but one rented for the occasion), mugging with props suited to their pro­fes­sion, or arranged in “classical” poses, as if the pho­to­graph were a good old-fashioned painting.

The exception to this rule is Annie Liebowitz, and on the evidence here, her re­in­ven­tion of the celebrity pho­to­graph is not entirely positive, with in­nov­a­tions resting on ham-fisted symbolism, arty pre­ten­sions and a tendency to show the not par­t­ic­u­larly great and good as they imagine them­selves, or glibly to remind the viewer of how they found their fame. Lance Armstrong’s battle with cancer is explored by depicting the champion cyclist naked on his bike, riding through driving rain. Kate Winslet is dunked in a tank of water in a di­a­phan­ous dress, just in case anyone flicking through the magazine was unaware of her role in Titanic. At times, one almost suspects Liebowitz of pun­c­tur­ing her subjects’ vanity, or adding a satirical edge to her work, but it seems safe to say that this is in the eye of the beholder.

A shot of Arnold Sch­war­zeneg­ger­, gazing into the middle distance, his biceps straining against the T-shirt he’s chosen to wear, oddly, while skiing, is hilarious and sinister, the right-wing actor-pol­it­i­ci­an as ├╝ber­men­sch, with un­com­fort­able echoes of Leni Rie­fen­s­tahl. The less said about the pre­pos­ter­ous image of Mr and Mrs Tom Cruise cuddling their new baby on top of a mountain, the better. Jack Nicholson cel­e­b­rates his bad-boyhood by smoking a fag and driving golf balls off a Hollywood rooftop. Both men look silly, and the pho­to­graph­er­’s col­l­ab­or­at­ive approach - read sy­co­phancy - is at least in part to blame. Then there’s the pull-out covers, a much-copied Vanity Fair trademark, featuring a galaxy of stars, shot on separate occasions in separate time zones, assembled by a skilful, un­cred­ited Photoshop expert, who doubtless removes blemishes and slims paunches along the way - these are wonderful in their way, because the idea of a gathering of the ultra-famous in one place is tit­il­lat­ing - was there bitching on set, did so-and-so blank the one from that film? - but beyond that, Liebowitz does little but arrange actresses in flat­ter­ing poses.

In­ter­est­ingly, when Liebowitz plays it straight, the results are rather wonderful. A snap of three gen­er­a­tions of the Redgrave acting dynasty is full of warmth. Martin Scorsese and George Lucas are caught in a moment of friendly banter, as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola look on. Rupert Murdoch is cast as a friendly old duffer, messing about on his boat.

Thanks to Liebowitz’s show­boat­ing, and the strength of her simpler work, the plainest portraits and more candid shots stand out. Daffyd Jones’s shot of Mick Jagger, looking tired and rather bored on a banquette beside Tony Curtis and Madonna at one of Vanity Fair’s Oscars parties portrays three people as people, however feted they may be. Herb Ritts lets Clint Eastwood’s craggy old mug shine in an un­for­giv­ing close-up, and captures a telling moment, part public, part private when he shoots Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Neilson from above, snogging before cheering crowds. Helmut Newton, unable to fashion one of his studied tableaux due to time con­straints, shows Mrs Thatcher, cast-iron barnet intact, but tired and sad about the eyes.

Rather more twinkly is Harry Benson’s shot of Ronald and Nancy Reagan engaged in a spot of impromptu ballroom dancing. And there’s plenty more of Benson’s generous approach to his subjects at the Kelv­in­grove.

In fact, perhaps due to the rather fawning captions he provides, Benson seems too generous at times - the pho­to­graph of the Reagans is in both shows, ac­com­pan­ied in Glasgow by a sickly soft-focus image of the Clintons, a cheery Nixon on the campaign trail, and a portrait of George W Bush, then governor of Texas, smirking and playing golf.

Benson is much better when engaged in reportage. His doc­u­ment­ary work on the Glasgow of the early 1970s is powerful stuff, and the coverage of the as­sas­s­in­a­tion of Robert Kennedy is little short of breath­tak­ing, from Ethel Kennedy in a panic, pushing the pho­to­graph­er­ away from her husband’s body to the simple image of a straw-boater floating in the senator’s blood.

On the lighter, celebrity side, Benson’s unposed snaps beat his posed set-pieces hands down. The Queen is caught looking terribly jolly on a 1957 trip to a coal mine; Bob Guccione is shown sleazily touching up a model, who casts a withering glance in the Penthouse publisher’s direction; and Judy Garland looks lost and alone as an assistant lights her cigarette. For the most part, though, Benson’s work falls flat. It remains of interest thanks to his subjects - at times it feels as if he’s shot every single star of the past half-century - but not thanks to his pho­to­graphy.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 4th July , 2008.