A tale of two covers at Condé Nast

Recently, Dario Calmese, a Black artist, photographed the actress Viola Davis for the cover of Vanity Fair. The cover was released yesterday. The photo that adorns it is based on “The Scourged Back,” an image, from 1863, of Gordon, a man who escaped slavery and whose back had been lacerated by whipping. Davis re-created Gordon’s pose; she wore a dark-blue MaxMara dress backwards, so as to make her back visible. “This image reclaims that narrative, transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering into the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty,” Calmese said, of the Davis cover. He added, in an interview about the photo shoot with Jessica Testa, of the New York Times, “I knew this was a moment to be, like, extra Black.”

Online, Calmese’s image of Davis got better reviews than another recent cover of a Condé Nast magazine: that of the August issue of Vogue, which features a portrait of Simone Biles—the Olympic gymnast and survivor of sexual abuse within the USA Gymnastics setup—in a Bottega Veneta bodysuit, also with her back to the camera. The image was shot in February, by Annie Leibovitz. After it came out, critics said that Leibovitz’s dim lighting had done Biles a disservice. “I adore Simone Biles and am thrilled she’s on this cover,” Morrigan McCarthy, national picture editor at the Times, tweeted. “But I hate these photos. I hate the toning, I hate how predictable they are.” Britni Danielle, a journalist and editor, added, “Simone Biles deserved better than Annie Leibovitz bad lighting.” Defenders of Leibovitz argued that her editing style is typically dark, but many observers agreed that a Black photographer would have done a better job. “I super hate that Vogue couldn’t be bothered to hire a Black photographer,” McCarthy said.

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In commissioning Calmese for its Davis shoot, Vanity Fair hired a Black photographer for its cover for the first time in its history. According to Testa, of the Times, Calmese suspected that that might be the case when he took the assignment, and asked editors to double-check; they confirmed his hunch “to the best of our knowledge.” Yesterday, Astead W. Herndon, a politics reporter at the Times, called that fact “embarrassing” and suggested that Vanity Fair apologize. “Progress is cool,” Evette Dionne, the editor in chief of Bitch Media, tweeted, but “it’s also shameful that it has taken more than 100 years to achieve a simple feat, which is then touted as progress.” When it comes to representation behind the camera, Vanity Fair is hardly an outlier. As Testa notes in her story, the first Black photographers to shoot the covers of Vogue and Rolling Stone—Tyler Mitchell and Dana Scruggs, respectively—only did so within the past two years.

In an interview with Sonia Saraiya that accompanies her cover, Davis called out Vanity Fair for a lack of diversity in front of the camera, too. “They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers,” she said. “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.” For her introductory note to the latest issue, Radhika Jones—Vanity Fair’s editor in chief, who is herself a woman of color—calculated that between 1983, when the modern iteration of the magazine was born, and 2017, when she took over as editor, Vanity Fair only put seventeen Black people (excluding group shots) on the cover of a regular issue. Since then, ten Black subjects have been featured. Jones says that she has prioritized improvement during her tenure. “We are not bound to continue the cultural hierarchies we inherit,” she writes in her note.

In this regard, too, Vanity Fair is not an outlier. In 2018, the editorial arm of Ceros, a Web content company, reviewed the covers of ten glossy magazines between 2012 and 2018 and found greater diversity across 2017 and 2018 than in the five previous years; the percentage of Allure covers featuring a nonwhite subject, for instance, increased from 27 to 58 percent, while the equivalent percentage for InStyle jumped from 32 to 50 percent. In 2018, the important September covers of at least eleven major fashion and lifestyle magazines featured Black women: Glamour featured Tiffany Haddish; Marie Claire featured Zendaya; Vogue featured Beyoncé. Writing for Teen Vogue at the time, however, Jessica Andrews pointed out that while the covers were cause for celebration, “Black women didn’t suddenly become fashionable or marketable this September.” Andrews highlighted what she called “the next frontier” at which to aim: “more black photographers, editors, stylists, bookers, and creative directors.”

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It’s not just fashion journalism that’s been reckoning with that frontier. In recent times, and particularly since the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, the wider media industry has been confronted with its poor track record on representation and the inclusion of Black perspectives. The recent reckoning has been especially intense at Condé Nast, where, as the Times’ Edmund Lee reported in June, top staffers including Adam Rapoport, the editor in chief of Bon Appétit, resigned (or faced calls for their resignation) following claims of personal and institutionalized racism. According to Lee, Susan Plagemann, a white Condé executive, once complained to Jones that more of Vanity Fair’s covers should feature photos of well-to-do white women. (Plagemann denies saying this.) As Calmese’s powerful work shows, the opposite, of course, is necessary, on both sides of the lens.

Below, more on race and the current moment in media:

  • “We wanted to capture her depth”: For the cover of New York magazine’s recent TV issue, Ruth Ossai, a mixed-race photographer, did a photo shoot with Michaela Coel, the creator of I May Destroy You, an HBO/BBC show that fictionalizes Coel’s experience of sexual assault. Ossai’s photography and E. Alex Jung’s accompanying profile have both won plaudits. “Michaela is an incredible auteur,” Jody Quon, photography director at New York, says. “We wanted to capture her depth.”
  • “Meet the new Black press”: For Nieman Reports, Deborah Douglas profiles the new Black press—“outlets that advocate for and culturally represent Black people but are not necessarily Black-owned, are largely digital, nimble, and take an expansive view of who and what constitutes journalism.” Examples include theGrio, a video-centric site; zora, a Medium-hosted site for women of color; and The TRiiBE, which aims to reshape narratives about Black Chicago. (In 2018, Jackie Spinner profiled The TRiiBE for CJR.)
  • “A reckoning in Black media”: Taryn Finley, of HuffPost, has a deep dive on how dual pandemicscovid-19 and police violence—are transforming Black media. The present moment of reckoning “hasn’t been limited to white-operated companies,” Finley writes. “Even as they amplify Black voices, Black-operated publications have also come under fire for replicating the same anti-Black and sexist workplace structures that exist at mainstream, white-run publications.”
  • A terrible answer: Yesterday, President Trump sat for an interview with Catherine Herridge, of CBS News. When Herridge asked why Black Americans are still dying at the hands of police, Trump accused her of “a terrible question” and said, “So are White people. So are White people.” In a separate interview, with Townhall, Trump defended the armed couple who confronted protesters outside their home in St. Louis. Philip Bump, of the Washington Post, situated both interviews in context.


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.