Tuesday 21 March 2023

To tell the story of the moment you’re in is not always an easy thing

Josephine Baker (1927) by George Hoyningen-Huene for Vanity Fair

From the foreword by Dame Anna Wintour:

Brilliance and bravery. Those are my impressions from Chronorama: Photographic Treasures of the 20th Century that tells a story of the better part of a century through people, places, fashion, culture, and art. The word “brilliance” comes to mind because this is the work of the best photographers of our age. Steichen, Penn, Horst, Beaton, Newton, Elgort, Miller, and so many others – their names are as iconic as the cultural figures they captured.

Edward Steichen's Mary Heberden wearing a satin dress (1935) for Vogue

But I also think of bravery because these are magazine pictures. Photographs commissioned by editors to run in the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, House & Garden, GQ, Mademoiselle, and Glamour – Condé Nast magazines with a wide and varied readership. Each photograph is therefore an act of journalism: this person represents our moment, these clothes tell us about the time we’re in, this building or object explains our era.

Bert Stein's Twiggy (1967) for Vogue

Is journalism art? Of course, and every page of Chronorama puts that question to rest. But magazine pictures are also something slightly to the side of art, and that is why they seem so brave to me. To tell the story of the moment you’re in is not always an easy thing. Who is relevant? What matters now? What is happening? The answers can set off a storm of debate.

Suzy Parker's Snapshot of her famous sister Dorian Leigh (1954) for Vogue

Mick Jagger (1964) by David Bailey for Vogue

The editors behind these photographs, everyone from Edna Woolman Chase to Frank Crowninshield to Grace Mirabella to Alexander Liberman, Condé Nast’s legendary editorial director, made wonderful choices. The people here do define the century, from Charlie Chaplin to James Joyce to Henri Matisse to Ernest Hemingway, Mick Jagger, Catherine Deneuve, Karl Lagerfeld, Richard Avedon, Arthur Ashe, Twiggy, Veruschka, and so many others. The settings and fashion are profoundly chic.

Liza Minnelli (1967) by Alexis Waldeck for Vogue

It is impossible to pick favorites among the pages of Chronorama, but I will say this: the bravest pictures, the controversial ones, have uncommon power. Think of Helmut Newton’s “Story of Ohhh…” from 1975, a portfolio so sexually liberated that Vogue readers were aghast. Or the Deborah Turbeville bathhouse photographs from the same issue, as unsettling and allusive as they are glamorous. Or any one of Irving Penn’s unrelenting, uncompromising images with their classical, modernist style. In the 1950s, Vogue editors apparently fretted that his pictures were too much: “They burn the page,” they said. They certainly do.

Benedetta Barzini (1969) by Gian Paolo Barbieri for Vogue

I like to look forward, not back, but seeing these photographs, I find myself a little nostalgic for a different age, warmly recalling how, when I came to Vogue, Mr Penn would photograph models with barely anyone around him, only him, a Vogue editor, and the smallest of teams. I think of photographers disappearing for weeks and coming back with pictures that astonished me and frightened me too. Every editor knows the experience: the recognition of risk and the knowledge that no other choice will do.

Chronorama: Photographic Treasures of the 20th Century is published on 30th March 2023.


  1. All so classy compared to what we see now.

    1. Having not even seen a copy of any of the fashion magazines anywhere - the days of really ancient copies of Grazia or Cosmo appearing in a doctor's waiting-room having long gone for obvious recent 'Rona-related reasons - I couldn't possibly comment on how modern fashion photography shapes up.

      I rather suspect that it would indeed lack the classiness on offer above, however. Jx

  2. Brilliance and bravery certainly sum up the life of Josephine Baker.
    Fabulous photos. I particularly like the Liza Minnelli. Who knew that she was ' head shrunk by Vogue - is that a magazine or something?’

  3. Perhaps those of us approaching "significant datelines" are just grumpy old gits who should shut up and let the youngsters shuffle along in rags and tatters.
    But today's yoof just seem to be the great unwashed. I know one or two "models" who dress so far down when they're not dressed up that they look like something that fell out of the dustbin. And yet they've all had the currently fashionable big eyebrows treatment!

    1. I saw that Cara Delevigne on the Tube a couple of years back, and I genuinely thought "how did she get a modelling contract in the first place?" Eyebrows-a-go-go! Jx

  4. Bonkers for these classic photos. Thank you for sharing, dear. May we all be captured so brilliantly. Kizzes.

    1. If only one could nowadays be artfully photographed by Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. Such a shame he departed for Fabulon in 1968. Jx


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