If Nothing Else, LeBron James Dustup Proves That Photographs Still Matter

I never figured Annie Leibovitz as a covert operative of the KKK, but apparently I’m just naive. Here’s what some commentators and bloggers are saying about Leibovitz’s magazine cover shot of LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen — the first Vogue cover featuring an African-American man:

  • Samir Husni: When you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it’s not innocent.
  • Jemele Hill, ESPN: [Vogue] successfully reinforces the animalistic stereotypes frequently associated with black athletes. A black athlete being reduced to a savage is, sadly, nothing new.
  • Cord Jefferson: The Vogue cover is inexcusable for this reason: Even if the photo was not intentionally alluding to the ape imagery of yesteryear, Annie Leibovitz and Anna Wintour, “experts” on imagery that they are, should have been able to look at that photograph and realize what sorts of feelings it would evoke in the public. At worst, the picture’s racist, at best, it’s evidence of glaring ineptitude.
  • Bethann Hardison: Every photograph that [Vogue has] put of a dark person in recent years has never been good. Jennifer Hudson has her mouth wide open. LeBron James had his mouth wide open. We have other expressions.
  • Emil Wilbekin, Giant magazine: That raises my eyebrow as to how African-Americans are portrayed on mainstream magazine covers. You would not show Charlize Theron or Scarlett Johansson screaming.

And on and on.

So now we have to use air quotes when we call Liebovitz an “expert” on imagery, Cord? Yeesh.

Here’s what I think: the photo is the most compelling of all those taken in the shoot, and that’s why it’s on the cover. It’s striking because it draws a contrast between the fierce athlete and the elegant model. The contrast is what makes it a great picture.

If you look at the image in the context of the other photos of James and Bundchen that appear in the magazine, you’ll see mostly poses with the two subjects smiling. Less contrast; not quite as interesting. That’s it; case closed.

If nothing else, though, the controversy does reinforce the power of photography — and specifically, of the moment captured in an image. A video of the photoshoot would capture none of the drama of that photograph. A slideshow of the photoshoot would undermine the potency of that single striking image, too.

So to photojournalists who are increasingly being handed video cameras on their jobs, and who are told the future is in multimedia rather than still images, let this be a reminder that the moment does still matter.

[tags]photojournalism, LeBron James, Gisele Bundchen, Annie Leibovitz[/tags]

11 Responses to “If Nothing Else, LeBron James Dustup Proves That Photographs Still Matter”

  1. Annie Leibovitz is an overrated hack who always shoots cliches.

  2. It's a decent picture, but to me nothing stunning. Racism didn't occur to me at all. But then, I'm a Brit. Might I venture to suggest that Americans start getting over it?

  3. Since when has King Kong supposed to represent African-American carnal desires for white women? Oh for heavens sake! When Darth Vader holds Princess Leia captive is THAT supposed to be a racist statement… didn’t think so.

    The only racism is when someone thinks that a black\white\pinkrown person standing next to another black\white\pinkrown person is so extraordinary a situation that it must be a racist statement.

  4. I am a long time fan of Leibovitz's sense of composition. She is very commercial and this shot get Vogue talked about. I really find the way the O and the G of the title look like horns..

  5. Only in America can racial issues be injected into ANYTHING involving multiple races. We really need to get over this whole rac-ial/ist thing. My dropthedash movement is a step in this direction. Most of the movement supporters are, like me, sick of the last-century attitudes of the older generation that won't let their battles go away. At what point will you all let the next generation(s) live, work and play together without having to tabulate what percentage of this race/ethnic group is doing what to whom or is not doing as well as another or is resentful about this or mad about that. When can we all just let it go?

  6. Their comments reveal more about the complainers themselves than they do about the photo or any so-called racism. They don't give LeBron James the courtesy of knowing how he posed, nor do they consider the fact that Gisele Bundchen looks quite happy rather than threatened. I wonder what James thinks of being told he's too stupid to know what the photo "really" illustrates? I've lived as a visible minority and dealt with prejudice. I'm as un-racist as I think it's possible to be. I hate racists. That photo is not racist. The quoted complainers need to deeply and honestly ask themselves some serious questions.

  7. I would have to agree with Scott that this is the most compelling image from the shoot and that's why it ended up on the cover. i highly doubt Annie Leibovitz said, alright, let's make a racist cover just to create buzz. gimme a break.

    that said, i can understand how someone might look at the king kong poster next to this image and think otherwise.

    personally, i'd like to hear what LeBron thinks about it all. he seems like a pretty fun loving guy - was digging the shoot and probably just having fun goofing around.

    and as far as it being a "black man wanting a white woman" - c'mon - most straight men want most attractive women - doesn't matter what freakin' color any of us are. how one acts upon those desires is of a completely different matter.

    and for those of you who have commented that people should "just get over it," what? are you just denying slavery and racial oppression that STILL goes on in this country and the rest of the world? i'm not arguing the point about racial issues being injected into almost everything - agreed - it gets old - but please - if i was black/african american or whatever - it's no wonder people get so pissed off.

    think ultimately, it is the decision makers at vogue that should be held accountable if there is something to be accountable for - they chose the image and being that it is their job to understand how an image is going to be viewed and also to know historical images. it is their fault and A.L.

    personally - i think the image is awesome. every time i go through the grocery store line THAT is the image i am looking at - it is powerful - can you imagine trying to guard someone that big ; that strong and that fast? and giselle looks like she's having fun. ???

    yep, the still image will never be completely replaced

    that's enough.


  8. oops. missed a word. meant to say i don't think Annie Leibovitz should be the one blamed. it's whoever made the last call on the cover.


  9. Annie L is known for making provocative portraits. She's done it again. What's wrong with that?

    I don't think there's a racist bone in her body or a racist undertone to this image. She's simply continuing to do what she does best.

    Joe Pobereskin
    President, ASMP New Jersey Chapter

  10. Thoughtful post and well presented. Please write more on this.

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