Vanity Fair debuts first cover by a Black photographer, featuring Viola Davis

The July/August issue of Vanity Fair marks a historic milestone for the magazine: The cover photo, which features actress Viola Davis, is the first taken by a Black photographer in the magazine’s 106-year history.

Dario Calmese photographed Davis for the issue, in is his first major magazine cover. Calmese’s accomplishment comes as calls for American fashion media to highlight more Black perspectives have become more urgent and widespread.

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Presenting our July/August cover star: @ViolaDavis. Last month, the Oscar winner took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd—but she’s no stranger to fighting for what’s right. As a Black woman in Hollywood, she’s spent her career doing it: “My entire life has been a protest,” Davis says. “My production company is my protest. Me not wearing a wig at the Oscars in 2012 was my protest. It is a part of my voice, just like introducing myself to you and saying, ‘Hello, my name is Viola Davis.’” Davis was photographed by @dario.studio—the first Black photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover. At the link in bio, Davis speaks with V.F. about her extraordinary journey out of poverty and into the stubbornly unequal Hollywood system. Story by @soniasaraiya Photographed by @dario.studio Styled by @elizabethstewart1 Coatdress @maxmara Earrings @pomellato

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Calmese told the New York Times that his cover image of Davis, with her exposed back to the camera and gaze over her left shoulder, was meant to invoke “The Scourged Back,” a historic 1963 image of a slave with a web of whipping scars on his back.

It’s a powerful image at a time when the country is reckoning with its dark legacy of racial injustice, slavery, and how Black stories are told. It also comes just days after Vogue’s cover feature of Simone Biles, photographed by iconic portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, has renewed demands for more representation in front of and behind the camera.

I adore Simone Biles and am thrilled she’s on this cover… but I hate these photos. I hate the toning, I hate how predictable they are, I hate the social crop here (wtf?) and I super hate that Vogue couldn’t be bothered to hire a Black photographer. https://t.co/az0gLugdzS

Facts. Vogue, August 2020 by Annie Leibovitz

Dana Scruggs 📸 work on the right Michaela Coel Essence, April 2019 https://t.co/9l3RsRsPsD pic.twitter.com/XI4zp2iJuC

After all the Black talent jumping out with #VogueChallenge, Vogue couldn’t idk hire a Black photographer to shoot this cover of Simone Biles? https://t.co/6N5Oac56Su

It’s no secret that diversity in fashion has long been an issue. In her editor’s letter about the Davis cover, Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Radhika Jones recognized the milestone of Calmese’s cover and highlighted the magazine’s own shortcomings. 

“In our archives, excluding groups and special issues, we count 17 Black people on the cover of Vanity Fair in the 35 years between 1983 and 2017,” Jones wrote. Jones has published 10 covers featuring Black stars since she took the helm in December of 2017.

Viola Davis for V.F. July/August 2020. Photographs by Dario Calmese. The cover marks the first V.F. cover shot by a Black photographer. https://t.co/izJBKTFrt7 pic.twitter.com/SeUdZkQwoO

Vanity Fair is not the only magazine to make headlines in recent years for surprising firsts. Rolling Stone published the first cover by a Black photographer in its over 50-year history in 2019, when Dana Scruggs photographed rap artist Travis Scott for the magazine’s January 2019 issue.

Vogue didn’t feature the work of a Black photographer on its cover until 2018, 126 years after its debut issue was published. Tyler Mitchell worked with Beyonce for the coveted September issue when he was just 23 years old, and one of the portraits from that historic photoshoot was later added to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

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