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‘The New Black Vanguard’ heralds a change in fashion photography

Antwaun Sargent reveals a shift in how black people see and present themselves in the world

New York Fashion Week is going through some things. The week of fashion industry trade shows is slowly dying, with designers such as Telfar Clemens, Jeremy Scott, and Tom Ford, formerly reliable fixtures at NYFW, choosing to showcase their latest wares elsewhere. Clemens elected to show his latest collection in Florence, Italy. Scott skipped town for Paris, and Ford decamped to Los Angeles.

Despite the narrative of doom hanging over NYFW, there is a bright spot in fashion worth highlighting: the emergence of what critic and curator Antwaun Sargent calls a “New Black Vanguard” in fashion and editorial photography. Sargent has authored a book chronicling the rise of black fashion photographers who are expanding the visual vocabulary of black fashion and art. Sargent looks deeply at the work of artists, including Tyler Mitchell, Quil Lemons, Stephen Tayo, and Campbell Addy.

I spoke with Sargent about his book, and the disruption that’s occurring in the worlds of fashion, art, and pop culture.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How and when did you realize there was a New Black Vanguard and that you needed to make this book?

This idea comes out of the fact that there was a shift clearly happening in photography. This generation of black photographers working around the world decided that, in our our photo-obsessed era, they were going to do something that was beyond the casual photograph. They were willing to start a practice around image-making that challenged our notions of beauty, fashion, art, and create bodies of work that largely existed outside of institutions.

I would go somewhere on a job and I would just see these young photographers. Or I would see, increasingly in my digital feeds, these photographs popping up. Highly thoughtful, highly staged images that were being created within a socially embedded way that spoke to contemporary blackness. Kind of defining or redefining notions that existed in mainstream society, but also within the community. Challenging ideas around gender. Challenging ideas, sexuality, in the community, outside the community. Challenging ideas of masculinity and femininity. Talking about class in really interesting ways. And talking about the medium of photography itself which is also, like everything in our society, colored by a racist past.

Untitled (Forces of Nature #1) , 2014, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019).

© Awol Erizku

Awol Erizku has this photograph in the book and in the exhibition, Asiatic Lilies. And it’s a still life photograph. It includes symbols that have been whitewashed. The Egyptian symbols like King Tut. And he has a kind of broken-off Shirley color card, Kodak color card. It’s the card that Kodak developed to calibrate skin color. And it was based on this white woman’s skin, hence the nickname Shirley. Even in the technology, in the development of photography, there was no real consideration of taking the likenesses of people of color.

And, so, you have — not just this generation — you have starting at the advent of photography with people like Frederick Douglass, who wasn’t a photographer, but who sat and posed, and expressed black freedom aesthetics through his style in the 1860s. From there, from that kind of early moment, you’ve had black people thinking about the democratic possibilities of photography.

Following that kind of long tradition, you have the photographers which I call the New Black Vanguard, who are thinking about those histories, thinking about the history of photography, the black history of photography, and then adding their own voices to that.

What’s the relationship between black photographers and black figures in pop culture, like Beyoncé, or Rihanna, or Taraji P. Henson or Tessa Thompson?

Think about Tyler Mitchell’s Beyoncé [Vogue] cover. That moment, 126 years too late, was awesome. It’s a moment that focused the public’s attention on who was being on those covers. But it also focused the public’s attention on who was making those images, something that the public had not been necessarily interested in before as far as fashion was concerned. We were more concerned with physically what we saw. So, that means if the model was black, that was where the concern stopped in terms of diversity.

One of the effects of that, kind of watershed Vogue cover eased this idea of us thinking more kind of critically about photography and how an image is made, how an image is constructed, produced, to evoke our desires and to reflect our cultural norms. In that way a fashion photograph that is heavily influenced by art is one of the best examples to me, of who we are, and what our aspirations are.

Lagos, Nigeria, 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019).

© Stephen Tayo

Often there’s an assumed neutrality when it comes to photographic images. You point a lens at something and it recreates what’s in front of it. Obviously, the art of photography is much more than that.

We still as a culture have a very 19th-century idea of photography. Which means that we think about photographs as a vehicle of documentation, which they are. Since early 20th-century movement of pictorialism, photographers started to create mood with photographs, create their own trueness with highly staged photographs. Not just point and shooting, but really constructing the themes, picking out the clothes. And then also the public got in on it.

In black culture, one of the most enduring style photographs is the family photograph. It’s this idea that we would get up with our family, we would go to the local camera person in our community, and we would dress up in our Sunday best, and have our likenesses recorded. That wasn’t how we existed every day, but it was about preserving an image for history. Kind of acknowledging our own self-worth, and making sure that our beauty was understood.

We always make a lot of noise about influencers on Instagram, who take these, ‘perfect’ images, right, whose lives are not reflective of what the images suggest. That is a tradition. This type of fantasia has long existed in photography. I think we should be better about reading those images, and knowing the politics of those constructions so we can better understand and read those images.

Slick Woods, Brooklyn , 2018, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019).

© Renell Medrano

There is a deliberateness. When Tyler Mitchell is thinking about black utopic space, it is largely about enacting a kind of upper-middle-class, suburban, Southern idea of utopia, of freedom. Which comes across differently, say, in Ruth Ossai, the Nigerian photographer’s images of family. You have a lot of image makers thinking about the truth of her photographs, thinking about what has been largely left out of the frame in black portraiture, and how to try to rewrite that back in.

Another example is Stephen Tayo. He’s a Nigerian photographer who makes these images that are likely staged, but documentary photographs. Meaning, he goes around, and he sees subjects and he asks them, ‘Can I take your picture now? Or I can come back tomorrow and you can wear whatever you want, and I’ll meet you in this same space.’ Again, a record of what we don’t often see that could challenge stereotypical notions that limit black expression.

Johannesburg , 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019).

© Jamal Nxedlana

You write in your essay that New Black Vanguard photographers blur conventional boundaries between art and fashion photography.

The boundaries is the feeling that the art and fashion worlds are separate. I think fashion photographers and art photographers are taking elements from each of those mediums to then employ that in their own image-making. Someone like Mickalene Thomas, or Cindy Sherman, or Deana Lawson, are reacting to the glossy images that are so dominant in our society. Fashion photography are the most widely viewed photographs in our society, because they are everywhere, seemingly.

One of the enduring fashion images is Richard Avedon’s photographs of Dovima with the elephants. Was this binary there for him too, this hard distinction between fashion photography and art?

Even Richard Avedon had his art practice and his Vogue fashion practice. If you consider Richard Avedon’s photography, they’re mostly black and white. All of them, across fashion and art. The fashion images are a lot more polished, or trying to speak to this imagined middle class, middle of the country, white audience. Think about the book that he did with James Baldwin, who was a friend of his, Nothing Personal. Those images are a lot more socially experimental. I mean, you have Marilyn Monroe without makeup, you have these really close-up shots. You have these nude images of people spinning out of control.

It was a real comment on the 1960s. And you have Baldwin’s text, four separate essays that he writes that have almost nothing to do with the images. But they’re not directly talking about the images, but they’re talking about his own social world, where these people in the images exist.

London, 2017, from The New Black Vanguard
(Aperture, 2019).

© Ruth Ossai

One thing that’s striking about the New Black Vanguard is just how different their work is from Terry Richardson, who had a vise grip on magazine and fashion photography for nearly a decade.

Well, those are the contracts, you know? #MeToo also changed photography. Because basically a lot of the white guys — Bruce Weber among them — had these iron-clad contracts with Vogue and [other publications], where they were entitled to X amount of covers a year. And they were part of a stable of photographers. They couldn’t work with other people, etc.

I was like, ‘Well, you realize that you won’t get the job you want in criticism, so you have to invent your own.’ In some ways, that was part of the motivation of these young photographers. You talk to a lot of them, ‘I never thought I would do the cover of Vogue, or even shoot in Vogue,’ because there was this vise grip by basically old Life photographers, mostly male, Annie Leibovitz being the exception, who were contractually obligated to those platforms. And so when a lot of these guys go down with #MeToo — rightfully, might I add — it opens up space. It opens up opportunity for these mainstream magazines to bring in younger and new photographers.

The mainstream, because there’s a crisis, comes and calls them. It’s a course correction. Not because you’re kind of looking at your history, not because you ever thought that there were too many white voices in the room. You’re doing this because society, or the current culture has pushed you in this moment to do it. That just makes me highly distrustful of every institution.

Because once that pressure goes away, what you have is —

They’re always trying to reach equilibrium. There’s nothing more Americans love than a comeback.

I personally decided against engaging the white male ego. I’m sure that someone, no matter what he does, someone’s going to hire Terry Richardson. Maybe he doesn’t get to play at Vogue anymore, but he gets to play.

New York, 2017, from The New Black Vanguard
(Aperture, 2019).

© Quil Lemons

He will play somewhere.

You know? And, I mean, it’s like, ‘Not in this book!’

Tell us about this Dana Scruggs photograph. It looks as though the model is doing a cartwheel in the desert. How do we read this image?

With Dana’s images, what you notice is that she’s interested in talking about colorism, and making sure that when we were talking about people of color — when we’re talking about black people, black models — that we’re seeing the broadest possible representation of the community, of the community’s diversity. Particularly as it pertains to skin. Dana started her photo career shooting darker-skin models and I asked her why. And she goes, ‘Because I’m attracted to them.’ That was a reminder for me that there’s so much desire bound up in photography and the images that these photographers create.

And so, this photograph in Death Valley, it’s for a campaign for Chromat, but it also I think that there’s something almost subliminal about this abstract pose that this model is doing. There’s a cartwheel and also her shadow is there. It’s in this amazing landscape. Without over-reading the image, I do think that it’s an apt metaphor for the journey of black identity. Not just here, but globally.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.