September is here, which means the promise of cooler temperatures around the corner, Beyoncé’s birthday, back to school and pumpkin spice lattes (eye-roll). It’s also the most important month for the fashion media world, and this year, Vogue made a big splash with its September issue. Beyoncé graces this month’s cover with refreshingly honest personal mini-essays, but that’s not all: This year’s September issue is the first time in Vogue’s 125-year history that its cover was shot by an African American photographer. Twenty-three-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell was selected by Beyoncé for the job.
How is it possible that it has taken Vogue this long to have black people be a part of its cover photography? That seemed like the real story to me. I set out to find out. You can listen to the full podcast episode in the SoundCloud link above, but here are a few highlights.
I spoke to André Leon Talley, fashion legend and the first black male creative director of Vogue, and the subject of a 2017 documentary, “The Gospel According to André,” to get his take from the inside and whether or not he pushed for more diversity during his time at Vogue. (Listen above at 8:45.)
I never pushed for anything. I never pushed anything. I didn’t — Vogue is not a place where you are pushy. You’re not a bully — I don’t go in there — I never pushed for anything. I nuanced my points of view, safely, and realizing that I had to navigate a world that was basically a dominant white world of power. You don’t go in there pushing and saying, you know, ‘We gotta have a black cover.’ The covers are chosen when they are chosen for many, many reasons, for commercial reasons as well as perhaps demographics. I was never part of that. That was not my job. I was not in those meetings. That was not my responsibility. So when the covers are shot, you know, everyone is not brought in to be a participant in the cover decision. That goes between the editor in chief and the art director, and the photographer, and the fashion director who is doing that cover at that time. So you don’t even know what is going to be on the cover until you see it is about to go to print. No one decides that but the editor in chief.
Looks like Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour has a lot to answer for.
I talked to John Edwin Mason, a photography historian at the University of Virginia who is writing a book about Gordon Parks, one of the most influential black photographers of the 20th century. Parks shot photographs for Vogue during the late 1940s into the 1960s, but he never shot a cover. We talked about why shooting a cover matters for a photographer. (Listen at 13:00.)
In his memoirs, Gordon Parks talks about the way that the cover image was so coveted. It was . . . an acknowledgment of your status and success as a photographer, being able to out-compete everybody else and get the most coveted placement in the magazine. So magazines occupy different places in the culture, and Vogue is sort of the magazine that can anoint popular culture royalty. And so for a photographer to get the cover of Vogue, you know, it announces that photographer’s entrance into the highest ranks of the photographic profession, which among other things, opens further doors, and means more money for your fees, and for African American photographers to be denied that right, to be denied entrance into the highest ranks, to be denied the ability to earn the income that comes with it, to be denied the cachet, the cultural cachet, that comes with having one of your images on the cover of the magazine, one of the few remaining iconic, truly iconic, magazines, well, that is really infuriating.
Vogue is not the only iconic publication attempting to rectify its shortcomings on race and representation. This year, National Geographic acknowledged that its past coverage of people of color around the world was often racist — playing into stereotypes of nonwhite people being exotic props at best and noble savages at worst. Mason was one of the guest editors of National Geographic’s special issue on race this year, and I asked him how National Geographic’s attempt to reckon with its past connects with Vogue finally putting a black photographer behind the lens for a cover shot. (Listen at 17:18)
Mason: It didn’t surprise National Geographic what I told them. There has been a lot of very good writing on the way that National Geographic has represented people from Asia, and Africa, and Latin America. It was a very colonial vision, and a very racist vision. And you know, the magazine knew what I was going to tell them, but I think it was important for them to hear it from an outsider. And I appreciated the lack of defensiveness at National Geographic. My work was all in connection with their issue on race, and in that issue, both the people who wrote the articles and the photographers represented a very, very racially, ethnically and gender-ly [laughter] diversity of photographers . . . and I think the challenge is for National Geographic to continue that diversity, right? To hire black photographers to shoot things other than stories about black people, right?
Talley and Parks were no doubt groundbreaking black men in the world of fashion and photography. And perhaps it is unfair to expect black “firsts” to be able to single-handedly change white-dominated fields such fashion media or the photography industry. Still, late is better than never. Let’s hope diversity in powerful publications will one day become normal, and not a milestone.