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Simone Biles photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue; Viola Davis photographed by Dario Calmese for Vanity Fair.
Vogue; Vanity Fair

Representation is deeper than putting Black icons on magazine covers

Critics say recent Vanity Fair and Vogue covers missed the mark, drawing attention to the shortcomings of media representation.

Last week, Vanity Fair unveiled the cover of its July/August 2020 issue, which features a striking portrait of Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis. Adorned in a midnight blue coat dress, Davis sits with her back — most of it exposed — to the camera as she fixes her gaze to the left. The colors of the portrait create a regal mood, one that suggests classic Hollywood, with Davis’s tightly coiled Afro sitting high and obscuring much of the magazine’s name.

Praise for the image came swiftly as people admired the power the photo exudes. Plus, it was captured by Dario Calmese, who was the first Black artist to photograph the cover of the 106-year-old Conde Nast publication — a feat both newsworthy and shocking for such an overdue “first.”

But then more details came to light about what influenced the portrait. The New York Times revealed that Calmese positioned Davis to recreate the well-known image “The Scourged Back” — a harrowing 1863 photo that shows Gordon, a formerly enslaved man, sitting shirtless and slightly hunched over to display his back that is deeply furrowed from whiplashes. It is a brutal image, easily evoking both revulsion and deep sorrow.

While not much is known about Gordon himself, abolitionists circulated the photo widely, using it as propaganda to change the hearts of Americans at a time when the Civil War was being waged to determine the fate of slavery in America. The image’s gravity and reach are so potent that generations have come to see the weight of slavery through the permanent grooves and engravings on Gordon’s back.

Calmese, who couldn’t be reached for this story, told the Times that his intention was to rewrite narratives not “only around slavery, but also the white gaze on Black bodies, and transmuting that into something of elegance and beauty and power.” He added, “It’s about replacing the images that have been washing over all of us for centuries, telling us who we are and our position in the world and our value.”

On the surface, this seems reasonable — swapping out Black pain for Black beauty. But to critics, rewriting narratives, especially one as appalling, intense, and elusive as Gordon’s, requires greater care — the kind of care that would help us engage more deeply with the vast amounts and kinds of violence that enslaved people endured. Calmese’s use of “The Scourged Back” as his reference adds shock value at a time when America is already inundated with imagery of Black pain and death.

“The image of Gordon’s back was always meant to be a meta-language of a larger violence,” Johns Hopkins historian Jessica Marie Johnson told Vox. The photo was created to embody the violence of bondage, of breaking up families, of intimate violence, of labor violence, of incest, and of the inability to claim your own time, selfhood, and space, Johnson said. “That’s a lot for Gordon to have carried, and that weight seemed to be transferred over to Viola” in a way that missed the depth and complexity of the violence, she said.

By choosing this reference, Calmese also squandered an opportunity to show viewers the experiences of Black women, critics say. Slavery’s visual archive has an abundance of images that show what women experienced, including sexual violence, something that Gordon’s photo doesn’t exactly capture. Many also questioned whether a light-skinned Black actress would have been asked to bear this burden; dark-skinned Black women have long been stereotyped as strong “mules” who can endure inordinate amounts of pain.

“If the reference point for Calmese was an enslaved black man’s whipped back, what can we imagine he saw in Davis? Or refused to see?” said Mount Holyoke English and history professor Kimberly Juanita Brown.

“Reclaiming” a narrative is about more than supplanting old images, even if the resulting image is “beautiful,” critics say. A true reclamation would require that the artist and publication take the time to reckon with the original image, to help their viewers understand and unpack the original story, and to draw the connection to its current subject. When Vanity Fair released the cover image last week, no one was talking about who Gordon was or why his photo was even taken, Johnson said. Editor-in-chief Radhika Jones didn’t reference it in her accompanying editor’s note where she celebrated Davis, either; in fact, she said the cover shot was inspired by a different set of portraits — the mid-19th-century slave daguerreotypes of Louis Agassiz, the famous Harvard University biologist who was determined to prove, through science and photography, his racist theories about the superiority of the white race.

Ultimately, just because a Black photographer is hired to photograph a Black woman, the work does not end. Representation extends to the publication itself, to who is advising and signing off on visual and editorial decisions. “We have to look at who’s in the position to hire people in the first place. If the whole team — the creative director, art director, photo editor, photo producer, editor-in-chief, stylist — is homogenous and if there’s no Black person to say, ‘Hey, can we talk about this a little more and what we are trying to say with this image?’ you’re going to get this kind of result,” said photo editor Danielle Scruggs, who has worked for Vox and the New York Times, among other outlets. Scruggs also noted that there’s room to offer opportunities to Black women and nonbinary photographers as well: “That would have produced different results.”

Vanity Fair did not respond to Vox’s request for comment about representation in the newsroom or on the page, but in the nearly two and a half years since becoming editor, Jones has made an effort to increase diversity on the magazine’s covers. Since April 2018, the magazine has featured 10 Black cover stars including singer and actress Janelle Monáe and screenwriter and producer Lena Waithe; between 1983 and 2017, Vanity Fair had only featured 17 Black people on its cover, according to Jones’s editor’s letter. “It was something I had noticed about Vanity Fair myself, from the outside, that lack of representation,” Jones wrote.

Yet whether the magazine has made any changes in terms of diversity, internally, is unclear. In an Instagram post celebrating the cover, Calmese tagged a number of Vanity Fair staffers who were involved, including the creative director and visuals director, many of them white.

The Vanity Fair cover was released amid a related controversy — just five days earlier, Vogue dropped its August 2020 cover featuring Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles. While readers were excited that Biles was the summer cover star, many expressed frustration at the poor lighting and styling in the photos, which left Biles’s dark skin looking flat, washed out, and muted. Renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has a decades-long career of countless celebrity portraits, shot the image, leading people to scold Vogue for not hiring a Black photographer. “I usually love her but hire Black photographers that know how to photograph Black people,” one Twitter user wrote. (Vogue has not responded to Vox’s request for comment about the Biles photography.)

Both covers arrived as Black Lives Matter protests are forcing institutions to confront how whiteness excludes Blackness in everything from CEOs in fashion and tech to boardrooms and writers’ rooms in the media industry. But the pushback aimed at the Davis and Biles images shows that representation for representation’s sake is insufficient; institutions and artists must take greater care to examine the layered narratives that exist beneath their decisions, especially when they relate to hyper-marginalized groups like Black women.

The history of “The Scourged Back”

The image of Gordon, simply put, is difficult to look at. It was taken amid the Civil War at a time when abolitionists, Black and white, used portrait photography of enslaved and formerly enslaved people to prove the humanity of Black people; the photographs were then used as propaganda in publications that circulated to thousands of readers.

Abolitionists and Black activists like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass sat for the more distinguished versions of these photographs, hoping they would help white people see that Black people weren’t the feeble-minded cartoonish figures they were portrayed to be. Truth, a feminist activist and orator, used her carte-de-visite (postcard-like images that could be cheaply and easily produced and distributed) as a tool for self-actualization, though white onlookers in the 1860s would write that she was “quaint in language, grotesque in appearance and homely in illustration.”

Sojourner Truth circa 1870.
MPI/Getty Images
Frederick Douglass circa 1879.
Time Life Pictures via Getty Images

Other images used for anti-slavery propaganda during this time were less interested in humanizing enslaved people’s experience and were instead distributed for their shock value. Johnson, who studies women and slavery and is the author of the forthcoming book Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, points out that some iconic photographs from Louisiana during this time, for example, featured children who were phenotypically white but had captions reading “Rebecca, the slave girl” or “Rebecca, a slave girl from New Orleans.”

“You would not look at that photo and imagine they were anything but white children. The idea was, ‘Look! Anybody can be enslaved. The threat of slavery is everywhere,’” Johnson told Vox.

Gordon’s photo entered this visual culture when it was printed alongside the article “A Typical Negro” in Harper’s Weekly on July 4, 1863; “The Scourged Back,” taken during a medical examination, was just one of three photos of Gordon that were included. The photo to the left of it featured him in the torn and muddied clothing he wore on his 10-day journey to reach freedom at a Union encampment in Baton Rouge. The final photo shows Gordon in his uniform as a US soldier. Together, the triptych begged of readers: Whose side are you on, the Union or the Confederacy?

Harper’s Weekly magazine, July 4, 1863.
Wiki Commons

But, as University of Edinburgh historian David Silkenat notes in “‘A Typical Negro’: Gordon, Peter, Vincent Coyler, and the Story Behind Slavery’s Most Famous Photograph,” while the photo was used to highlight slavery’s brutality and rally people around the Union cause, it simultaneously “dismissed the individual experience of the man in the image.”

According to Silkenat, very little is known about Gordon himself (for example, it is unclear whether he ever had a career as a Union soldier), and evidence suggests that much of Gordon’s story was likely fabricated. In fact, historical accounts support the argument that the image and the accompanying Harper’s narrative served the interests of abolitionists and publishers who wanted to win over public opinion in the North. Some evidence even suggests that it is another man pictured in the first and third photo of the triptych.

“In the process of creating a sympathetic and politically powerful image, abolitionists and newspaper publishers, even the most well-intentioned, were willing to homogenize African Americans and their individual experiences in the service of the redemptive narrative” that justified the enlisting of Black soldiers in the Union army, Silkenat wrote.

Back then, the photo did little to delve into Gordon’s personal and individual experience. Instead, it was mass-produced as one of the country’s original viral photos. Photography studios in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and London reprinted the image, and other publications like Henry Ward Beecher’s Independent and William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator either published or mentioned how to buy copies of the photograph, according to Silkenat, who noted that the circulation of Harper’s often exceeded 100,000 per issue.

In the nearly 160 years since it was created, “The Scourged Back” has been reprinted and used in textbooks and classroom lectures, in museums and galleries, and in films as a tool to remind people about the evils of slavery. Today, the image continues to inform anti-slavery visual culture. Artists have used images of the scarred backs of modern-day trafficked women in recent years as stand-ins for the person’s whole experiences in the same way Gordon’s body was offered up for viewer consumption, wrote modern slavery scholar Zoe Trodd in “Am I still not a man and a brother? Protest memory in contemporary antislavery visual culture.”

Historian Louis P. Masur argued in the article “‘Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity’: The Use of Images in American History Textbooks” that “The Scourged Back” has been reprinted in textbooks over the years, but this practice carries limitations if students just take the image at face value. Masur wrote that it’s important to make sure the photo in a textbook is accompanied by context to get students asking questions like: Who was Gordon? Why was his picture taken? What purpose did this photo serve? “This is the approach that we must pursue if we are to understand the past and make it relevant,” he wrote.

Why critics say the recreation of the image misses the mark

While he recognized “The Scourged Back” as “gruesome and harsh,” Calmese told the Times he chose it as inspiration because he saw parts of it that Davis could recreate to subvert what’s expected for magazine covers. He said he specifically wanted to draw on how Gordon “pushes back more toward the camera” with his hands at his waist, creating a line from his profile down to his arm.

“For me, this cover is my protest,” he said in the interview. “But not a protest in ‘Look at how bad you’ve been to me, and I’m angry, and I’m upset,’ but, ‘I’m going to rewrite this narrative. I’m just going to take ownership of it.’”

He told the Times that to execute his vision, he didn’t want a glamour moment for Davis but wanted the photo to feel “underexposed and somber,” with Davis sporting natural hair and “undramatic” makeup. Calmese said he didn’t expect Jones to select it as the cover photo of a summer issue.

Many viewers, Black women included, saw the photo as powerful and unmistakably stunning, noting that it is practically impossible to miss Davis’s beauty in any portrait of her. People read the pose as dynamic and assertive, especially since it was paired with a cover line of Davis’s words from the feature story: “My entire life has been a protest.”

But many people did not question or even know the historical reference, which raises concerns about how to portray the complexity of violence — whether the image of Gordon’s back was too heavy to recreate sans context, whether it was the magazine’s duty to provide that context, and whether it is troubling to place that burden on Davis’s back.

To some, “reclaiming” images that show Black suffering feeds not only the cycle of violence but also the appetite of a white readership that’s casually curious about but ultimately detached from experiencing such violence.

To others, artists have a right to engage such images, but urge artists to engage them carefully and thoughtfully.

“What we need to challenge ourselves to do is expand our understanding of history and expand our imagination around how we depict Black people, and particularly dark-skinned Black women, which is something else that the industry tiptoes around,” Scruggs told Vox.

Brown, who is the author of The Repeating Body: Slavery’s Visual Resonance in the Contemporary, told Vox the back of a light-skinned actress would not tell the same story or cause the same apprehension. “This notion of reimagining a history of Black suffering would have been a difficult visual endeavor with a light-skinned actress,” Brown said. The weight of this history has yet to be reconciled, she explained, yet it is constantly repeated, with dark-skinned Black women continually “offered up as overly burdened corporeal texts, somehow always signifying slavery.”

Overall, Calmese’s decision to have Davis recreate Gordon’s pose doesn’t help us understand the unique experiences of Black women and the violence they’ve historically faced in America, critics say.

Enslaved women who were seen as “sexually attractive, available, and vulnerable” were the “overwhelming” targets of sexual opportunism at the hands of supervisors, historian Kirsten E. Wood explained in the article “Gender and Slavery.” The threat of interracial rape and exploitation was often present, with white men using sexual violence to assert their dominance. White men also did little to improve fertility for enslaved women and prevent infant mortality. “It was, quite simply, cheaper and easier to buy new slaves and work them quite literally to death than to rely on childbirth to increase and reproduce the labor force,” Wood wrote. It was during slavery that the harmful stereotypes of “nurturing Mammy, aggressive Sapphire, and lustful Jezebel” were born; these racist tropes still hinder Black women today, preventing society from fully viewing them as “mothers, lovers, and workers,” according to Wood.

In Johnson’s view, Calmese missed an opportunity to explore the vastness of the visual archive of slavery. “There’s a particular kind of gendered violence that gets enacted on female slaves or those who present themselves as feminine in the slaveholding society,” Johnson said. The reality of Black womanhood during slavery was that the body could be violated at any moment; the inability to cover oneself was violence. “You don’t need stripes to show the abject experience of slavery for the black feminine form. The exposed back, the exposed shoulder, and a lot of the archive of slavery will also expose the breasts — all of that was used to signal a kind of availability that was both hypersexualized and hyperviolent.”

Johnson points to images like “Laitière et Négresses Portant du Lait” (“Milkmaid and Negro Women Carrying Milk”), “Branding Slaves,” and “Marks of Punishment Inflicted Upon a Colored Servant in Richmond, Virginia” as examples that speak to the specific hardships Black women faced and as samples of the iconography the photo shoot could have engaged. For example, in “Marks of Punishment,” a young woman is posed with her back to the camera to display burn marks that her mistress inflicted on her, a specific dynamic that women experienced.

“Milkmaid and Negro Women Carrying Milk” by Pierre Jacques Benoit (1782-1854), a Belgian artist who visited the Dutch colony of Suriname in 1831.
Pierre Jacques Benoit

“If he referenced one of these images, it would have been different because it would’ve been based on the image of another woman. It would have also referenced a different part of history to show that it’s not just Black men who were subject to violence,” Scruggs said. “It’s funny how we have these same conversations today when it comes to violence from the state. There seems to be a disconnect when it comes to the experiences of Black women. People just tend to shoehorn Black women into the experiences of Black men.”

For some Black women who know the history behind “The Scourged Back,” when they look at this photo of Davis, they see the violence and pain that’s been passed down through generations; the photo gives them pause because it is burdened by the reference to Gordon, especially since America has yet to address this violence.

“I think the violence that Black women experience has no imagistic vanishing point. Violence is not always ugly; it doesn’t always offend the senses,” Brown told Vox. “Rather, there is often an aesthetic orientation to the power that images invoke, allowing viewers to believe that violence (literal, figurative) isn’t taking place. I am not saying that the image is violent, but it is heavily burdened, which makes it hard to enjoy.”

When asked by the Guardian on July 18 what he thought about the growing criticism around the cover, Calmese said, “Oh, I think it’s absolutely wonderful! Look, I’m not a kid. I’m very aware that [the photo] is a very charged image. As a creative, I’m not here to please people.”

He also said that by revealing the reference, he was offering a “deeper reading” for people viewing the cover, and that many photographers don’t share their creative influences. “So in me offering this reference, it was an offer to debate. Because I could have just shot the image and not said anything about what I was referring to,” he said.

In his interview with the New York Times, Calmese also said the photo shoot was a moment to be “extra Black” at a time when people are calling for justice for Black lives. But to critics, “extra Black” would have meant Calmese and Vanity Fair taking the time and care to add context to tell the full story about Black historical figures when America is reckoning with its racist past and inundated with imagery of Black death. Though Calmese claims the use of “The Scourged Back” is meant to spark debate, critics say there is nothing transgressive or original about superimposing Gordon’s image onto the back of a dark-skinned Black female icon beyond the shock value it elicits.

As Johnson points out, “We can have a different kind of care when we’re trying to draw on historical subjects from the past.”

Vogue’s photos of Simone Biles also prove that magazines have so much further to go with representation

Not unrelated to the Davis cover image, Vogue’s recent images of Simone Biles have also been criticized for their lack of care for dark skin. Onlookers were pleased that Biles appeared on the cover but argued that Leibovitz’s lighting and photo style choice did a disservice to the decorated Olympic gymnast.

New York Times national picture editor Morrigan McCarthy tweeted, “I adore Simone Biles and am thrilled she’s on this cover ... but I hate these photos. I hate the toning, I hate how predictable they are, I hate the social crop here (wtf?) and I super hate that Vogue couldn’t be bothered to hire a Black photographer.”

In the cover image, Biles, dressed in a tomato-red bodysuit, stands with her back to the camera and her hands positioned on her waist. She stares forward, away from the camera. The lighting, critics say, is dull and leaves her skin washed out and gray. Though the style is customary for Leibovitz, it shows that her go-to technique doesn’t work for all. In a subsequent photo inside the feature story in which Biles wears a jewel-encrusted cutout dress, her skin appears flat and lifeless as she looks down with her eyes nearly shut. And again, her arms are deliberately positioned on her hips, suggesting defiance.

For Biles, one of history’s most accomplished athletes, the photos emit a gloomy vibe that counters her influence and achievements. Many argued that a Black photographer would have produced a better result.

Photographer Dana Scruggs, who has photographed the likes of Stacey Abrams and Michaela Coel, says she thinks conceptually when photographing Black women. She doesn’t deliberately try to push back against stereotypes of Black women but presents the women in a way that’s pleasing to her and hopes the decision-makers at magazines agree with her viewpoint.

“There’s a narrative that has been perpetuated throughout the history of photography, or at least within editorial publications, that dark skin is difficult to light. In fashion, you would see a Black model but she would not look her skin tone. Or maybe she was being shot with white people so they were lighting for white people and not considering that they have a Black person” in the shoot as well, Scruggs told Vox. “This has created the false idea that Black people are hard to light, and there are even Black photographers who say the same thing. They have so much internalized racism and anti-blackness that they believe this.”

In 2018, Scruggs became the first Black woman to photograph an athlete for ESPN’s “The Body Issue.” Later that year, she became the first Black person to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Scruggs notes that she shot nine covers in 2019, many of which she believes she was likely the first Black person or Black woman to shoot. “I stopped asking after the Rolling Stone cover,” Scruggs told Vox. “You stop asking after a certain point because I don’t want that to be the narrative around my work. I know the work I’ve done has contributed a lot to help Black photographers move forward within the industry, especially being so vocal about why it’s important to hire Black photographers when your publication has historically not supported them. It’s like, why am I the first after so many years?”

Scruggs points to photo editors and creative directors who she says don’t seek out Black talent and are complicit in hiring practices that exclude Black artists. She also said that the achievements of Black women in the industry are often overshadowed: “Just look at the momentum that has always driven society around race and Black oppression. Black women have been out there dying too, but our narratives aren’t enough to galvanize people.”

Danielle Scruggs agrees. “I really want to see Black women get opportunities to portray other Black women,” she said. “When people talk about women in photography, they’re not talking about Black women. When people talk about Black people in photography, they’re not talking about Black women, or Black femmes either.”

Ultimately, the media, and America at large, is only beginning to scratch the surface of what representation means: Viewers who wholly supported the Davis portrait claimed there should be no critique of it since the images are beautiful. Some supporters of Leibovitz’s Biles photos said the public should be satisfied that Biles was on the cover and being rendered in Leibovitz’s vision. Both comments failed to recognize the complexity of representation. Representation must constantly be questioned.

“I am all for people finding enjoyment and beauty wherever and whenever they can. And I don’t think this needs to be a shaken awareness type of moment. But I do think there’s an opportunity to sync with these images and the photographers and with other women pictured in the archive,” Johnson said. “We can do all of these things at once. We contain so many multitudes. We can hold the pandemic and the protests and the beauty of Viola Davis and her magnificent back — her stunning image — and hold that constant with what is meant to have been inspired by, and what is in the archive that also adds to that and complicates it.”

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