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Posed and Poised

The power of portrait photography is fully developed in two simultaneous exhibits hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Steichen captured Broadway actress Mary Heberden for the March 15, 1935 issue of <i>Vogue</i> wearing an off-the-shoulder black satin dress with orchids laced in her hair<br>(photo courtesy of Condé Nast Archive, New York © 1935 Condé Nast Publications).ON NOW A single photo has the ability to identify a time, immediately characterizing the state of the world through global events or the economy, the mood of citizens, trends and fashion. Having evolved from the days of portrait painting, the purveying details of a person—including clothes, jewellery and hairstyles—immortalizes an individual at a given moment in their life, documenting their status for both family records and social history. In Toronto, two separate but complementary exhibits at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum showcase more than 300 photographs that helped define the culture of the 20th century.

The late photographer Edward Steichen, who once said “Photography is a major force in explaining man to man,” is the focus of the AGO show, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937. As chief photographer for both Vanity Fair and Vogue, Steichen elevated fashion photography to an art form, dramatically illuminating models, actors, writers and politicians in extraordinary environments, enabling the public to see them in a different light. Through Steichen’s skillful lens, his subjects—Amelia Earhart, Noel Coward, Martha Graham, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford among them—personified the glamour of the 1920s and 1930s.

Steichen’s other stomping ground is the focus of the ROM’s exhibit, Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008. The iconic figures who have graced the magazine’s pages over the course of its 95-year history comprise the 146-image display. Presented in conjunction with Vanity Fair and London’s National Portrait Gallery, Toronto is exclusive Canadian stop for this show, which mixes Hollywood’s marquee names with artists, newsmakers, musicians and athletes. Among the celebrated—and sometimes controversial—faces who have mugged for the coveted glossy are French painter Claude Monet, Olympic medalist Jesse Owens, playwright Arthur Miller, Golden Age actress Greta Garbo, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, hip hop performers Run DMC, former President George W. Bush, and newspaper magnate Conrad Black.

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