From a triple portrait of the Sitwell siblings (in profile, naturally, the better to display that constellation of Roman noses) to a naked Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley disporting themselves for Annie Leibovitz's camera, Vanity Fair magazine has an impressive photographic archive stretching back to the start of the 20th century.
Next year highlights from that archive, some 150 photographic portraits, will go on display to the public at the National Portrait Gallery in London and at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
According to the NPG director, Sandy Nairne, 'It is a particularly extraordinary opportunity to access the early vintage prints in the archive, by photographers such as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton. The early years of Vanity Fair are dominated by portraits of the great by the great. There's a roster of fantastic artists.'
Vanity Fair had been a British society magazine founded in 1860, but the American magazine publisher Condé Nast bought the name in 1913 and hired the cultivated editor Frank Crowninshield to whip it into shape. At once the agenda was one of glamour and frivolity: 'Your magazine should cover the things people talk about,' Crowninshield told Nast. 'Parties, the arts, sports, theatre, humour, and so forth.'
Nonetheless, the roll call of great names photographed was heavyweight. The exhibition will feature, for example, a previously unpublished version of a portrait of D H Lawrence, and another hitherto unseen pose of Virginia Woolf, taken by Maurice Beck and Helen MacGregor, in 1924. The writer looks, if possible, even more etiolated than usual, clad in one of her mother's Victorian dresses for the occasion. There is a Man Ray shot of a matronly Gertrude Stein from 1922; and a gaunt Thomas Hardy in 1913, the year his great outpouring of love poetry came, after the death, the previous year, of his first wife.
Nijinsky is here, beturbanned, beringed and bedazzling, photographed by Baron de Meyer and published in the magazine in 1916; and a more soberly dressed Stravinsky, 1927, by the celebrated George Hoyningen-Huene. Plenty of Hollywood stars were apotheosised, not least a silkily seductive Jean Harlow, by George Hurrell (1934).
Vanity Fair ground to a halt, out of tune with the times, in 1936 - the year, perhaps not coincidentally, that the serious-minded, photo-reportage magazine Life sprang on to the scene. The periodical that had promised it could 'ignite a dinner party at 50 yards' looked dated in the face of increasingly polarised politics. 'It was too glib a magazine during the Depression and war,' said the co-curator of the exhibition, David Friend.
It took another age of excess and carefree consumption to prompt the relaunch of Vanity Fair. It returned in 1983. 'It was present at the birth of personality portraiture,' said Friend. 'When it returned it was about personality squared.'
Now photographers like Irving Penn and Helmut Newton dominated the pages of the magazine - Newton making even the tubbiest and most shambling subjects (for example David Hockney) look like Übermenschen. His unnerving portrait of Margaret Thatcher from 1991, somewhat reminiscent of a propaganda poster of Stalin, will be the largest-scale image on display in the exhibition. The magazine, according to co-curator Terence Pepper, was also particularly adept at commissioning future stars: a young Nan Goldin, for instance, shot actor Rob Lowe for Vanity Fair early in her career.
Leibovitz is perhaps the name most commonly associated with the magazine in its present form. Images that indelibly print themselves on the memory include Demi Moore pregnant and her 1987 portrait of the sisters Collins in the back of a limo, in full 1980s get-up of helmet hair, scarlet talons, animal-skin print, shades, and in the case of Joan, a cream rose provocatively nestling at the cleavage.
Leibovitz has also become famous for her large-scale, ultra-flattering foldout triptychs of Hollywood stars. The example pictured here, whose aesthetic was suggested by the Singer Sargent painting seen in the background above Sophia Loren's head, was actually shot in three locations, New York, Los Angeles, and London, and put together by the photographer. A particularly arresting image by Leibovitz in the show is a previously unseen pose of Miles Davis lying in bed with his trumpet.
Friend said of Vanity Fair's signature style: 'In the early stages of the magazine the photographers were auteurs who created the public images of their subjects. Often the subjects are looking off-frame, pretending as it were that they aren't in the photo. In the current era it is more of a collaboration. The subjects acknowledge that they are being mediated; they are forging their own public image.'
· Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from February 14 to May 26, and at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, from June 14 to September 21.
Text and image by Guardian News and Media Limited, UK