Vogue Photographer Accused of Cultural Appropriation in Rihanna Cover Shoot: Where Is the Line?

Vogue Photographer Accused of Cultural Appropriation in Rihanna Cover Shoot: Where Is the Line?

Photographer Juergen Teller is under fire for his recent images of pop singer Rihanna created for Vogue magazine. Teller has been accused of appropriating the work of Mickalene Thomas, a staple in black female art.

Mixed-media artist Mickalene Thomas has been a prominent artist for nearly a decade, known for her elegantly stylized images of black women. Thomas pioneered a distinctive style, one that could be described as pop art with a strong emphasis on pattern and color. Due to comparisons of his recent Rihanna photoshoot for Vogue to Mickalene Thomas' unique style, photographer Teller has found himself in hot water, with critics accusing him of cultural appropriation. This episode is turning into a double whammy for Teller, a German artist, as he not only faces criticism for copying (or arguably stealing) Mickalene Thomas' style and works, but also for purportedly mimicking an artist iconic to black American culture, of which he is not a part.

Being familiar with Mickalene Thomas' work from art history classes, I decided to revisit her body of work as well as the current, controversial Vogue photoshoot. There are in fact many similarities between the two styles. The often evocative poses, patterns, and even facial expressions of the Vogue shoot all seem to be at least a nod to Mickalene Thomas' trademark style.

The original Vogue Paris cover

This case aside, where do we draw the line in qualifying cultural appropriation or theft of art? In such instances, intent seems important. Satire that’s informed and intelligent can qualify as legitimate, as does a thoughtful, artistic reference to another artist. But simply copying or crudely mimicking an artist’s distinctive work tends to be dishonorable among creatives. However, even intent is subject to interpretation.

These days, it isn't just mocking or even commenting on another culture that is dangerous. Imitating or borrowing from cultures can be viewed as patronizing and is generally off-limits. This means an homage, salute, or revamp of anything outside one's own culture is oftentimes problematic today. Earlier in the year, a Utah teenager wore a Chinese-styled dress to her prom and was subsequently dragged through Internet hell for it. The irony of the whole situation is that seemingly nobody from the culture had expressed outrage; in fact, the general consensus on the Chinese social media site Weibo was excitement and applause for an American appreciating their beloved culture.

A traditional Chinese dress. Image by Frederica Diamanta via Unsplash.

On the other hand, counterarguments often seem to miss the point. "As if Mickalene Thomas never copied another artist!", one Twitter user exclaimed. I'd say this misses an important historical issue. After suffering through centuries of slavery followed by over a century of oppressive discrimination, black artists in various fields have been justifiably offended when their work has been stolen by white artists.

Aside from copyright laws, there aren't clear-cut rules when it comes to (loosely) borrowing from works of art, and even such laws are heavily subject to interpretation. Just last month, a court ruled in favor of a defendant company who blatantly stole copyrighted images from a photographer to use on promotional materials. The infringing party walked away scot free due to the ruling that the images were published on Google and therefore "fair use."

The idea of cultural appropriation is nothing new, and has been ingrained in the arts since the beginning of time. After studying the songs of great Delta blues musicians, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Paige reworked classic riffs into high-powered electric rock songs. Were these songs admiring tribute or uncredited theft? Early rock-pop music featured many other white musicians “covering” the records of talented black artists. These ranged from the laughably horrible (Pat Boone mangling Little Richard) to the many successfully re-arranged covers of R&B records that the Beatles performed with artistic integrity. How would one assess such vastly artistically different covers?

How exactly can it be determined when Teller (or any artist) has the right to borrow from another culture? If you're not part of the culture being appropriated, are you allowed to dictate who can express what? I'd appreciate having a thoughtful and civil discussion on this subject. You’re invited to leave your comments below.

Lead image by Juergen Teller via Vogue.

Scott Mason's picture

Scott Mason is a commercial photographer in Austin specializing in architectural imaging.

Log in or register to post comments

"... purportedly mimicking an artist iconic to black American culture, of which he is not a part."

But...but...the subject of the photograph IS a part of that culture.

What are we saying? That only black photographers can photograph black subjects?

That would ultimately mean that only black magazines can publish black subjects.

Probably not where we black people want to go.

The photographer should probably be ashamed if his style is, indeed, too imitative of someone else's style--

and, dang, there IS more similarity between this Vogue cover and Mickalene Thomas's most famous work than any self-respecting professional artist of Vogue caliber should be comfortable with. It's not just style alone in this case--this one is kind of a "gotcha."

So this isn't really a good case to debate the basic issue.

There is a broader issue going on. "Liberals," as in the JFK, LBJ and HHH kind, believe race shouldn't matter regarding opportunities for jobs, education, housing, etc. "Conservatives," the Goldwater and Reagan kind, also believe race shouldn't matter concerning opportunities. The significant difference between the two parties was that the Democrats thought society was at fault and more government intervention is needed allowing individuals to be equal regarding opportunities, while the GOP believed in limited government intervention with emphasis placed on giving the tools for individuals to help themselves. For decades the two parties debated, compromised, made some mistakes, passed some good legislation, and the country became better.

Then came the "progressives," who believe in a twisted form of socialism where anything that offends them--and many things do hurt their feelings--should no longer be debated since anyone with an opposing view need not be heard. One of these ridiculous progressive notions is that we cannot share culture. Progressives believe we should not see or listen to artists, chefs, architects, musicians, and even photographers who offend them. This notion is absurd for many reasons.

I'm going out to an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant tonight. The chef is complimenting two cultures (at least) and benefiting the community and his profession. Cultural appropriation?

The original "progressives" were Republicans. Put a capital "P" on that, because republicans 100 years ago were proud to call themselves the Progressive party. And by "progressive" they, indeed, meant all the things that liberals claim today--look up and read Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose speech. The parties flip-flopped in their philosophies in the twenty years between the 60s and the 80s.

Originally, 'Progressivism' was a form of Communism. And if you ask me, it still is. If you doubt me, look up The Militant, New York, Volume 2, No. 5, March 1, 1929

Theodore Roosevelt (Republican president of the United States) was not a Communist, although he proudly proclaimed himself a Progressive.

At the time the Communists were looking for any point at which they might exploit people who were challenging the status quo--which did not mean that such people were Communists themselves. They attempted to exploit the Union movement, the Civil Rights movement, and for that matter even the initial efforts of various groups to get the US to oppose Nazi Germany in the 30s.

Nobody with common sense thinks that made any of them Communists.

As an African American artist I don't get this ... nothing is new under the sun. Art is very subjective and if another artist decides to pay tribute to a style is fine with me as long as they acknowledge where the inspiration came from. Too many people from different cultures has been historically robbed for creating something new and others come to claim for themselves. Cultural Appropriation is Bullshit. Then again I don't know the whole story to this so I will sit back to watch and listen.

Rick Foy-- "... if another artist decides to pay tribute to a style is fine with me as long as they acknowledge where the inspiration came from."

And that is my position as well. When Paul Simon came back from Africa in the 80s, he said, "I heard some great rhythms in Africa" and proceeded to re-start his career with an album using those rhythms. But he also brought in African musicians and singers, and plainly stated the source of his new inspiration. That's "appreciation" done right.

...and he got a lot of crap about that too. Partly because of "appropriating" Ladysmith Black Mambazo but also because he WENT to South Africa to perform during Apartheid.

I don't know if people can still call it "appropriation" when Simon gave Ladysmith Black Mambazo credit and then Ladysmith Black Mambazo then turned around and honored Simon. At some point, folks outside the ring of mutual admiration need to stop virtue signalling.

I recall a clip of PS and LBM after a college performance tour and there was an interaction between them and "that guy" who was calling PS a thief or cultural appropriator and the LBM were sell out, victims. Of course the guy was exactly who you expect. The KISA who knows what is best for everyone.

So called "cultural appropriation" is nonsensical. Cultures have been borrowing from other cultures since the advent of civilization. Notice how "cultural appropriation" is only a thing with SOME cultures. Why the different treatment?

Here's an idea. How about we stop worrying about it and focus instead on unity rather than this rampant cultural segmentation so many seem to be bent on taking us down?

Well, actually notice that cultural appropriation is an issue with groups that have only a tenuous grip on what they consider their "mother' culture.

Notice that it was Chinese-Americans who were upset with the girl wearing the quipao. The actual Chinese reaction: They increased their quipao sales presence on eBay.

Africans are not nearly as bothered by "cultural appropriation" of African culture as African-Americans are.

Now, if we're talking about who is profiting from what, there is room for issue. The first time I heard about "cultural appropriation" was from Navajo Indians who were suing a company for mass producing (in China) copied native Navajo designs as "Navajo jewelry." Yeah, I'd be upset about that.

"Africans are not nearly as bothered by "cultural appropriation" of African culture as African-Americans are."

Before I respond to what this "sounds" like it's saying, can you clarify what you mean by including this in your comment?

It doesn't seem too complex to me. Breaking it down--Africans (people living in Africa) are not nearly as bothered by (not as concerned about) "cultural appropriation" of African culture as African-Americans (people living in the US who are of African heritage) are.

Whether that is actually correct or not, I have no idea. But the sentence pretty much speaks for itself in a fairly simple and concise way. Granted, Africa is a large continent with a huge number of different cultures and sub-cultures.

So what are you implying by this concise statement?

It seems you could be implying that African Americans who are the descendants of people stolen from their homeland and stripped of their culture by indifferent white masters should not be offended by watching this cycle continue by more white people who have lived their entire lives feeling entitled to anything and everything their eyes see as free for the taking. Is this what you mean?

I'm not trying to troll you. I'll just get to my point by stating that Africans who were not the descendants of a people who endured the racist American slave tragedy, nor grown up in a culture where evidence of this past is an ongoing lived experience (as it is with African Americans)... these people would likely have a different, perhaps less sensitive reaction. However, folks who have lived in a culture that treated their ancestors as property with no rights of possession or culture, are likely to see it differently.

Africans and African Americans are not the same group of people in spite of their skin color. That clearly is a "duh" statement, yet somehow it seems relevant to re-state at this time as this entire line of reasoning you seem to assert appears to ignore it. Maybe I have misunderstood you though.

It's now obvious that you were simply looking for an excuse to vomit your virtue all over the post. Have at it. I won't follow you down that rabbit hole.

Reminder, I didn't write the original statement that seemed to confuse you. So don't go attributing what it may or may not mean to me like you just did.

I'm not implying anything. You asked the question. I used simple reading comprehension to provide what is a pretty obvious answer. I'm not sure as to how one could infer that a statement that I did not write means that I'm implying anything. You asked what they meant. Rather than infer what I THINK they meant, I simply broke it down for you using basic reading comprehension.

Perhaps the person who wrote it does believe that Africans and African Americans are the same. I don't know. If you're curious, ask them instead of accusing me of believing that.


Apologies. You responded on behalf of the person I quoted, and I mistakenly conflated their comment with your original comment. I'm sorry for that.

That said, you seemed confident enough to answer on their behalf the first time. Perhaps you can also answer on their behalf in response to my virtue vomiting? Considering the first line of your thread was to state, "So called "cultural appropriation" is nonsensical" perhaps you have thoughts on the meat of what I said which can be correctly characterized as a direct contradiction to the sentiment expressed in your statement.

I would not describe your dismissal of the concept of cultural appropriation as particularly virtuous, but it is an ethical point of view, or at least a point of view with ethical consequences which, you too vomited into the conversation. Apparently, there's a lot of vomiting going around.

Your disingenuous and redundant restating of the other author's sentence (deduced with your simple reading comprehension skills) ignores what you have accurately intuited as the "real" intention of why I asked for clarification in the first place... which was to give the person an opportunity to be clear about what seemed to be implied by the sentence within the context of his larger comment (which appeared to supporting your initial point of view), and the larger conversation at hand.

I was not unclear on the literal meaning of his words. I was unclear if I was interpreting the implication of those words correctly in this context.

"That said, you seemed confident enough to answer on their behalf the first time."

No, I just took their words for what they were. Who am I to infer what they "really mean" beyond that actual meaning of the words? I'll leave that to you.

"Considering the first line of your thread was to state, "So called "cultural appropriation" is nonsensical" perhaps you have thoughts on the meat of what I said which can be correctly characterized as a direct contradiction to the sentiment expressed in your statement."

Like I said. I'm not going down that rabbit hole. I've already stated what I feel and then offered a reasonable argument as to why. 'Nuff said.

"Your disingenuous and redundant restating of the other author's sentence ...."

How is simply taking the words for what they say being disingenuous? It's not. It's simply parsing what was said without injecting any inference of what I THINK someone means.

"I was not unclear on the literal meaning of his words. I was unclear if I was interpreting the implication of those words correctly in this context."

Since you were unclear; ie not sure what was meant, then why not simply defer to what the words actually said. I specifically stated that I didn't know for sure what they actually meant. That's why I didn't infer anything. You're the one doing the inferring.

In general, fair enough. However, as to " I've already stated what I feel and then offered a reasonable argument as to why. 'Nuff said." You offered a anecdotal talking point that doesn't actually get deep into the subject at all or deal with any of the layers of issues involved in this discussion at all. You make a simplistic statement, and then declare yourself correct. I'd hardly call that an "argument" reasonable though it may sound. The point of my response was to get you (or anyone else involved in the discussion who may agree with you) to explain yourself better (or even, at all). But you don't want to go down that rabbit trail, perhaps because you have little actual understanding of the subject. In which case, once again, fair enough. I just feel like if you're going to making sweeping generalizations about an important subject that cannot be generalized, you should be able to back them up with more than superficial statements that demonstrate a clear lack of knowledge about the subject.

You're just looking to feel superior/better about yourself with the really lame "lack of knowledge" statements. Those are often one of the first signs someone really doesn't feel secure in their own beliefs. Someone has looked at an issue and has come to an opinion different than your own. You won't change their mind with a forum post. Just move on with your life.

Calling out some else's "claim to knowledge" by pointing out their lack of knowledge is not an exercise in mere ego boosting as you suggest. It's a fundamental aspect of debate. You want to characterize the motive of my comments without actually engaging the meat of them... and neither did anyone else except for the blatantly racist response from Bob Singer below. So what is that if not just another attempt to feel superior/better than someone else on your behalf? This is a discussion thread. Discussion happens. Sometimes disagreements happen. Sometimes people make dismissive statements and those statements get called out for what they are. What is sadly unfortunate to me is the inability for anyone to actually engage the points I made and instead simply make tepid attempts to discredit style or motive... on your part as well as everyone else who responded. At least Singer expressed his views from an earnest place. Which is more than I can say for you or the others. Why is it so hard for anyone of your guys to just engage the point instead of engaging in all of the ego positioning malarkey?

So this is your real answer? Brother, if this is what you think, some adults in your life did a real disservice to you in your education. If you have something other than tried and true racist talking points to add, I'd invite you to express them. Otherwise you're simply demonstrating your profound ignorance on this entire subject... well, unless you are an actual racist, in which case just keep doing what you're doing. I'm not going to ask you to be untrue to who you are.

However, it's possible that is not the case (that you are intentionally racist). It's more likely that you just haven't really given this subject (and clearly the subject of race, slavery, and its continuing legacy, etc) much actual thought or research beyond those talking points.

If you have empathy for those whose experiences you clearly do not share, it's easy enough to research and try and educate yourself about their points of view. If after all of that, your view is still "just let them boat back to Africa" then you might actually be a racist. Only you know the truth about what kind of person you are or want to be my man.

Actually, I deleted my comment as it was pointed in the direction of a rabbit hole.

Did you read my first post?

I did. At the time I did not realize it was the same person, however, if this is meaningful in some way I'm unclear on how that relates to my original question or my subsequent response.

Dave Terry, you seem to have been triggered by one particular line of a much longer post, and that line was merely a recap of the immediately previous line.

So Chinese-Americans were upset because an American white woman wore a quipao. Chinese (in China) were not upset--in fact, they were pleased.

The was one stimulus that caused two very different reactions in two groups of people. The difference is not in the stimulus, the difference is in the people.

What is the difference between Chinese and Chinese-Americans that they respond differently to a white woman wearing a quipao?

"Well, actually notice that cultural appropriation is an issue with groups that have only a tenuous grip on what they consider their "mother' culture."

And so your point is?

"Notice that it was Chinese-Americans who were upset with the girl wearing the quipao. The actual Chinese reaction: They increased their quipao sales presence on eBay."

And so your point is?

"Africans are not nearly as bothered by "cultural appropriation" of African culture as African-Americans are."

And so your point is?

You are stringing these statements together which infer a point of view that is dismissive to the people you seem to assert by implication are either unqualified, or disingenuously grieved by what they see as cultural appropriation. My very first response was to ask you to clarify your point of view in case I was misunderstanding what seemed to be your obvious point.

Someone else responded to my request for clarification with pure flippancy and one way to characterize my reaction is "triggered."

I'm fine with the word triggered as it is factually accurate. Every single time you typed into the comments section of this discussion is because you were triggered by something in someone else's comment to do so.

The way you are using it is predictable as it's the same way most people use it these days when they want to be dismissive of someone's reaction to something without actually engaging that person in rational discussion/debate. This is often due to a weak initial premise (in this case on your part and others who chimed in) that they are not sure they can defend. Please be less predictably cliché in future responses.

The core of your statements seem to be rooted in dismissiveness, not understanding.

So toughen up snowflake and answer my first question in my very first response. Clarify your point in plain language rather than asking endless rhetorical questions you don't seem willing to attempt answering yourself. When you do that, no rational person with an empathetic ear should be able to misconstrue your meaning.

That was all I wanted you to do in the first place brother.

Rick Foy said-- "... if another artist decides to pay tribute to a style is fine with me as long as they acknowledge where the inspiration came from."

And that is my position as well.

Culture and style are not the same thing.

I've already said that somewhere in this thread.

The last time I visited an american native-managed tourist attraction, all the native souvenirs were made in China.

i can't speak to your experience, and you aren't speaking of the specific instance I referenced, so your point is irrelevant.

Yup. As I see it, this planet is too small for petit bull shit like this. Let us all be inspired by oneanother instead.

That cover is old, not new. It's literally months old, and from December of last year. So... Aside from that, Rihanna is known to take ideas from artists. I don't see why the photographer received all the flack when SHE was the creative director for all THREE of her shoots in that magazine. Also, cultural appropriation? Nope! Art theft, maybe...maybe not.

Good point as well.

It's possible that it was released in France back in December and took a while for people across the pond to notice it.

I did not know that about Rihanna direction the shoots. Please do share more information with us.

The thing is, it didn't take months for it to come over here. It's been circulating since before the magazine hit the stores. Those three covers have been out for quite a while. Here's a link, but you can search for her and 'vogue paris 2017' and see the hits, even Billboard picked it up. https://thegrio.com/2017/11/22/rihanna-covers-vogue-paris/

I think it recently blew up for publicity, either her part or the other artists part. In fact, the person who pretty much started all of it has a gallery coming up so I am not shocked. His commentary on the subject is really horrible to read.

Riri had total control over the three shoots she did with three different photographers. She knew what she was doing, much like she knew what she did when she stole David Lachapelle's style for her S&M video.

I blame her, not the photographer. I blame Vogue for not looking at their boards and stuff. I blame both Riri and Vogue for stealing and tagging the WOC artist. The photographer was hired to shoot, he wasn't in control.

So your defense of the photographer is that he was merely Rihanna's meat-based remote shutter release?

Did you at all read my responses and post before suggesting that? Again, as I mentioned multiple times, Rihanna was in control of this issue, and the three cover shoots. She is also known for art theft from WELL KNOWN artists. Not only that, the stylist has same pattern usage as the WOC artist, and Teller's style is NOT AT ALL like hers. But eh, I'm not here trying to pick fights with everyone, I am providing facts from sources.

"Cultural appropriation"? "Imitating or borrowing from other cultures can be viewed as patronizing and is generally off-limits"? There are places on this very planet where people have never heard of this bullshit and don't give a f about that.

I tend to agree.

If not for cultural appropriation, the wheel would still be with the original inventors, penicillin would never have left the shores of Scotland, and the Japanese wouldn't have created their take on whiskey thus denying the great pleasure that is Hibiki Whiskey.

I'll take the cultural appropriation, everyone else can keep their outrage.

And what about circumcision?

It's unfortunate that its become a common disposition for people to scan every article, photograph, statement, news story, song lyric, painting....basically everything, looking for ways to find offense and take offense. In this instance I think the truly mediocre standard of photography making the cover of Vogue is more concerning.

And that is my biggest point about this particular cover. I think it does look too much like Thomas' concept, and a Vogue cover should do much, much better than that. It should be what lesser photographers emulate.

So a pose is owned? A lot of women reclining paintings going back centuries.

Did I say "pose?" No, I didn't. Is the extent of your idea of a photographic concept limited to the pose alone? Are you that shallow in your vision?

You read into what you want to see, and it is not a new concept different models different times. I don't think I am shallow in vision at all just a good student of history. Who influenced Thomas?

More comments