“Vanity Fair Portraits” at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s featured exhibition for the festival was Vanity Fair Portraits – a large collections of photographs from the glossy magazine Vanity Fair.

The exhibition is in two parts, reflecting the history of the magazine: from 1913 to 1936, when the magazine stopped, and then from 1983 to the present, the publishers realising they actually had a marketable brand.

That is a long gap in the middle – nearly half the 20th century – and it is reflected in the pictures.

I found the first half of the exhibition far more rewarding than the second half. It features a surprising number of major figures in photography in the first half of the last century, and they produced some startling images. Most notable was the work by Edward Steichen – there were several of his photographs in the show.

There was also work by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Arthur Steiglitz and Charles Sheeler – these were big names in art, not just photography. Their portraits concentrated on the subject, and in developing photography as an artform: working in black and white, these are pictures that set a standard. They communicate the personality of the sitter – you feel you know a bit more about them.

I felt that the focus shifted in the second half of the exhibition. The photographs became glossier, in colour (although I still preferred those that were black and white) – and it was as if it was the photograph and the photographer rather than the subject that had become important.

The photographs became more and more complex, and the technology to produce them makes such complexity easy. The subject is diminished.

There are some brilliant photographs from this latter period, but looking at the pictures I found myself thinking, “wow! How did they do that?” rather than “wow, that really brings out the humanity in the sitter!”


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