The 126-Year-Old White Gaze of Vogue

It’s no breaking news that Vogue, controversially considered the world’s ultimate fashion bible, will finally have a cover shot by a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year-old existence. The magazine’s iconic September issue, the most esteemed and awaited of the year for which even a documentary film was released, has been “lent” to Beyonce this year. She apparently has free reign over the creative production in exchange for her presence on the cover, and has picked the African American photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot it.

Trevor Noah’s reaction to the news is my favorite, because it’s both celebratory and uncomfortable, like good alcohol – “Finally a good headline with the words “black person” and “shoot” in it! This is dope!”

What is undoubtedly a cause for excitement is also a prime opportunity to examine the historically dominant whiteness of media outlets that control the circulation of images and perceptions of global trends. Who are the major puppeteers of what’s deemed “hot or not” and why are their channel-flip-fast trends so colorful yet their playing fields so colorless? Why does it take a black person, whose extreme levels of fame and global influence almost elevate her above conventional race hierarchies, being given the opportunity to temporarily control a historically white space, in order for young black, talented creatives to break out in the absolute upper echelons of their industry? One could argue that the Vogue cover, normally coordinated by the steely hands of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is typically reserved for highly established photographers. But why are no black photographers considered highly established, or plainly speaking, good enough? The deeper issue is that creative industries of fashion and other arts continue to be white dominated arenas where we have to constantly be questioning whether white people and people of color are being given equal opportunities and advantages.

It all boils down to: representation matters. The truth is I could’ve tweeted about this news but I chose to write this piece instead because even now, not enough people get it to take action.

So I’ll break it down here. Why does it matter so much to have a black photographer shooting the cover of Vogue?

A photograph, although static, still serves as a medium of narrative. Images tell stories and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about Instagram and how our timelines make us feel everyday. We wouldn’t pin ourselves to screens – TVs, laptops, iPhones, magazines. Our generation has simply never been more visually generated and motivated, and the effects of this reality can’t be judged with accuracy either, because we are the first generation to live this way.

A photograph on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world has the power to influence millions of people worldwide. This means its narrative is scarily pervasive around the globe. Rihanna’s recent Vogue cover, the one with her skinny drawn-on eyebrows, has thrown the world into a tizzy, questioning the entire culture of eyebrows, and spawning think pieces on the evolution of eyebrow styling and its impact on style and beauty perceptions. See what I mean by scary influence?

When we analyze the narrative of an image, we look at several factors: what/who is in the photograph, why are they there, how are they positioned and placed, and who put them there. The creator of the image is important because in their creation, we are seeing through their eyes. The image is a product of its creator’s specific bias and perspective. If the holy grail of fashion produces images that are always shown through a white lens, then we always experience a white narrative. The positioners and placers, the narrators of high fashion, are white, so our views of style morph into constantly examining high fashion through a white lens. And this, today, is simply unacceptable. No one should have to be writing a think piece about why style, image and creativity are produced equally well and thought-provokingly by all races and cultures, and that displaying their diversity not only matters, but just signifies common sense.

Tyler Mitchell is a 2017 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He grew up in Atlanta, becoming a photographer in his teens, taking pictures of fashion and youth culture, particularly surrounding the local skateboarding scene. In 2015, he self-published a book, El Paquete, containing photographs of skateboarding youth, architecture and fashion in Havana, Cuba.

He has come to be featured in several prolific media outlets such as Complex, i-D, Teen Vogue and Lomography. His cover for Teen Vogue featured gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin, wearing all-black in perhaps a nod to the outfit of historic freedom fighters, the Black Panthers, with the hashtag #NEVERAGAIN.

“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell stated in a New York Times profile last year. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”

 

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Tyler Mitchell, 2 Men (2016). Photo courtesy of the Aperture Foundation.

Mitchell’s work is currently on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16), in the show “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now”. His vivid portraits, showcasing a refreshing tenderness, introspection and hope, of young black men, are partly inspired by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, and serve as a response to Mitchell’s own coming-of-age struggles as a young African American.


“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”

Looking at Mitchell’s work, it seems fitting why Beyonce chose him. Although a weak song, Beyonce’s music video for “Apes**t” with husband Jay-Z also employs image as narrative in a powerful way. The couple often stand in statuesque poses in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum, what is known as a historically white space. The most famous artworks displayed at the Louvre are almost always white images and thus, white narratives, with occasional displays of people of color either as slaves, servants or savages, or depicted through a completely orientalist lens. In the video, Beyonce and Jay-Z literally place black bodies amongst the white marble floors and statues of the Louvre to assert black presence and excellence into the artistic narrative of the space they’re in. A row of black women dance in front of the painting of the coronation of Napoleon, one of history’s biggest colonizers, while Beyonce sings “I can’t believe we made it”. Jay-Z raps his verse in front of the painting “The Raft of Medusa” which depicts survivors spotting their rescue after their boat suffers from a fatal crash; the comparative slave boat narrative becomes apparent. An image of a painting where a white woman hugs a white man with a stab wound, is recreated with a black man and woman, and the stab wound morphs into a symbol of police brutality. This is emphasized further by an image of black men kneeling outside the museum, literally “taking a knee” in reference to NFL football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at their games to protest racism and police brutality. Even the censored title becomes a symbol of erasing black presence and excellence out of global artistic, social and political narratives for centuries. And plenty more metaphors abound, too many to recount in full here.

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What this video and the upcoming Vogue issue can remind us of is that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to diversifying the arts and its various narratives. As a society that is increasingly interconnected through media and its distribution of the arts, we need to do better when it comes to being aware of what we’re consuming and producing, and through what particular shade of lens.

 

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell

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