Antwaun Sargent’s New Tome to Black Image-Making in Fashion Today
Last year’s September issue of Vogue was a particularly monumental addition to the pop-culture canon. Not on account of its cover star, Beyoncé, who’d fronted the magazine at least three times before, but for the photographer she chose to have behind the lens: the 24-year-old rising talent Tyler Mitchell, who effectively became the youngest and first black photographer to ever land a Vogue cover commission. As Beyoncé put it in the pages of that issue, “If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only hire people who look like them, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will curate the same art over and over again, and we will all lose.” Two months ago, a photo from Mitchell’s cover shoot was acquired by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Curator and critic Antwaun Sargent points to this very moment as a bellwether for a larger artistic renaissance underway. His first book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion (Aperture), celebrates the work of 15 contemporary artists and photographers who are contributing to black image-making in fashion today, empowering and radically reshaping the landscape of visual culture in the process. “The fashion image is a totem,” Sargent writes, framing fashion as among the most widely accessed—and, it follows, most culturally influential and resonant—venues for photography, while underlining its historic and persistent lack of diversity. “Over the last few decades, the same stable of photographers, usually white and male, with the exception of Annie Lebovitz, have shot the majority of covers and fashion stories of major magazines, exerting an outsized influence on how identity is styled in the popular photographic image. Fashion images are aspirational: people feel affirmed or alienated by the likenesses that stare back at them.” Working across a creative spectrum, these international image-makers—including the likes of Nadine Ijewere, Jamal Nxedlana, and Daniel Obasi—embrace fashion photography as their mode for conveying, as Mitchell says, “black beauty as an act of justice.”