Vanity Fair: Oscar Night Sessions: A Decade of Portraits from the After-Party

Image of Vanity Fair: Oscar Night Sessions: A Decade of Portraits from the After-Party
Release Date: 
November 14, 2023
Reviewed by: 

Every year since 1994, Vanity Fair has hosted a star-studded Oscar celebration. The brainchild of former editor Graydon Carter, the evening begins with a 100-person watch party but quickly reaches a crescendo as a bacchanalia of celebrities. In 2014, photographer Mark Seliger was brought in to create a mini portrait studio on site—an oasis in which the glitterati can be further immortalized on film. Vanity Fair: Oscar Night Sessions chronicles Seliger’s decade as the official photographer of this event.

Seliger was originally asked to photograph the Oscar party as part of what some may call a rather brilliant PR stunt. Vanity Fair wanted to use the exclusive nature of the evening to draw viewers to its Instagram account; and so, Seliger was asked to create portraits of stars, many with their newly christened awards in tow, that would appear online the same night. Millions of eyes logged in to “heart” the results.

Since then, Seliger and his team have continued to try to elevate this annual photoshoot, creating theatrical sets, dramatic lighting options, and gradually incorporating more direction for sessions that last mere minutes with each sitter. In her introduction, current editor-in-chief Radhika Jones notes how Seliger manages to provide a calming space among the excited chaos of the night, each encounter ending with a quiet round of applause once he has gotten his shot.

While the evenings tend to begin on a fairly breezy note, with celebrities entering the studio during commercial breaks, they quickly whip into a frenzy as more and more guests arrive fresh from the red carpet, statuettes in hand, glowing with jubilation. Filled with some of his best photographs over the years, Oscar Night Sessions acts not just as a who’s who of Hollywood, but a visual chronicle and archive of how the industry has shifted—both its triumphs or, in the case of a 2018 portrait of Chadwick Boseman, its tragic losses.

The portraits themselves are universally excellent. There is an intimacy that brings realness, human-ness to the faces of these iconic actors. Never before has Robert De Niro looked so much like an average person than in his 2020 portrait—but please do not interpret “average” as pejorative. His face has a beauty to it like a grandfather meeting his grandchild for the first time—a combination of quiet awe and tenderness unlike any emotion he’s ever expressed on screen.

Alternatively, many of Hollywood’s more outré personalities pop off the page. In his 2020 portrait, Taika Waititi appears appropriately crazed while holding his Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, while in 2016, Eugene Levy strikes his notorious shocked-dad face amidst an otherwise laughing group shot with other famous funnymen. There are also plenty of examples where, as the night wears on, one gets the feeling that some actors are treating Seliger’s set like a giant photo booth at a wedding, mugging for the camera and creating ridiculous tableaux—like Paul Rudd and Adam Scott arm wrestling across a Dustbowl-level distressed table in 2014, or Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow demonstrating the perfect blooper couples picture that same year. 

Despite a universal high quality to all of these images, there is also a sameness to many of the compositions—something bound to happen given the constraints of the operation and the fact that so many of them share the same set. But if a star is not performing and posing, the go-to stance in many of these photos is “staring thoughtfully off stage right.” No matter how well-shot and beautiful, this can be a bit monotonous after 50 pages.

Finally, as with any coffee table book, the printing is an important component since these objects tend to be used just as much, if not moreso, for decoration as for reading—and this volume falls a bit flat. The all-text cover fails to pack the necessary punch for a photography book, and the dust jacket is the kind that is immediately marred by oily fingerprints no matter how clean one’s hands. It also just seems a bit cheap in both its skinniness and unremarkable binding. It feels more like a hardbound magazine—which, given that it is for Vanity Fair, may have been the point.