In the midst of the controversy surrounding the recent VOGUE cover featuring shot by Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair is tackling the issue head on: the magazine’s latest cover, featuring actress Viola Davis, was shot a black photographer for the first time in the magazine’s 35-year history.
The cover and cover story was revealed earlier today, and the entire feature—from the profile of Davis, to the Editor’s letter that accompanied the issue, to the cover shot by photographer Dario Calmese—tackles issues of representation and systemic racism within the magazine world and beyond.
Davis addresses this directly in her profile:
They’ve [Vanity Fair] had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers. But that’s a lot of magazines, that’s a lot of beauty campaigns. There’s a real absence of dark-skinned Black women. When you couple that with what’s going on in our culture, and how they treat Black women, you have a double whammy. You are putting us in a complete cloak of invisibility.
Regarding the choice of Calmese as the photographer, this too was done very much on purpose and represents a major milestone for Vanity Fair:
“To the best of our knowledge, it is the first Vanity Fair cover made by a Black photographer,” writes VF Editor in Chief Radhika Jones. “Dario Calmese’s first V.F. assignment was a feature on Billy Porter a little more than a year ago. Since then, he has photographed the actors George MacKay and Adrienne Warren for us. This is his first major magazine cover, and we celebrate him and honor his vision at this heightened moment in American history.”
— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) July 14, 2020
The photograph and style itself is not without its symbolism. Calmese explains that the photo was “a re-creation of the Louis Agassiz slave portraits taken in the 1800s—the back, the welts.”
“This image reclaims that narrative,” says Calmese of the cover shot, “transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering into the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty.”
Response to the milestone cover was a mix of praise for the photos and photographer, and shock that it took 35 years for Vanity Fair to reach this point. Many seemed unsure if they should applaud the magazine for taking this step, or scold them for waiting this long:
Gorgeous photos! It’s hard to believe that in 2020 this is the first cover of Vanity Fair to have been photographed by an African American photographer. Wow! We have work to do!
— LaDon Ward (@WardLadon) July 14, 2020
It’s 2020, how many yrs has Vanity Fair been around? To never have a black photographer for their cover issue? Congrats to Dario Calmese, but this is not something Vanity Fair will be praised for. The publisher, Editor-in-Chief past and present should be ashamed of themselves.
— Funmi Sunmonu (@MsFunmiSunmonu) July 14, 2020
Beautiful! ❤️❤️❤️ Hope this marks the beginning of a trend of more Black photographers doing cover shots.
— Faith (@ladyfaith) July 14, 2020
You get 0 cool points for giving black photographers a seat at the table in 2020, under duress, when in fact, you had 37 years to do so. Here’s hoping you keep the VF door open, to create a fully inclusive environment for excellent talent of all hues to thrive.
— RICH KIT (@RICHKITINTL) July 14, 2020
‘Bout time. Past time. Photos and subject are beyond lovely.
— Lise Dykes #BlackLivesMatter (@LHDonline) July 14, 2020
Not quite sure how to take this. Went from yippee! to Jesus when did VF start publishing to FFS! What took so long? in about 5 seconds.
— Anna T Jimenez (@tachcojimenez) July 14, 2020
For her part, Jones admits that Davis was right: representation has been lacking at the magazine.
“Davis is right, about Black women—and men (and, for that matter, other people of color as well as LGBTQ+ subjects),” writes the editor. “For most of the magazine’s history, a Black artist, athlete, or politician appearing on a regular monthly issue of Vanity Fair was a rare occurrence.”
She hopes that this choice of photographer and cover star, and future choices at the magazine, will inspire young people—”a future actor, director, photographer, writer”—to pursue their creative visions and make it into the pages of Vanity Fair.
As pointed out by Huffington Post, the first cover of VOGUE shot by a black photographer was published in 2018 when Beyoncé, who was given complete control over her own cover, insisted on hiring photographer Tyler Mitchell.
(via Huffington Post)