Images of public icons from Bette Davis to RUN D.M.C. are on display as Toronto’s two major cultural institutions collaborate to exhibit celebrity portraiture shot by the past century’s greatest photographers.

In honour of Vanity Fair’s 95th anniversary, the National Portrait Gallery of London and Vanity Fair created Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 — which opens at the Royal Ontario Museum this Saturday.

Running simultaneously are portraits by Edward Steichen, the magazine’s chief photographer from 1923-1937, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, with the exhibit Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years.

“You have this absolutely wonderful array of giants of photography then, and giants of photography now,” editor of creative development of Vanity Fair, David Friend, told an audience at the AGO.

After sifting through tens of thousands of images for the Vanity Fair exhibit, Friend and The National Portrait Gallery’s curator of photographs, Terence Pepper, selected 150 images for display — down from the magazines original request for an exhibit with 350 pictures.

“I did three trips over to Condé Nast archive in Times Square, fabulous archive, quite outstanding. Very few magazines have kept all their original artwork going right back and the Condé Nast archives is full of all these original prints by Man Ray, Steichen and everyone else,” Pepper said.

“Some things had been lost over the years, but we tracked them down and borrowed them back.”

Images in the exhibit include striking portraits that have become icons of their eras: A black and white portrait of Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the ’20s; Louis Armstrong with his trumpet in the ’30s; President Reagan and his wife in the ’80s; and New York firefighters dressed in uniform just after 9/11.

Interspersed between the portraits are videos offering behind the scenes views of photo shoots; showing the blood, sweat and tears that goes into creating the masterpieces (literally blood and sweat in the case of Leibovitz’s Killers Kill, Dead Men Die, based on a re-creation of a sweaty, bloody boxing match reminiscent of Film Noir).

Magazine covers on display show the evolution of the magazine, from whimsical drawings addressing issues of the day to glossy, stylized celebrity portraiture.

“We were doing quite innovative work then and today we’re really helping to shape the cultural conversation,” Friend said, adding that strong photography has always been at the forefront of the magazine.

“You’re going to be seeing what I believe to be the birth of modern, 20th century portraiture as we know it.”

Celebrity sighting

The ROM will be exploring celebrity life during a public conversation with Meryl Streep on Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the museum.

The actress, who has been nominated for 15 Oscars, will participate in a public conversation with journalist Johanna Schneller about life in the spotlight. Tickets are $50. www.rom.ca/streep.