The Vogue controversy continues. The magazine made much of its April issue featuring basketball star LeBron James - the third man ever to grace a Vogue cover, and the first black man to do so. Many, however, found the cover “racially insensitive” and condemned its Fay Wray-esque depiction of the athlete and his co-model, Gisele Bündchen. The image “screams King Kong,” the magazine analyst Samir Husni told the Associated Press. “When you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it’s not innocent.”
Judge for yourself:
I’d initially thought the controversy was a bit overblown - that, sure, you can read something nefarious (brute-vs-belle) in the imagery, but it’s just as likely that the photo was simply meant to capture James and Bündchen in their culturally mediated roles: the supermodel, breezy and feminine; the sports star, testosteroned and game-faced. Sure, you could say, there’s an element of brutishness to James’s portrayal in the photo, but that speaks to his profession, not his race. As James himself told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he was “just showing a little emotion. We had a few looks and that was the best one we had.”
So it seemed an overreaction, those allegations of racial insensitivity - a case of over-analysis. Until, that is, the blogosphere uncovered a World War I-era propaganda poster that is uncannily similar to Vogue’s cover:
The similarities - down to the pattern of James’s shoes and the color of Bündchen’s dress - are hard to ignore, especially considering that the photographer, Annie Leibovitz, is known for referencing the art of the past in her work. As Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart noted, “This is interesting to think about when you know how well-informed Ms. Leibovitz is about historic imagery; nothing is left to chance and everything is ‘inspired’ and purposely so.”
To give Leibovitz the benefit of the doubt, it could all be sheer coincidence. And even if the Vogue cover was “purposely” inspired by the WWI propaganda piece, Leibovitz might have been framing the comparison not as a callous commentary on race, but rather as a cultural reference point - highlighting how far we’ve come since the days of mass xenophobia that allowed the original poster to exist in the first place.
Or it could be the distasteful analogy it appears to be.
Vogue hasn’t offered much insight into the photo except to say “that it celebrates ‘athleticism,’” Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici noted, “and Leibovitz hasn’t commented.” But the cover deserves some kind of explanation, from Vogue and, more to the point, Leibovitz herself; this particular picture’s thousand words aren’t ones, apparently, we can take at face value. Annie, the ball’s now in your court.