Tuesday 20 May 2008

A portrait of the artist as a tired pirate

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008, National Portrait Gallery, London

We know the saying ‘the camera can’t lie’ is a cliché. We are sceptical about, say, a supposed action shot of a battlefield death, or the spontaneous snap of a politician which just happens to show him or her a good light. They don’t catch us out. But what about deliberately-posed photographs? Should we treat them with the same disdain that we accord to their ‘authentic’ counterparts or – by virtue of their having been posed – can we take them more seriously, see if their subjects have anything to tell us? This exhibition from work commissioned and published by Vanity Fair magazine gives us some clues.

In the early years of the last century, photographs of leading political, religious social and artistic figures were nothing new. But a brash-and-breezy presentation to them was, emphasised by the fact that they were in the informal setting of a magazine which could be held in anyone’s hands. This new informality gave sense of intimacy with the subjects but, at the same time, this was an era when hierarchy – in one form or another – still had some power. The people from the arts world shown here are accessible, but we still have a sense that they are somehow special, a breed apart. So we see the Brown Brothers 1914 picture of an alert Irving Berlin behind his desk, radiating toughness as he’s about to start making a showbiz deal. Bernice Abbot’s 1926 picture of a rather washed-out looking James Joyce wearing an eye-patch gives us a portrait of the artist as a tired pirate.

The 1920s and 30s are dominated by the work of Edward Steichen. In his 1923 photo of vaudeville star Fanny Brice we see her looking – paradoxically – very girly in a man-drag whilst his 1925 photo of WC Fields shows the actor looking dishevelled rather than as the snappily dressed barfly we’re used to seeing in old clips of him engaged in droll repartee with Mae West. In Steichen’s 1928 photo of Greta Garbo she looks out at us with an imperious expression. Four years later, the face of Noel Coward also dominates – it almost shines out for he may be young but he’s already The Master – in Steichen’s photo of him, even though most of his body is hidden in shade. Steichen’s 1935 photo of Colette is an exception to the Hollywood crowd as she leans over the side of a chair as she’s expectantly looking for someone in the distance.

But we’re back at the silver screen with cary Grant in George Hoyningen-Huene’s 1934 photo as the star leans against a wall whilst he smiles almost to bursting-point. Is he amused at the ‘is he, isn’t he?’ speculation that’s taking place about his sexuality? Peter Lorre, the perpetual tragic-sneaky fall-guy of noir films such as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, is cornered by pointing fingers as he is captured in Lusha Nelson’s 1935 photo. Jean harlow may radiate come-hither charm as she lies on top of an animal skin rug in george Hurrell’s 1934 photo, but she also seems eager to please. The Hollywood ice-goddess – exemplified by Dietrich and Garbo – is already melting and morphing into the accommodating, available, 1950s tits and ass girls like Monroe and Mansfield.

The post-war years seem empty, have little tha is eye-catching. David Hockney, snapped by Helmut Newton in 1985, seems to dither between looking tough or come-on cute. And, from the same year, Newton’s photo of Billy Wilder and his second wife, Audrey Wilder shows the veteran director of classics such as Some Like It Hot pulling on her necklace whilst she leans dominantly over him. But there s little impact, and that’s not necessarily the fault of the snappers. Matching Western changes in general about how authority figures are viewed, democratised celebrity culture was starting to replace the concept of the aloof star whose image was carefully presented and who was shielded, as far as possible, by the studios from the effects of scandal.

Not until the 1990s do the subjects come alive. In Dafydd jones’s 1997 picture of Mick Jagger, Madonna and Tony Curtis, Jagger smiles like a naughty schoolboy who’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t, whilst Madonna seems to be aiming for traditional Hollywood glamour – commendably – but this has the unintended effect of seeming to age her prematurely. Only Curtis seems well-preserved, if a little tired. The real problem that the photographers have to face is exemplified by Annie Leibowitz’s Legends of Hollywood photograph from 2001. Here we see ten of cinema’s contemporary leading ladies – Sophia Loren, Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Chloe Sevigny, and Penelope Cruz – reclining in a glamorous 18th century interior setting. They all show that the cinema can still be stylish when it puts its mind to it, but legends? Some of these actresses – you can work out whom – possibly qualify for the L-word accolade. The remainder are distinguished actresses of varying degrees of skill and service, but they have yet to reach the summit of fame where they can remain untouched by the hands of cinematic, box-office or celebrity magazine ill-fortune.

A few months after the photograph was made, another was taken of a subject that was anything but glamorous. Jonas Karlsson’s Firefighters near Ground Zero, Manhattan (Men of Engine Company 50, Ladder Company 19) shows the assembled men – still grimy from their grim work – whose expressions register fear, seeming contempt (perhaps inspired by a sense that the photographer was being exploitative), regret, a lingering incomprehension of what has happened, stoical numbness. If any of the photos in the exhibition show the value of posed photography as a method of revealing the deepest of human emotions, this one does.

It’s almost with a sense of relief that we turn to Norman Jean Ray’s 2004 photo of Hilary Swank running along the beach. The fact that it’s staged seems to make her put her all into it, to show what her mind and body can do. It captures her exultant determination as every muscle in her body strains whilst she leaps along the beach and revels in her power, her hair streaming out.

The work on display here doesn’t solve the problem of how reliable photography is as a visual medium. That’s an argument that’s going to run and run. Who took the photo – and who arranged it – are questions that we increasingly need to ask in a visually-conscious, spin-driven age. But, in the meantime, the photos in this exhibition provide degrees of insight about how the false – the pose – can help to reveal the truth. And the fact that they sometimes do so with a touch of glamour is an added bonus.


Till 26 May 2008


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