A new photography book and traveling exhibition highlights Black artists changing the language of fashion photography. The Luupe speaks with one of its most innovative photographers, Dana Scruggs.
In every generation, a photography book comes along and captures the zeitgeist with perfect aplomb. The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion (Aperture) is just that. Independent writer, curator, and critic Antwaun Sargent brings together 15 contemporary Black artists including Arielle Bobb-Willis, Nadine Ijewere, Namsa Leuba, Renell Medrano, Ruth Ossai, Adrienne Raquel, and Dana Scruggs, who are transforming the language of fashion photography by centering the aesthetics of the African diaspora in their work.
In the 1940s, Gordon Parks used fashion to cross the color line that had kept Black artists from access to white institutions. Understanding the intrinsic power and influence of the mainstream media, Parks became the first Black photographer to shoot for Vogue at a time when Jim Crow was still law. While the 1964 Civil Rights Act criminalized de jure segregation, de facto actions persisted and it wasn’t until September 2019 that Tyler Mitchell, also featured in the book, became the first Black photographer to shoot Vogue’s cover.
“We’re conditioned to not speak out against injustices that have happened to us,” Dana Scruggs tells The Luupe, “within the industry and outside of it, because opportunities could be taken away by white gatekeepers who feel defensive about their own viewpoints and behaviors towards Black people – and perhaps their own complicity in upholding the status quo and white supremacy within fashion, fine art, photojournalism, etc.”
Drawing upon references from art, photography, history, fashion, beauty, and pop culture, the artists featured in The New Black Vanguard are part of a larger continuum of Black aesthetics that is starting to receive its proper due by white institutions. These featured artists have long worked to create their own platforms, cultivating their audiences while employing Black models, designers, makeup artists, and production crews to establish their own vibrant iconography.
“Sensitivity to the power and relation to the image is starting to shift,” says Lesley Martin, Creative Director of Aperture Foundation, where a traveling exhibition of photographs from the book is on view through January 18th, 2020.
“This is opening new doors and widening the parameters of what is considered important. Many of these artists work outside the galley system, and [the art world’s] idea of value is skewed. Whose work is actually being seen by more people on this planet, not just by social media but by working for ESPN, Rolling Stone, and Vogue as well as their own publications? That’s what this is really about.”
Drawing inspiration from the Kamoinge Workshop, which produced The Black Photographers Annual from 1973-1980, Dana Scruggs launched SCRUGGS Magazine in 2016 to gain access to the male models she wanted to shoot.
“It was my own vision,” Scruggs says of her photographs of Black men that explore notions of strength and vulnerability while breaking the depersonalization and fetishization of the white gaze. Scruggs produced the stories she wanted to tell to expand the conversation around notions of Black masculinity on her own terms.
Her work was quickly recognized by the powers that be. In 2018, Scruggs became the first Black woman to shoot an athlete for ESPN magazine’s “Body Issue” and the following year, she became the first Black photographer to shoot a cover for Rolling Stone.
“I photographed 10 covers in 2019. I understand that in some ways I’m being tokenized by certain publications – mainly when white editors excitedly exclaim that they want to make me the “first Black person” to shoot the cover of their mag – and then become irritated when I say no. I don’t want to be ‘the first’ and I don’t want editors to feel like they’re giving me or themselves a gift by trying to make me ‘the first’. If you think shouting from the rooftops that your magazine is just now hiring a Black photographer (or Black female photographer) to shoot your cover – then your values are a problem and indicative of why you’re just now considering hiring someone who looks like me.”
Scruggs adds, “Magazines think they’re being progressive by putting a Black person on their cover, but when you look on most of their sets – every single person behind the scenes is often white. Especially the photo department. People have to make a concerted and deliberate effort to hire outside of whiteness. It’s not hard to find talented Black photographers – people in positions of power in this industry just need to be willing to hire them.”
Scruggs quotes African American children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see,” recognizing that the power of representation and visibility may begin with a photograph, but it doesn’t end there. Context is transformative, and that’s what makes The New Black Vanguard so significant to the world today. It was made by a Black author and Black book designer and features additional interviews with Black women photographers Mickalene Thomas, Deborah Willis, and Shaniqwa Jarvis.
“Representation in art, fashion, and photography has been building over the last five years. This is a culmination of Black photographers finally getting recognition from mainstream platforms and institutions. It’s very timely, and it’s only the beginning.”
The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion will be on view at Aperture Foundation through January 18, 2019. The book sold out its first printing within two months of release, and the second edition will be available in late March.