Another Vogue cover controversy is trending on social media, this one involving images of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris by photographer Tyler Mitchell (the 26-year-old who famously became the first Black photographer to shoot an American Vogue cover when he captured Beyoncé for the magazine’s September 2018 issue). In the first of two February 2021 cover images—one for digital, one for print—Harris poses in a powder-blue Michael Kors pantsuit with an American flag pin on her lapel. The second image, the one that was mailed out as the cover of the print version of the magazine, got viewers tweeting up a storm after it was prematurely leaked over the weekend: Harris stands in blazer and pants, pearls around her neck and Converse on her feet. A pink and green backdrop was draped around her, according to Vogue, as a nod to her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority (historically the first African-American Greek-lettered sorority).
Fans started tweeting and posting on Vogue‘s Instagram account over the weekend that the image is “washed out” and not worthy of the office or title Harris is about to occupy.
According to the New York Post, one upset viewer wrote on Vogue‘s Instagram account, “Kamala is our FIRST EVER WOMAN VICE PRESIDENT! PLEASE DO HER JUSTICE and REDO this cover! Put her in a background that is regal like she is! Your old drape from the CEO’s office is insulting.”
Another reader wrote, “Love that she’s on the cover but why this one?! Y’all could’ve done WAYYYY BETTER.”
Yashar Ali, a New York Magazine/HuffPost contributor, wrote on Twitter that according to a source familiar with the publication, Kamala Harris’ team had okayed the photo in the light blue suit and thought that was the image Vogue was going with.
“That was the cover that the Vice President-elect’s team and the Vogue team, including editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, mutually agreed upon…But the much-maligned cover [in the Converse sneakers] had already gone to print [in December] and will be the cover available for sale and sent to subscribers,” Ali wrote.
It is unfortunate that the photographer who is executing on an assignment like this often ends up becoming collateral damage in the ensuing controversy. After all, it takes a village on a shoot such as this one, with lots of cooks in the kitchen and it seems like never, or hardly ever, does the photographer get to decide the final cover image. Here, it seems that even Mitchell thought the one he posted on Twitter was the chosen one.
As for some of the propping choices in the more casual image, according to Vogue in a statement that appears to be written after all the hubbub began online, Mitchell had wanted to “pay homage to and honor Harris’s college days and the powerful women who comprise the ranks of Alpha Kappa Alph and Black sororities and sisterhoods worldwide.”
Vogue went on to explain that Vice President-elect’s styling choices were her own and that the image reflects Harris at her casual best: “Converse sneakers and Donald Deal blazer.”
The day before Harris’ cover leaked online, Anna Wintour spoke with Kara Swisher for the Times’ “Sway” podcast, calling the chosen image “charming and relaxed” as well as “joyful and optimistic.”
“I cannot imagine that there’s anyone that really is going to find this cover anything but that, and positive, and an image of a woman in control of her life who’s going to bring us … the leadership, that we so need,” Wintour said at the time. “And to me, it’s just a very important, but positive, statement about women, and women in power.”
On Tuesday, January 13, Wintour broke her silence a few days after the image leaked online and defended it, stating to The New York Times that there was “no formal agreement” about the cover choice, but emphasized that “it was absolutely not our intention to in any way diminish the importance of the Vice President-elect’s incredible victory.”
“When the two images arrived at Vogue, all of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice President-elect really reflected the moment that we were living in,” Wintour said in the statement. “We are in the midst…of the most appalling pandemic that is taking lives by the minute, and we felt to reflect this tragic moment in global history, a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible, and approachable, and really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign…”
I asked the Rangefinder and WPPI team to weigh in on the more low-key image of Harris against the rumpled pink backdrop. Senior editor Libby Peterson feels that, “so much consideration has to go into a cover with a politician. I imagine the larger team just overworked the concept behind the casual one. The direction isn’t super cohesive, which unfortunately dampens its overall impact.”
Peterson adds that she thinks of the New York Times Magazine cover with Nancy Pelosi (below) by Nolwen Cifuentes, a who was honored as one of The 30: New and Emerging Photographers to Watch in 2020, that ran in 2018 as a “good contemporary example of a politician’s cover. It’s uncomplicated, has a solid color story, her expression is compelling and the posing is on point. Each element works together to help build an overall impact.”
Lead designer Sharon Ber expressed that viewing the two images as a pair is an interesting juxtaposition. “I like the idea of seeing Harris in a multi-faceted way. The styling of a successful women in her sneakers, instead of a $700 pair of heels, is also a nice change of pace for a fashion magazine. It calls to mind the viral image of Harris descending the stairs off a plane on the campaign trail.”
Ber adds that while the image that was used for the digital cover has the vice president looking strong and confident, albeit a bit closed off with her arms folded, it is a much more classic and traditional look. “What I would have loved to have seen ultimately is one image that shows both of the aspects of these images merged into one. A full-length of Kamala in her Michael Kors suit and her Chuck Taylors would have been lovely.”
Rangefinder and WPPI content director Arlene Evans chimes in as well, adding that, “Given how the country is now, the suit and the power stand are more important as she’s going to have to fight to be respected by those 70 million who didn’t vote for her. That’s the power of photography!”
As I studied the image myself, not feeling that initial gut-punch I typically want, I pondered whether or not Harris came across as more relatable in her own wardrobe choices and beloved Chuck Taylors—especially during a pandemic—and if that was enough. Many naysayers online argued that a fashion magazine should have a fashionable portrait on the cover. But, as CNN reported when the story first broke, while a spokesperson for Vogue did not comment on the discussions between the magazine and the Vice President-elect’s team early on, an emailed statement expressed that Vogue “loved the images Tyler Mitchell shot and felt the more informal image captured Vice President-elect Harris’s authentic, approachable nature.”
I, too, gravitated to that encapsulation of her persona in the end, as well as to the way the cover lines worked with the image: “By The People, For the People: The United States of Fashion.” To me it felt real, which these days is worth a great deal.
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