Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"King" or "Kong"?

I know there's no shortage of race-related debate going on, but as a magazine art director, I can't resist this story. From Slate.com...

Monkey Business
So is that Vogue cover racist or not?



Thoughts?

UPDATE: More here at Jezebel, and at Condé Nast's Portfolio, both of which reference an even worse possible inspirational source...

12 comments:

Red State Blues said...

What was Liebowitz thinking? I would have thought that as a lesbian she would be more sensitive to perpetuating streotypes like those suggested by the cover.

It's pretty hard not to look at the Vogue cover and think King Kong/Faye Wray even without the side-by-side with the movie poster. What could say more clearly, "Lock away yer white wimmuns 'cause the black mens in acomin' to steal 'em"?

Chris Howard said...

What was Liebowitz thinking? I would have thought that as a lesbian she would be more sensitive to perpetuating sterotypes like those suggested by the cover.

As a professional, I'm sure she knew exactly what she was doing and probably expected the response. As to her motivation for doing it, who knows? Apparently she hasn't said yet.
Gawker actually has an even better visual parallel.

But anyway, big deal. This is far too over-the-top to actually perpetuate any stereotypes. Although as a "privileged white male", who's listening to me anyway :).

Mr Furious said...

From a comment at jezebel.com:

"Instead of interpreting the Vogue cover as an unconsciously racist text, I prefer to think that Leibovitz is consciously playing with our racist iconography and subverting the King Kong imagery to both satirize and reflect our racist past.

Can we not give credit to Leibovitz for creating art-as-mirror?"


Perhaps...I also think that in the current climate with Obama/Wright, etc, antennae are very finely tuned at the moment...

I've done plenty of photo shoots, and there is always the chance this was an incidental shot with an expression "ad-libbed" by LeBron, then selected because it is certainly engaging. But not much happens at a Liebovitz shoot that isn't planned, and they were certainly arranged in that position, and didn't roll out of bed in those clothes...

Smitty said...

I kinda go with jezebel's "ironic humor/insight" but agree the timing in a racially-sensitive moment we're having right now is a little off.

Deb said...

Am I the only one that thinks the suggestion that LeBron resembles an ape is a racist remark in itself? Or that Giselle bears any resemblance to a "victim" of the great ape is a wee bit sexist?

Mike said...

I think "we" should all lighten up and if we wanna engage in hand-wringing we should limit it to things that matter.

Covers of stupid glossy mags don't quite fit into that category.

Rickey Henderson said...

Vogue certainly should have paid more attention to what they were doing considering Lebron is the first black man to ever grace their cover.

That having been said, Rickey doesn think it was necessarily intentional on Lieboitz's part. Yes, it’s obviously playing with a touchy subject, but it’s a lot less obvious how it’s doing so. Rickey would say that it’s not reasonable to definitively interpret that picture as occupying any political position. It’s ambiguous, it’s pastiche mainly. Rickey personally would wager that it’s largely ironic: knowing of the racist imagery it is evoking and entering the current vogue for debates on race which are very reductionist and black and white and deflecting them against pop culture, vanity, the body, etc. To cover is maddeningly postmodern and because of that, people can choose to read it as making a racist and sexist statement only as convincingly as they can choose to read it as making an anti racist and anti sexist statement.

The fact that black athletes are often depicted on magazine covers and television clips in moments when they appear to be most menacing, aggressive and beastial when they grunt after scoring baskets or pound their chests in authority are part of the same media problem when it comes to race and sports. Rickey could easily find similar pictures in the mainstream medias as well as the realm of pornographic video that also emulate the underlying tropes in that King Kong photo. More than anything else, Liebowitz is attempting to toy with these notions in that Vogue cover. Does she pull it off or it is in bad taste? Well, that's for you to decide.

Alright, Rickey's done babbling.

Smitty said...

Yeah. What Rickey said.

Mr Furious said...

Much like Hillary Clinton, I had to wait for everyone else to chime in before formulating my carefully poll-tested position...

Seriously? I wasn't quite sure how to react to it. I probably NEVER would have recognized it as a problem or related to King Kong or anything else if it wasn't pointed out to me. Partly because I never would have even seen it, and partly because I tend to focus so closely on technical details of magazine covers I often miss the forest for the trees...

As Rickey mentioned, the expression on LeBron's face is pretty typical of imagery of athletes—particularly black athletes. It is seems rare for a black athlete to be asked to pose for a traditional portrait than an "action" shot. And injecting emotion in that scenario leads naturally to a triumphant or exuberant facial expression.

When, say, Lance Armstrong or Tom Brady is asked to grace a magazine cover (sports, mens, or otherwise) they are usually portrayed in a much more traditional editorial or portraiture style.

I think the tendency is for the magazine to remind us in no uncertain terms that the black subject is an athlete and he will be engaged in an active pose, and forced to hold a ball.

I don't hold that against Vogue because clearly LeBron is a departure for their audience, and recognition is an issue.

So that's the double-standard a black photo subject starts out with...

I think the parallel between the old posters and Liebowitz's posters is undeniable and deliberate. I also KNOW that the object of a magazine cover is to engage the reader, jump off the newsstand, and if it can garner publicity (of any kind) that's a bonus.

Liebowitz made her name as a magazine shooter, but she is an artist. And artists poke eyes and push boundaries. The poses and even wardrobes here give away her intentional homage to the recruitment poster, but the expressions and playfulness of the photo (particularly Giselle), to me, absolves Liebowitz of malice and instead makes this cover a statement that makes a clear nod to past exploitative imagery but it an undated, empowering way.

"What the fuck, Mr F?" you say?

That's what i think. Annie Liebowitz knows what she's doing. And Vogue is happy to get out of her way and let her do her thing. Bottom line is this will draw a LOT of attention, and sell a LOT of magazines. They don't give a shit about Liebowitz's artistic statement, she is using them as a conduit.

I think the heightened racial climate right now makes the reaction by many greater than it should be—white liberals are anxious to flex p.c. muscles and burnish their "I recognize racism" creds, and I won't presume to speak for how blacks would react to that cover, though I would suspect many more would simply dismiss it than be offended by it.

Deb said...

"I think the tendency is for the magazine to remind us in no uncertain terms that the black subject is an athlete and he will be engaged in an active pose, and forced to hold a ball."


Actually, this isn't true in this case. The article was a spotlight on athletes and top models and how they maintain their top physiques ("Celestial Bodies"). ALL the athletes were shot in sport-relevant athletic attire, and all the super models were shot in ultra-feminine couture.

My issue with this topic is that it's being called racist or sexist. I don't see anyone complaining about Doutzen Kroes touching Apolo Anton Ohno's butt on page 302, or anyone making editorial comparisons to Jared Rome and a Neanderthal man with his "capture" of Raquel Zimmerman on page 306. The point of the article is the ultra-masculinity and -femininity of the subjects and their bodies. By definition, it's a stereotype.

If Liebowitz was shooting for stereotypes, they might have been artistic ones, but I don't buy that they were racist. Oh, and let's give credit where credit is due: photo and executive editors have a lot more to do with what runs on the cover than the photographer, even a legend like Annie Liebowitz.

I haven't read the article. But as with all of Vogue, the photography is solid, and without question, the LeBron/Giselle shot contains the most action and excitement. I can't imagine how an editor would have chosen another shot, based on the couple dozen in the magazine.

Mr Furious said...

Not all of us have their copy of Vogue handy. deb...

;-)

IF all the other photos are playing to an ultra-stereotype, that adds context to the cover shot, but I still think the source is pretty over the top.

There's a difference between a playful hunky caveman with a girl over his shoulder and a black man as a vicious gorilla.

And yes, the editors (and art directors when they're lucky) certainly are behind the wheel for this stuff...though in this case I wouldn't be surprised if it was Liebowitz who pitched the idea...

As I said, I recognize that there is a statement being made here, and I don't have a major problem personally, but I'm not sure they pulled it off for a wider audience.

Deb said...

Not all of us have their copy of Vogue handy. deb...

Oh, you know you DO! LOL... What else would you be doing but admiring all the fabu photography when you're supposed to be doing your four hours of housework?