The Black photographer making history at Vanity Fair

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The Black photographer making history at Vanity Fair
In an undated image provided by Teron Beal, Dario Calmese, the first Black photographer to shoot a cover for Vanity Fair. Viola Davis appears on the cover of this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, the first by a Black photographer, in an image meant to be a protest. Teron Beal via The New York Times.

by Jessica Testa

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Until about two weeks ago, Dario Calmese didn’t know he was the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vanity Fair. But he had a suspicion, so he asked the editors, who went digging.

“To the best of our knowledge, it is the first Vanity Fair cover made by a Black photographer,” Radhika Jones wrote in her July-August editor’s letter. The subject of the cover is Viola Davis, who, in the same issue, told her interviewer, Sonia Saraiya, that Black women haven’t traditionally been photographed for the cover of Vanity Fair, either.

In her letter, Jones runs the numbers: In the 35 years before she was named editor, Vanity Fair published 17 solo covers featuring Black people. As of Tuesday, Jones has published eight since she took over 2 1/2 years ago, along with two featuring interracial married couples.

Yet this accomplishment exists within a broader, more distressing reality: According to several employees who have shared their experiences in recent weeks, some magazines at Condé Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair, are racist workplaces.

In June, The New York Times reported that Jones’ covers were criticized internally by a white female executive for not featuring “more people who look like us.” (Through a Condé Nast spokesman, the executive denied making the assertion.)

Calmese may not have realized he was the magazine’s first Black photographer when he got the assignment, and he spoke glowingly of his interactions with Vanity Fair staff. But he did not shy away from the heat of the moment, in the news media and in fashion.

“I did know that this was a moment to say something,” he said in an interview the week before the cover’s release. “I knew this was a moment to be, like, extra Black.”

There was an image that had long lingered in Calmese’s personal reference folder: “The Scourged Back,” an 1863 portrait of an enslaved man whose back is ravaged by whipping scars. When Calmese came across it again a few days before the shoot, he decided to replicate it.

“When you look at it dark gray essentials hoodie it is gruesome and harsh,” he said. But Calmese also saw in it elements that could inform his upcoming portrait. “He pushes back more toward the camera,” he said. “His hand is at his waist — you know that line, with his profile going down the arm and coming back. And so I was like: I can re-create this.”

Still, he didn’t intend the re-creation to be the cover image. This was the summer issue, and he thought the cover should have more brightness and vibrancy.

But the result was too moving for him to ignore. In it, Davis sits with one hand on her hip, like the man in the portrait. She gazes to the left. Light gently reflects off her exposed back, the silhouette of her face, the corner of her lap.

“Once you sit in the chair for a while, you start to have a sense of the pictures that stay in your mind,” Jones said. “When I saw the work and saw the picture, it just felt right.”

For her, the image represented the strength it takes to tell your own story, she said. For Calmese, it is about rewriting an old story.

“Not only around slavery, but also the white gaze on Black bodies, and transmuting that into something of elegance and beauty and power,” he said.

‘A Banal Industry Standard’
Despite being the latest in a short line of much belated firsts — he joins Tyler Mitchell, who in 2018 became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue, and Dana Scruggs, the first to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone, in 2019 — Calmese doesn’t actually consider himself a photographer.

“I think of photography as a part of me, but not me,” he said. “It’s a mode of expression. It doesn’t completely fill me.”

He also writes, curates art shows, directs fashion shows and hosts the “Institute of Black Imagination” podcast, interviewing other Black creatives and academics. He has been an actor and is a classically trained singer and dancer. In all things he is exceptionally upbeat, and he talks animatedly about finding beauty at a time when many people, for a variety of reasons, are finding that difficult.

Calmese, 38, began taking portraits of Black people around 2012, while enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Several years earlier, while attending a small Jesuit college in Kansas City, Missouri, he had planned on becoming a clinical psychologist.

But he put off grad school, leaving Missouri, where he grew up, to move to New York and give performing a shot. By the time the idea of grad school appealed to him again, he had decided to pursue fashion photography at SVA.

There, Calmese started photographing what he calls “ordinary Black people who were living extraordinary lives.” One was Lana Turner, a collector of vintage fashion who Calmese first encountered at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, where he now lives.

In photographing Turner and her Sunday best wardrobe, which he did for five years, he realized that at church, “Black people were able to, through fashion, live and exist and play a role that outside of those walls they couldn’t,” he said.

In 2013, Calmese met Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder of the Pyer Moss label. He became the casting director for Jean-Raymond’s fashion shows, then the director. Last year he directed the powerful Pyer Moss show at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, which aimed to reclaim the role of Black musicians, particularly Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in American rock ’n’ roll history.

His portrait of Davis was not Calmese’s first attempt at reclamation on behalf of Black women. A year ago, for the summer 2019 cover of Numéro Berlin, he answered the prompt “What is America?” with an image of five Black women wearing different hairstyles inspired by models in Ebony magazine in the 1970s.

“Black women have held this country together since its inception,” he said. And yet, he said, “they’re rendered invisible.”

Last year he began shooting for Vanity Fair; his first subject was Billy Porter. In March, he had been assigned to photograph actress Catherine O’Hara. But the shoot was abruptly canceled because of state restrictions on gatherings, he said. (O’Hara was eventually photographed via drone.)

Then, in mid-June, Calmese got the call to photograph Davis for the cover.

He wanted Davis to look incredible because, he said, she deserved to look incredible. But he also saw the assignment as an opportunity to subvert the magazine cover — a “banal industry standard,” he said — to imbue it with the same current that ran through his runway shows with Jean-Raymond.

“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,” Calmese said.

‘You Will Be Creating History’
From the time he got the assignment, Calmese recalled, he had about nine days to prepare. At the time, the cover was still meant to be summery. He was imagining Davis as the Black Athena, representing survival and justice, or the Black Madonna representing the transformation of one’s internal darkness into light.

There were daily conference calls with the magazine, and at one point he decided to write a 500-word essay, or a treatise as he called it, “to define what should be and what shouldn’t be.”

“I read it to everybody in the Zoom, like 10 people,” Calmese said, laughing at himself. “It’s just the way that I work, in everything.”

On the day of the photo shoot in California, everyone on set wore masks and signed waivers and filled out questionnaires about potential coronavirus symptoms. There were two medics, including one taking temperatures at the door.

Elbow bops replaced double cheek kissing, and Davis was specific about not wearing clothes that had been worn by anyone else in the two days before the shoot, Calmese said.

For the image that became the cover shot, she wore a taffeta MaxMara trench dress backward so it could be unbuttoned to reveal her back. Even the deep blue color of the garment feels symbolic; indigo cloth was used as currency in the slave trade.

Calmese wanted Davis’ hair to be natural; he had the hairstylist style three Afros of different sizes and chose the largest. Her makeup was undramatic. He did not want what he called a “whole glamour moment,” the aspirational default for mainstream American magazines. For all of his buoyant energy, he wanted the photo to feel underexposed and somber.

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

It’s hard to see the cover as anything but protest. Magazine covers are often planned months in advance, but in Jones’ first issue since Condé Nast’s reckoning, she has paired a Black actress (and wage-gap activist) with a Black photographer inspired by slave imagery.

Jones has placed a quote from Davis, “My entire life has been a protest,” prominently below the Vanity Fair logo. Her editor’s letter declares, “We are not bound to continue the cultural hierarchies we inherit.”

And the image has been released amid criticism that Vogue’s choice of photographer for its new Simone Biles cover, Annie Leibovitz, does not properly light Black people.

Two days before the photo shoot, Calmese emailed his friend André Leon Talley, the former Vogue editor at large, to ask for advice.

Talley, who in a recently published memoir chronicled the experience of having no Black contemporaries as he navigated fashion’s highest echelons, responded with a pep talk. “I want to personally applaud you for your continued breakout high-art roles in our culture,” Talley wrote back.

Twenty minutes later — Talley’s emails tend toward stream of consciousness, Calmese said — he continued: “Soar and believe in your dream. I’m so excited for you and Vanity Fair.”

Calmese may not have realized then that he would be the first. Talley may well have. “You will be creating history,” he wrote.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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