Dario Calmese doesn’t consider himself a photographer — but he did just shoot actress Viola Davis for the July/August cover of Vanity Fair. It’s the first cover in the magazine’s history created by a Black photographer.
Just over a year ago, Calmese photographed actor Billy Porter in his first assignment for the publication. In March and April of this year, respectively, he shot actor George MacKay and actress Adrienne Warren. Now comes this historic first.
“For me, this cover is my protest,” he told the New York Times in an interview published on Tuesday. “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.’”
The milestone cover comes amid criticism that the magazine took so long to get here. Indeed, it took 37 years. Between Vanity Fair’s modern beginnings in 1983 and 2017, just 17 Black people graced its cover, according to Vanity Fair’s editor in chief, Radhika Jones.
But in the past 2 1/2 years, under Jones’ leadership, the publication featured 10 Black cover subjects, among them screenwriter Lena Waithe and singer-actress Janelle Monae. Calmese told New York Times that he is no stranger to “reclamation on behalf of Black women.”
“Calmese describes his cover concept as ‘a re-creation of the Louis Agassiz slave portraits taken in the 1800s — the back, the welts,” Jones wrote in her editor’s letter published Tuesday. “This image reclaims that narrative, transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering into the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty.”
The photo that became the new issue’s cover — a striking shot of Davis in a backward indigo dress — is a response to an 1863 photo of a slave titled ‘The Scourged Back,’ Calmese told the New York Times.
Some critics, however, took to Twitter to decry what they considered Calmese’s use of anti-Black violence and shock value for a predominantly white audience.
Davis, on the other hand, altered the narrative of Vanity Fair’s lack of inclusion.
“They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers,” she said in the cover story. “There’s a real absence of dark-skinned Black women. 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.”
Calmese’s cover comes just days after critics lambasted Vogue for failing to properly light gymnast Simone Biles’ skin tone on the cover of its August issue. The magazine featured its first cover by a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, in September 2018 — at Beyonce’s behest. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has since acquired the image for its permanent collection.