Not in Vogue often: Fashion without Black photographers
August 6, 2018
By Shaun La*, AFROPUNK contributor
American Vogue’s placement in fashion has always been at the summit of what is trendy, stylish and artful. Within its 126 years of existence, it has continually elevated the bar that provided a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who adore brand names, well-made clothes, perfumes, shoes and accessories worn on models, celebrities and movie stars. Another part of their 125 years of illustrative front covers morphing into fashion photography covers, would be their lack of hiring Black photographers.
Photographer Tyler Mitchell has found himself in a game-changing position, making history with Beyoncé as she sits in front of his lens for a visual outcome that will grace the cover of American Vogue’s massive September issue. This opportunity has much at stake as the judgement of his cover will receive added attention. The biggest surprise in Mitchell’s appointment would be the fact that he will be the first Black photographer to ever photograph a cover for American Vogue. The United States has: elected a Black President; had Black business owners make billions of dollars; experienced Blacks in Jim Crow leading in major league sports such as baseball; had the Civil Rights Movement; had Black people win Oscars and yet Vogue has always had its cover in a special place that kept the Black photographer far away.
Mitchell does deserve applause for being able to instill an understanding in the mainstream, that Black photographers have always been creative & professional. The celebration of such an opportunity appears to be a natural reaction that has a racial factor in it. For those who are fans of Beyoncé and/or are lovers of fashion, a fashionable reward awaits in Vogue’s September issue. There is another aspect to Vogue’s absence of Black photographers doing their cover work, one that seems to have been ignored because of this fantastic Beyoncé and Mitchell news. American Vogue has had the opportunity to work with some Black photographers who ended up successful beyond their Vogue years. Gordon Parks’ work with American Vogue in the 1940’s allowed him to be the first Black photographer to ever do any kind of work with the mighty fashion publication, however, he never landed a chance to photograph the cover. From Errol Sawyer Jr. to Koto Bolofo, Black photographers shooting for American Vogue and other Vogue affiliates like British Vogue or Vogue Italia is rare.
If Vogue enjoys its place at the summit of all fashion publications, it would not be inconsequential to realize that Vogue magazine is a visual media entity that has mirrored the elitism attached to wealth, high-fashion, power and influence that typically excludes Black people. This mirror of rejection can be held up against the fashion industry and the major motion-picture industry. The lack of Black models walking down the runway or representing high fashion houses to Black fashion designers not being printed in their pages is a normal publishing practice for Vogue. Of course, this kind of mainstream high-fashion ignorance should not be placed on top of the letters that spell out V-O-G-U-E alone. It is an industry standard, a condition that goes into the societal tolerance of promoting racism through oppression: a covert scheme of oppression that would be shunned and boycotted if it was openly practiced today, yet the history of high-fashion ignorance & racism has a foundation. Before Gordon Parks was hired by Alexander Liberman to work for Condé Nast & American Vogue, his portfolio was praised by Hearst Corp’s Harpers Bazaar art-director Alexey Brodovitch. During their meeting, Gordon’s portfolio met racist rejection as Brodovitch shared with him that “Hearst Corporation doesn’t hire Negroes for anything, not even for sweeping floors.” This took place in the 1940’s and here we are in 2018 and it’s clear that Vogue is not the only culprit of why high-fashion can be extremely picky and racist – it is “en Vogue” an accessory for the influentially stylish and trendy to exclude the Black creative.
In 2008, the well-respected photographer Steven Meisel photographed the entire ‘Black Issue’ that Vogue Italia published on its daring European pages. It had Black models, which was a step in the right direction of showing diversity, but what about a Black photographer? The same can be said for Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli’s All Black 2018 calendar, photographed by the conceptually sharp Tim Walker. Again, within a span of 10 years, two mainstream outlets for fashion and commercial photography respectively have permitted Black models to grace their product or publication; why not the Black photographer?
British Vogue has hired their first Black editor-in-chief this year, Edward Enninful, who has in-depth experience in the business of fashion publishing. Does Enninful’s appointment help Black photographers? Edward has a high-ranking position, but he cannot be the bridge to diversity all on his own. British Vogue’s September 2018 cover is making its own history with Rihanna being the first Black woman to land their cover. Nick Knight, who has a revered eye with veteran status in professional photography was in charge of shooting this epic cover. Please allow me to go back to the question that I asked in the paragraph above: why no Black photographer? British Vogue has a Black editor-in-chief, a Black musical superstar, but where was the Black photographer?
My opinion as a photographer would be this: it is about a systematic and cultural tolerance that goes back into the trajectory of the term ‘artist’ or ‘professional’, always avoiding the inclusion of Black men or women who own a paint brush, a musical instrument, a chisel and hammer, a pen or a camera. Systematic racism and the centuries of oppression at its foundation only reveals itself when business sales are on the decline. This is why the political-correct, business related “changes’ are often the tip of an iceberg that runs deep with inequality, rejection, sexism, racism & oppression.
There is a lot of optimism in Mitchell being the first Black photographer for an American Vogue cover, just as there is some liberation in Beyoncé standing up to the decision makers at Condé Nast. I just hope that the optimism and efforts of Beyoncé and Mitchell are not forgotten and that it does not become a trend to hire a Black photographer to shoot a megastar only to help businesses get out of the red. Otherwise, these mainstream companies are using Blacks to stay in the black, profit wise.