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Phenomenal Photography: Vanity Fair, Steichen and Leibovitz

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Toronto has been blessed with two new wonderful exhibitions offering a photographic feast for the eyes: the Royal Ontario Museum's Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 and the Art Gallery of Ontario's Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Conde Nast Years, 1923-1937. Ensconced in the ROM's dazzling new addition, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, Vanity Fair Portraits showcase iconic images from Steichen's work as the magazine's chief photographer from 1923 to 1936, as well as from famed photographer Annie Leibovitz's work as Vanity Fair's principal photographer, a role she has occupied since 1983. The AGO, recently redesigned by famed architect Frank Gehry, is displaying over 200 Steichen photographs from the 1920's and 30's that forever influenced fashion photography and immortalized leading writers, artists, actors, dancers and politicians. These unique exhibits are not-to-be-missed delights.

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(The Art Gallery of Ontario)

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(The Royal Ontario Museum)

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Vanity Fair's modern-era magazine and the 95th anniversary in 2008 of the magazine's founding, Vanity Fair Portraits is the first major exhibition to unite the magazine's historic archive of rare vintage prints with its contemporary photographs. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair said, "I'm especially proud that the Vanity Fair Portraits will be making a stop in Canada, and at the Royal Ontario Museum, no less. It's a wonderful institution -- a place I remember fondly from my childhood." The ROM is the only Canadian venue to display the exhibit, and this is the first showing in all of eastern North America.

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(Vanity Fair Portraits Exhibit in the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal)

The mixed-media approach at the ROM is particularly successful in representing the trajectory of the magazine and illuminating just how much work goes into creating a beautiful and iconic photograph. Vintage and modern editions of Vanity Fair are displayed alongside three short films showing behind-the-scenes footage from photo shoots directed by Steichen and Leibovitz. The Leibovitz films are particularly interesting to watch, as she is known for her elaborate, expensive and painstakingly composed shoots, however I felt disappointed (and naïve) to discover the extent to which she uses Photoshop and frankly, a little less impressed with her photos.

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(Julianne Moore)

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(A Vanity Fair Hollywood Cover)

The AGO's Edward Steichen exhibit is showcased on dark, royal blue walls that can't help but show off Steichen's brilliant photographs from the 1920's and 30's, including one short film of the playful yet exacting Steichen at work. As a chief photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair during these decades, Steichen chronicled the collections of many great designers, including Poiret, Chanel, Lanvin and Schiaparelli, and captured many of the era's greatest figures from politics, literature, fashion, Hollywood and more.

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(Edward Steichen, Self Portrait; Katherine Hepburn)

What I find so remarkable about Steichen's photographs is the meticulous attention to detail, the gorgeous geometry of the lines and shadows, the force with which the images command your attention. To create such photos without the assistance of modern computer technology speaks to the genius of Steichen and his unbridled passion for the art of photography. Another interesting fact I learned came care of Sophie Hackett, assistant curator of Photography at the AGO. She told me that Steichen never believed he was capturing the essence or soul of his subject, as some photographers claim to. Alternatively, he asserted that his images simply represented a moment of vitality. The ROM's Vanity Fair Portraits describe Leibovitz's work as oscillating between "painstakingly composed mini-dramas" and "stripped down documentary photos that reflect the souls of her subjects", however I'm with Steichen -- how could anyone's true soul be captured in a photo, much less the soul of a celebrity who does nothing but act?

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(Joan Crawford; Dancers)

The Vanity Fair Portraits and Edward Steichen exhibitions complement each other beautifully and do an excellent job of narrating a history of glamour, elegance, personality and celebrity. Taking a cue from Shakespeare who famously proclaimed, "all the world's a stage/and all the men and women merely players", I urge you to visit the ROM and AGO to see famous figures captured at play, you're sure to like it.

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Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 and Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Conde Nast Years, 1923-1937 will be open until January 3rd, 2010.

To find out more about the Royal Ontario Museum and the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibition go here, for more about the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Edward Steichen exhibition go here.

Photos courtesy of the ROM and AGO. Building photos of the ROM and AGO from Food Court Lunch and the Thomas Mayer Archive.

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