- Viola Davis’ Vanity Fair cover was the first to be shot by a Black photographer in the magazine’s 37-year history.
- Photographer Dario Calmese told Insider that he knew the cover was “an opportunity to say something.”
- “I knew this cover had to be unabashedly Black,” he said. “Unabashedly myself and my history, unabashedly Viola and her history.”
- Calmese wanted his portrait to celebrate Davis and subvert the white gaze that has long controlled how Black stories are portrayed.
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“I knew this was an opportunity to say something,” Calmese told Insider. “It’s my own form of protest.”
The cover image of Viola Davis, for Vanity Fair’s July issue, is a historic one
Dario Calmese is the first Black photographer to shoot the magazine’s cover in its 37-year history.
“I knew this cover had to be unabashedly Black,” he said. “Unabashedly myself and my history, unabashedly Viola and her history.”
Calmese says he found inspiration in images from the past, specifically in “The Scourged Back.” The 1863 portrait of a runaway slave named Gordon was taken after he found refuge in a camp of Union soldiers, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Published that year in Harper’s Weekly, the image – which shows his back turned to the camera, his scars on display – became one of the most famous portraits of enslaved people during the Civil War.
On the Vanity Fair cover, Davis holds the same pose with her hand on her waist, face in profile, and back exposed.
But Calmese didn’t want his photo to just be a re-creation. He wanted his portrait to celebrate Davis, and subvert the white gaze that has long controlled how Black stories are portrayed.
“It’s definitely not some, ‘Oh, look how far we’ve come,”‘ he said. “This reference image, for me, it’s one that reimagines but also transmutes that pain. It’s the transmuting of this gaze, and owning ourselves and owning our own beauty.”
“Viola not only owned the image, she imbued it with a strength and a power,” Calmese added. “Even though her back is towards the camera, you can tell she is not to be messed with.”
Coming on the heels of both the reckoning at Condé Nast and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, the timing may seem intentional
Calmese says he discovered he was Vanity Fair’s first Black cover photographer at the same time as the magazine.
“This was not a reactionary moment,” Calmese said. “I started shooting for them a year ago and we did the cover.”
After he photographed high-profile stars like Billy Porter, George MacKay, and Adrienne Warren for the magazine, Vanity Fair asked if Calmese would shoot Davis’ issue.
As he began envisioning the shoot, Calmese wanted to find past covers that had been done by Black photographers, but when the editors dug through the archives, the photographer said they found that no one had preceded him. Radhika Jones, Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief, wrote in her editor’s letter that “to the best of our knowledge” Calmese was the first Black photographer to receive the cover.
In the same letter, Jones wrote that Vanity Fair only had 17 covers that featured Black people from 1983 to 2017. Since she took the helm two-and-a-half years ago, the magazine has had 10 Black cover subjects.
“It is my job, and the magazine’s job, to centre people who are visionaries, who are moving the culture forward,” she wrote.
Calmese has worked hard to do the same in his own career, shining a light on Black voices through the fashion shows that he directs for designer Kerby Jean-Raymond and the creatives that he hosts on his podcast,“Institute of Black Imagination.”
Calmese felt he owed it to Davis and all Black women to ‘render her as aesthetically honest and beautiful as possible’
“These women are existing and are living full lives,” Calmese said of Black women. “But, because of an industry machine that’s flattened and reduced, they never see themselves reflected in this place.”
“I am flesh and blood and I am living and thriving and I am sexy and beautiful and yet, I don’t see myself reflected anywhere. It’s like being a vampire,” he said.
In her interview with Vanity Fair, Davis discussed how she saw a “real absence of dark-skinned Black women” on magazine covers.
“They have 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,” she added. “You are putting us in a complete cloak of invisibility.”
Calmese’s cover comes amid criticism surrounding Simone Biles’ July cover for Vogue by Annie Leibovitz
Many on Twitter said the lighting in the photos did little to accentuate Biles’ skin tone.
“Annie has a very specific way of shooting which I personally love,” Calmese said. “But maybe it doesn’t always work on everyone. We have to be present to the moment that we’re in, and service the people that we are working with.”
“Though I’m Black and queer, I’m still a cis male and so I still have my own blind spots. I wanted to make sure I was rendering Black women in a way they want to be seen,” he added, noting that he looked to the work of Black female artists like Alma Thomas, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems “to see how they were representing themselves.”
Calmese also ensured that Davis’ skin was not lightened in post-production. Magazines, he said, “lighten and brighten everything, it doesn’t matter who it is. But I had them bring her skin back down. This is a time for all of us to question what we take as standard, to question the way we’ve always done it.”
While his cover may be historic, Calmese said there is one very important thing to remember: “Although I’m the first Black photographer who shot the cover for Vanity Fair, I’m not the first Black photographer who could have shot a cover for Vanity Fair.”
Representatives for Vanity Fair and Viola Davis did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
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