Today, Viola Davis’ name is trending on Twitter after her cover of Vanity Fair was revealed. In the pull quote on the cover, Davis says, “My entire life has been a protest.”
In the article, she references her production company JuVee Productions and wearing natural hair to the 2012 Oscars as the ways in which she’s subverted Hollywood.
But even the photograph on the cover is a protest of sorts, a message of both Black history, Black beauty and Black futures.
For this cover, Vanity Fair tapped New York based photographer Dario Calmese, the first Black photographer to shoot the cover in the magazine’s 107 year history.
Thankfully, Calmese seized the moment to make a significant statement.
On the cover Davis is wearing a backless royal blue dress. She’s sitting away from the camera so that only her profile is visible, her arm akimbo.
The image is a stark contrast to the ones that have been put forth by Vogue’s famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has recently come under fire for lighting her Black subjects in a way that makes them appear ashen and less than alive.
But in Calmese’s picture, the skin on Davis’ back is supple and glowing.
The beauty in Calmese’s picture is not only in the way he lit Davis. If you’ve seen many historical photos of Black people, those who were enslaved, it might remind you of something. It echoes another Black back, with less than supple skin. I immediately noticed the similarities.
And thankfully, Calmese confirmed the inspiration for the shoot. In an interview with The New York Times, he said that Davis’pose was a homage to a photo of an enslaved person from 1863.
Calmese told The Times, “I did know that this was a moment to say something. I knew this was a moment to be, like, extra Black.”
The portrait, entitled The Scourged Black features a man who’s back has been marred by scars from the whip. Still, with his hand on his hip, there is a suggestion of confidence and maybe even defiance in the man’s posture.
Calmese stumbled across the image again days before he was scheduled to shoot Davis and decided to replicate it.
“When you look at it, it is gruesome and harsh,” he said. But Mr. Calmese also saw in it elements that could inform his upcoming portrait: “He pushes back more toward the camera. His hand is at his waist — you know that line, with his profile going down the arm and coming back. And so I was like: I can recreate this.”
Still, Calmese didn’t know if this image would be right for the cover of an issue to be released in the summer.
But reviewing all the shots he’d taken that day, that on kept jumping out.
“Once you sit in the chair for a while, you start to have a sense of the pictures that stay in your mind,” Ms. Jones said. “When I saw the work and saw the picture, it just felt right.”
For Calmese, the recreation of the image was about changing the narrative.
“Not only around slavery, but also the white gaze on Black bodies, and transmuting that into something of elegance and beauty and power,” he said.
He thanked Davis for being her co-conspirator in his visual protest on Instagram.