Vogue's Kamala Harris Cover

Vogue Kamala Harris Cover & The Rages of a Faux Fury

A Simple Cover Photograph of VP-Elect Kamala Harris Has Drawn A Barrage of Criticism. And Not All Criticism Has Merit


By Long Nguyen

The February 2021 issue of Vogue Magazine has yet to hit the newsstands or mailboxes of subscribers globally, and, already the rage against the cover photographs of Kamala Harris, the Vice President or as the Vogue cover tagline ‘Madam Vice President,’ has taken on a life of its own in social and established media.

The print and digital cover versions were released on Sunday on social media. The cover photograph was by Tyler Mitchell, the first young black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover when he lensed Beyoncé for the September 2018 issue. That cover featured the superstar in a similar and less glamourous setting, although with more designer clothes, than his latest cover of the Vice President. For the February issue, a straightforward shot of the Vice President standing in front of a sash of pink satin fabrics served as a backdrop while the VP wore a black single breast jacket, a white tee-shirt, black cigarette pants, and a pair of worn black canvas Converse. Alternatively, there is a three quarter close up shot of the Veep in an ecru pantsuit for the Vogue.com issue.

How does this simple cover photograph generate steroid rage against Vogue and the cover feature story? “Poor quality,” “disrespectful,” “moment missing the mark,” “mess,” “too soon” were some of the now-familiar words used by those supposedly outraged by what they deemed as real offenses against the Veep and also against this kind of portrayal of women in power. Even the Veep’s niece Meena Harris said the attention should be on the moment represented and less on the clothes worn or the stagecraft of the photoshoot in a morning interview on the NBC Today Show.

The anger online yesterday over this cover photo was just as loud as the anger over the mob that stormed the Capitol a few days earlier. Hard to imagine this malign.

What this faux outrage expresses more than anything is the reflection of how a Vogue cover or covers from traditional fashion magazines should look like – classy and staged in ways to awe the audience. But this is merely the old way and the old expectations. These outrages coming from nearly all quarters say a lot more about the perception of the people who screamed out loud rather than the actual cover itself. It is the imposition of these old notions of what a cover should look like, rather than allowing magazines to adapt to changing cultures and values.

What if the cover photograph was set in an elaborate setting like a sumptuous hillside mansion with the Vice President wearing an array of designers and haute couture? Would that not also invite the same barrage of takedowns for being ‘out of touch’?

The violent reaction testified that these critics who often railed against magazine not doing enough to fathom the new, now decried when the new is actually in front of them. While these reactions are unfortunate, a young photographer created this cover photograph whose life experiences have little to do with the made-up glamour inherent in fashion photography. It is a new look, seen and captured by a new generation for the like-minded audiences now. Just as many traditionalists dismissed this cover, many young people will adopt the visuals as part of their cultural outlook.

Arguing that this cover is not inspiring is beyond belief and particularly reactionary, especially from the same people who insisted against people’s portrayal in cookie-cutter manners. And by arguing against the impact of this simpler photograph, these critics embrace the notion that the environment, the staging, and the clothes are more important to how we see the person portrayed. Habits, though, die-hard, as the saying goes.

However, this is how culture often reacts to anything new and perhaps anything beyond traditional acceptance. Like great red wine, it will take a bit of time for this wonderful cover to sink in and become part of the culture at large.

This instant rage situation reminded me of May 1997 when the NY Times denounced some of my work with a young generation of photographers as part of the so-called ‘heroin chic’ photography style. Purportedly the kind of photographs created by an entire team of photographers, models, and editors hooked on heroin and then transpired this debauchery into the pictures. I was labeled as the editor responsible for creating these ‘heroin chics’ looks because I worked mainly with new talents like Davide Sorrenti, a budding photographer who died at nineteen years of age and whose work I had championed in the last two years of his short life, and the subject that spurred the Times front-page article.

It was nothing but mere hysteria but the harm of this hysteria in the ensuing months managed to close avenues for young photographers who did not espouse the traditional photography celebrated in magazines when magazines were all-powerful. However, the hysteria made it much more difficult for those young kids back then to offer their views and visions unedited and unfathomed and, more importantly, to get the work critical to developing their careers. Times have changed, and this indeed won’t happen now, but the hysteria and the rage all sounded familiar.