If you were on a digital detox this weekend, you may have missed the reveal of Kamala Harris’s Vogue cover. To prioritize the profile (and thus also the person in the photo), which is wide-ranging, and includes a romantic wedding photo, I’ll give you that link right off the top. As for the kerfuffle about the photo choice, here is a synopsis: When the cover first hit the Internet, people hated the picture. They weren’t just underwhelmed; they were subterranean-whelmed. (You know things have gone sideways with your cover reveal when you have to officially confirm that, yes, it is in fact a real cover and not a hoax.) Every choice came under quick scrutiny, and naturally, in short order some leaks dribbled through Twitter that the Veep’s team had been taken by unpleasant surprise. They allegedly hadn’t even seen the photo Anna chose, and had instead been anticipating one of our upcoming Madam Vice President (MVP! MVP!) in a light blue suit. Unsurprisingly, Vogue swiftly released that image and called it the digital cover, and it is this one (click here or log into Instagram if you can’t see it):
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This one is perfectly good. She’s commanding but not cold. She looks professional and polished, and she pops against the background — although if I have a complaint, it’s that I don’t get the set dressing here. It almost looks like she’s in a boudoir, standing in front of a bed. Overall, though, it’s calming and confident, and much, much better than the maligned one which will be going out to subscribers and newsstands everywhere. That one is here (click if you can’t see):
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It is noteworthy to me that as of this writing, the photographer himself has only tweeted the blue-jacket photo in support of this issue. Here, the VP-elect looks like she’s standing in a fancy bridal salon, caught in the nightmare of having to try and look supportive while her dear friend models a ghastly meringue of a gown and squeals, “Isn’t it GREAT? I KNEW YOU’D LOVE IT!” It’s almost like it was a test shot, something they snapped to check the lighting while she was talking to someone else. I am really excited about Kamala Harris, and I am glad that Vogue didn’t make her look dour. But neither does she look comfortable, nor ready for the cameras to click — I would swear she’s also slightly off-balance on that treacherous mound of fabric — and “not comfortable or ready” is the exact OPPOSITE vibe you want to create for the nation’s first-ever female vice-president, and certainly not a vibe that she herself has ever given off.
Someday, and hopefully it will be soon, I’d like a longread about what happened. Did someone promise Team Harris the blue-jacket cover without authority? Did Anna see it and scream, “This is Vogue, not Time magazine,” or did she insist on one that shows the Converse even though clearly nobody had styled the ground portion of this set? (I do understand wanting to include the sneakers, because Vogue is a fashion magazine, and Kamala’s footwear was a big focal point of her campaign appearances. Featuring them is presumably a nod to that, without intending to make the sneakers the whole story. Unfortunately, every single Getty Images shot of Kamala Harris confidently de-planing in Converse and Timberlands, et al, was more assertive and flattering and radiant than these.) Vogue did publish an interesting piece explaining that the green and pink set dressing reflects the colors of Alpha Kappa Alpha, her Howard University sorority, which has been significant in Harris’s life. It’s also been suggested that perhaps the draping and particular textiles are meant to evoke a sari, as a nod to the Vice President-elect’s Indian heritage. And those are meaningful, thoughtful details — but the implementation of those inspirations didn’t do them justice. Many magazines have grappled with the particular, peculiar challenges of shooting a cover in the time of Covid, and many of them have risen to producing their best work. In fact, the photographer, Tyler Mitchell, just shot Vogue’s really wonderful Harry Styles cover for December. In comparison, especially, this feels unfortunately slapdash, despite the thought that went into it.
And the truth is that this is a cover that the magazine should have gone above and beyond to nail. Kamala Harris deserved a cover that reflects the heft of her position in history, as Robin Givhan noted in the Washington Post. Moreover, Vogue has been dinged in the past for producing at best underwhelming covers of Black women. When you’ve been given the honor of photographing America’s first Black Vice President, for the month of her inauguration, you have a responsibility to make sure it’s stellar — both to the subject and, on a cynical level, toward your own publication.
It is fair to note that photographing a politician or a public figure for a fashion magazine requires some finesse. Put the Vice-President Elect in a big fashion spread, and risk accusations that Vogue isn’t taking her seriously (or that she isn’t sufficiently serious herself). Stick her in a sedate dress in an armchair next to an end table bedecked with a doily and a potted plant, and she starts to feel like a stuffy portrait of a First Lady. And so on and so forth. There is acreage in between, obviously, and I can see Vogue tentatively trying to explore that. But the creative challenge baked into this assignment underscores the absolute void of inspiration on that magazine’s masthead in the last five-plus years, and notably, one of our and the Internet’s first reactions was, “I wish we’d gotten to see what Edward Enninful would have done.” Anna cannot be happy about that. But she did it to herself.
A note: If you purchase or receive the February 2021 issue, the cover story will look much different than it does online, because this version was updated to reflect the recent terrorist acts.