I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Strike a pose
A giant banner of Linda Evangelista hangs outside Manchester Art Gallery. Her head is held high and she is wearing a silk taffeta opera coat. She looks like a duchess deciding whether to let you into her party. Luckily for those of us who are not fashionistas, Vogue 100: A Century of Style is free and open to everyone.
The exhibition, previously at the London's National Portrait Gallery, is mainly a celebration of the photography which appears in its pages. Some of the images, such as Diana, Princess of Wales (Patrick Demarchelier, December 1990) and the imperious gaze of Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street (David Bailey, October 1985) are so familiar that they immediately draw attention to themselves. There are also a number of photographs of current members of the royal family including HRH the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Charles - which poses the question of whether Vogue's photographers play the role that court painters used to play.
It is the photographs where the subject is less famous and the photographer had more room to play that I particularly enjoyed. In Gemma 2004 (Nick Knight), the model stands in the middle of an explosion of colour - a bit like a psychedelic Jackson Pollock drip painting. In An Awfully Big Adventure (Tim Walker, December 2011), Kirsi Pyrhonen wears a goat fur-jacket and sits on a wild marshland yak. Helena Bonham Carter in a Glass Elevator (December 2008) also by Tim Walker, does what it says, except that the actress is also in the middle of a field.
Surreal juxtapositions continue with Scenes from the Soviet Union, Jerry Hall in Armenia (Norman Parkinson, 1976) where the Texan model is in a jersey swimsuit on top of a Statue of Tamar on the banks of Lake Sevan.
Speaking at the preview event, Dr Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth, University of Manchester and Manchester City Galleries, said that Vogue has always reflected cultural as well as sartorial times. One of my favourite exhibits is a blown-up image of David Hockney at work on a portrait (Cecil Beaton, 1968). The exhibition also includes modern literary stars such as Martin Amis (Snowden, August 1978) and goes further back with a photograph of a suitably grumpy Evelyn Waugh (Irving Penn, July 1952). Dylan Thomas is captured in a bow tie in the overgrown graveyard at Laugharne (John Deakin, March 1950).The poet is buried in the over-spill graveyard of St. Martin's Church. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, is included not just because of his literary accomplishments but because he was a sub-editor and later chief book reviewer for Vogue.
It's surprising, at first, to see war and post-war photographs. Some, such as Renaissance by Clifford Coffin, return to the technique of juxtaposition. For example in his June 1947 photograph of Wenda Rogerson, in an evening gown, in front of a bomb-damaged staircase in Grosvenor Square. The photograph which really stopped me in my tracks was The Daughter of the Burgermeister of Leipzig (Lee Miller, September 1945). Regina Lisso, from the German Red Cross, is leant back on a sofa, having committed suicide. It's an image which draws a chilling parallel with other posed photographs of models on the gallery walls.
History is also represented in the form of Cecil Beaton's photographs of Wallis Simpson before her marriage to the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, in 1937. The marriage necessitated the Duke of Windsor to abdicate from the throne, because his bride was a divorced woman. In a rare, non-photographic exhibit, a rococo scrollwork jacket and dress, by Elsa Schiaparelli, worn by Wallis Simpson is displayed in a glass case.
Vogue also delves deeply into its own history, including the photograph Dolores with Crystal Ball, May 1919, by Baron Adolph de Meyer, which features the famous Ziegfeld showgirl. One room displays magazine covers, through the decades, including the first issue, of September 1916, which has an illustration on its cover. The talent for illustration, as well as photography, was crucial for early Vogue contributors, such as Cecil Beaton.
The first photograph that greets you as you enter the exhibition is one of Kate Moss (Mighty Aphrodite June 2012 by Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott). She also appears in the excellent video montage at the start of the exhibition, along with Cara Delevingne, Naomi Campbell and other famous Vogue-faces. I'm still not sure if modelling itself is a talent - it seems, in many ways, to be a confidence trick the model plays on themselves.
The exhibition is divided into decades and Kate Moss appears in three of them. One of the questions posed by Vogue 100, curated by Robin Muir, is whether the photographer needs the subject more than the subject needs the photographer. In the case of Kate Moss, it's hard to untangle - she needed the artistry of photographers to become a name in the fashion world, but any new photographer on the scene would now probably kill for a chance to do a photoshoot with the model. What's refreshing about these images of Kate Moss and other models, is that their images are not being used to sell anything (apart from the magazine).
British Vogue came into being because the American versions could not reach British shores, during the First World War. Alexandra Shulman editor-in-chief of British Vogue said, at the exhibition launch event, that as the decades move on styles in photography change, but through them runs a distillation of style. I would add that Vogue shows us what that world looked like at the time of publication, in its own artistically rendered, highly selective and exquisitely edited way.