The story behind Tyler Mitchell’s Vogue cover of Beyoncé
(CNN) — Beyoncé’s fourth cover of American Vogue was one for history. Not because she was the first black woman on the cover (Beverly Johnson, 1974), not because she was the first black woman to cover a September issue (Naomi Campbell, 1989), and not because she had racked up the most Vogue covers as a black woman (Shari Belafonte and Rihanna both have five). Instead, for the first time in history, the cover of American Vogue was shot by a black photographer: Tyler Mitchell.
“When I first started, 21 years ago, I was told that it was hard for me to get onto covers of magazines because black people did not sell,” Beyoncé wrote in her extended captions that went along with the imagery. “Clearly that has been proven a myth. Not only is an African American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African American photographer.”
In 126 years of Vogue, the magazine has had various permutations. It started as a weekly, transitioned to a bi-weekly and then finally in 1973 went monthly. Representatives from Condé Nast point to a 1932 cover by Edward Steichen of a woman in a bathing suit as the start of cover photography from the publication, but 1959 brought the first year of all photographic covers, beginning to usher in an era of Vogue as we know it today.
These landmark dates bring context to numbers like 126 years and 1,512 issues of Vogue that are bandied about social media — in fact there have been over 2,800 covers. But even with those clarifications, the lack of black photographers still is a glaring omission.
“Fashion editors in general tend to have a handful of their favorite, reliable photographers whose work, for whatever reason, seems to move or sell copies,” Valerie Steele the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology told CNN in a phone interview this week.
“And with the cover it’s quite a special issue because they want someone who is going to sell copies of a magazine. They are not going to use anyone who is remotely edgy or different, they want someone who is reliable and is going to look similar to other things.” The commercial viability is increasingly important with the September issue, which has been positioned as the most important issue of the year, as explained in a 2009 documentary. As Steele noted, it is known for having the most advertisements of the year.
The majority of high fashion’s most coveted photography is all shot by a small group of photographers. Since beginning to do photographed covers, Vogue estimates that they’ve given the honor to about 60 people, many of whom were reused.
The late Richard Avedon shot over 140 covers, beginning sporadically in the 1960 and 70s before leading to an almost exclusive period, shooting all but one cover from June 1980 to October 1988. Other names also reappear: Steven Meisel, Patrick Demarchelier, Irving Penn, and Mario Testino amongst them. These names, in kind, also routinely book some of the biggest high fashion ad campaigns.
“I think about how in general most of these photographers are men,” Antwaun Sargent, an art and culture critic said via phone. “And how Annie Leibovitz had to be the only one in some ways. This conversation isn’t just about race, but it extends to gender and things like age. There’s a difference in the ways that men and women shoot the body.”
In records reviewed and information provided by Condé Nast, there are only a handful of female photographers in Vogue’s cover history. Annie Leibovitz appears as the only woman to have shot a cover of Vogue solo since Karen Radkai and Frances McLaughlin-Gill in 1950s and Toni Frissell, who preceded them both in the 1930s and 40s. Inez van Lamsweerde has also shot three covers with her partner Vinoodh Matadin since 2017.
To arrive at this point, Vogue (and the high fashion industry at large) has ignored generations of photographers, including some of the black photographers who have informed Mitchell’s own work.
“The way that [Tyler] thinks about lighting black skin, his interrogation of blackness in general is something that many generations of photographers have looked at,” Sargent said, referring to a variety of Mitchell’s statements, chief amongst them, one that says he shoots with an “honest gaze.”
While a few names like Gordon Parks — Parks was the first black photographer to shoot for Vogue in the 40s — and Lorna Simpson have shot for Vogue in-book there’s plenty more that have not. Photographers like Carrie Mae Weems, Awol Erizku, Mickalene Thomas, Micaiah Carter and Shaniqwa Jarvis, all from a variety of generations, and all black, all with a reputation for shooting commercially, have largely been left out of American Vogue. Jarvis has shot for Supreme, Nike and Adidas — while those brands are not high fashion, they speak to commercial viability. In fact, this summer discussion arose that a shoot Juergen Teller did for an international issue of Vogue mimicked Thomas’s trademark aesthetic. Why was Thomas not just hired?
On Instagram, Naomi Campbell spoke to the scarcity of black photographers in high fashion. When stylist Ugo Mozie posted, criticizing Vogue for taking so long to cast a black photographer for the cover, the iconic supermodel commented “You’re correct, it’s a disgrace!! In my 32 years, I only got to work with one fashion photographer, this is why I will continue to push for diversity in my industry.” While her agents declined to specify whether Campbell was saying she had only worked with one black fashion photographer at Vogue –she’s had seven covers –or in the industry overall, with a career as prolific as hers, the stat is damning. While her agents declined to specify whether Campbell was saying she had only worked with one black fashion photographer at Vogue — she’s had seven covers — or in the industry overall, with a career as prolific as hers, the stat is damning.
But why is this change coming now?
Before the cover was revealed Huffington Post ran a report that Vogue had ceded control of the cover to Beyoncé. According to the publication, Beyoncé had brought Mitchell to Vogue and as such single handedly initiated this change in history.
“Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lense, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like. That is why I wanted to work with this brilliant 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell,” she wrote in her cover story. “If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose.”
Vogue’s recounting paints a different tale. They suggested Mitchell’s name to Beyoncé amongst a list of other photographers, and understanding the historical significance, Beyoncé selected the young creative. Mitchell has even supported this version on his Twitter account, in a now deleted tweet. Regardless of which actually happened, the new move extends fashion’s long running conversation about representation, finally behind the lens.
For decades, Vogue had no real reason to venture out of the creatives they had been using. Stylists and editors continued to use their go-to photographers. But in the past few years with America’s disinterest with print magazines, a slate of sexual assault accusations that caused Condé Nast to distance itself from various photographers and changing conversations in fashion about identity, changes were iminent.
“[My black photography students] have all been saying, we don’t really see ourselves out there, in the industry, in photography.” Kimberly Jenkins, a lecturer at Parsons said via phone. “One of them in particular was saying she wanted to be a photographer because it wasn’t only that she didn’t see black photographers in fashion but she didn’t see any black women photographers.”
That mentality is the latest maturation of a conversation that’s been occuring in fashion for over a decade, arguably starting with a call for more diverse castings of models on runways and in ad campaigns. Those calls were soon met with calls for more black designers and stylists and even the hair and makeup teams. But the role of photographer rarely crept into the dialogue.
“It’s such a powerful position; you know we’re definitely doing the styling now, and we’re definitely doing the hair and makeup but to let a person of color, especially a black person, take control of the lens and control the gaze for a major publication? That’s a huge responsibility,” Jenkins said. “You’re guiding [the public] in how we’re going to look at something.”
And now, even that shall be through a “mosaic of perspectives.”