I’m not saying you’ll never see a bad picture by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, but I’m pretty sure you’ll never see a naïve one, certainly not in the pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair. So just now people are talking about her cover for the April Vogue: a bellowing LeBron James, basketball superstar, one arm around the waist of a delighted Gisele Bundchen, supermodel. “She looks like she’s on her way to something fashionable and exciting,” comments essayist Jemele Hill at ESPN.com. “He looks like he’s on his way to a pickup game for serial killers.” And Hill notes that the blogosphere has been commenting on the “striking resemblance to the racially charged image of King Kong enveloping his very fair-skinned lady love interest.”
On the other hand, someone commented, “I mean how could they take a simple thing like a picture and turn it into a racial thing.” That’s at FOX Sports at MSN, where they ran a poll on whether the cover was racist and 77 percent of some 400,000 votes said it wasn’t. I don’t think it’s racist either, but Hill says there are “racial undertones” to Liebovitz’s cover, and of course she’s right and it’s no accident. James looks every inch the master of his domain, Bundchen seems larkishly carefree (that is, she registers larkishly carefree, her assignment), and I couldn’t help but think the first time I studied the cover about how far we’ve come since Emmett Till.
What’s wrong with racial undertones anyway? Why deny them? We can’t have the national conversation about race that Barack Obama just called for and flinch at racial undertones. If race weren’t a context that alters whatever it touches, there’d be no need for the conversation. Hill locates a white professor who’s written a book about black athletes and who complains that Vogue opted for “primitive racial emotion as opposed to something tasteful and edifying.” There’s an oxymoron! The cover’s edifying because it’s tasteless — tasteless in its emanation of something illicit. Sometimes I think the credo of high style is “First, be tasteless,” and those times when tastelessness forces people to analyze why they’re offended, that seems like a pretty good credo.
Liebovitz, by the way, took the family picture Obama used on his Christmas card not long ago. And while we’re on the subject, where would Obama be politically if he had a white wife? Would the black vote still solidly support him? Would he still be the first black presidential candidate that millions of whites could imagine voting for?
The last sensational and controversial cover of Leibovitz’s that I can remember was for Vanity Fair’s 2006 Hollywood issue, the one with Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, both nude, posing with the issue’s art director, Tom Ford. The story behind this cover was that Ford had been a last-minute replacement for Rachel McAdams, who showed up for the shoot, was told to take her clothes off, and skedaddled.
That shoot did go wrong. The right cover, the shocking cover, would have had McAdams in the picture with her clothes on. Of course Johansson and Knightley would never have gone along with it. Posing naked with a saturnine Ford was high style, but alongside a demurely attired McAdams they’d have looked like submissive tramps.