By now, you’ve likely seen them, heard about them, and maybe even participated in the conversation about two of August’s most striking—and controversial—magazine covers: Simone Biles photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vogue and Viola Davis atop Vanity Fair, photographed by Dario Calmese—remarkably the first Black photographer to shoot a cover for the 37-year-old magazine (which, coincidentally, have most frequently been shot by Leibovitz since the magazine’s genesis in 1983).
It’s a bittersweet triumph to be celebrating in 2020, but a triumph, nonetheless. But Calmese’s achievement is loaded, as is his portrait of Davis, very deliberately posed to evoke the famous “Scourged Back” photograph depicting the scarred back of Private Gordon, a formerly enslaved man who ran 80 miles to freedom to join the Union Army in 1863.
As Calmese told the New York Times of his history-making opportunity: “I did know that this was a moment to say something...I knew this was a moment to be, like, extra Black.”
Some felt it was perhaps too Black—and not in a progressive way. Specifically, there was concern that the reference exploited the darkness of Davis’ skin in a way that never would’ve occurred were the subject lighter-skinned.
Since this was Calmese’s first shot at a cover, it’s an impossible question to answer. But it’s a valid one; particularly when one also considers that Davis is only the 25th black person to appear solo on a cover of Vanity Fair, according to current editor-in-chief Radhika Jones. Notably, eight of those Black cover stars have appeared since Jones assumed the role in late 2017.
“For her, the image represented the strength it takes to tell your own story, she said,” the Times writes. “For Mr. Calmese, it is about rewriting an old story.”
Like slavery narratives in general, it’s a story many of us have become weary of hearing and seeing—and one that threatens to exoticize trauma. But it is a story Calmese has the right to tell, and one in which we shouldn’t discount Davis’ agency and thoughtful participation in producing. In his defense, Calmese gave further context to his blue-scaled cover image in an Instagram post last week, crediting the numerous Black women creatives who influenced the image in addition to Davis, writing.
The Other References: Of course we are more than our past. Walking into this shoot as a cis-gendered male commissioned to shoot a Black woman... I knew there would be blind spots (shoutout to @samiranasr & @chapoteau for your voices). So I looked to other Black women artists for clues in how they chose to represent themselves: 1. “Source Notes, 2019” by @lornasimpson. 2. “Starry Night and the Astronauts, 1972” by Alma Thomas, which I first encountered in 2016 at @studiomuseum (@thelmagolden 🙏🏽). 3. “Back (Eyes in the Back of Your Head), 1991” by @lornasimpson. 4. “Museums, 2006” by @carriemaeweems.
The blues. The back. The disregard. If you squint...
Other images in need of context? The two Vogue covers of Biles produced by Leibovitz in her signature style—a desaturated approach many felt did a disservice to the diminutive Olympian powerhouse. In fact, some questioned the veteran photographer’s ability to light brown skin—a suggestion not only insulting to Leibovitz, but also to the aesthetic she has so deliberately developed and diplomatically adhered to throughout her now 50-year career. As a widely celebrated fine art portrait photographer, Leibowitz has had subjects of all hues before her lens—should she be expected to relinquish her artistic license?
Furthermore, should Black skin be the predominant consideration when we’re photographed—despite the fact that such an approach could arguably be as fetishizing as some feel Calmese’s portrait was? Or is it simply that without enough visible and varied Black images and Black image-creators, we’re not able to simply observe, assess and enjoy art for art’s sake, because we so rarely see ourselves represented in it?
It’s a discussion worth having—and what we’re talking about this Big Beauty Tuesday at The Glow Up.