Vogue and Annie Leibovitz Under Criticism for Badly Lit Photos of Gymnast Simone Biles, Raising Another Discussion About Lack of Diversity

Vogue Magazine has faced criticism over its recent August cover portraying American gymnast Simone Biles, which was shot by Annie Leibovitz, with the public calling for more diversity behind the scenes to better portray dark skin tones.

Only just recently, Vogue Portugal received backlash for its latest issue, self-dubbed as "The Madness Issue," which the public described as being "poor taste" and for undermining the complexity of conversations around mental health. Similarly, the August issue of Vogue, which features America's most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles, has been criticized for failing to capture dark skin tones in a flattering way. Although the negativity primarily surrounds the lighting and post-processing of the shots, others have expressed disdain for how the gymnast was styled, too. 

Some have defended Leibovitz by pointing out that her style of shooting depicts subjects in a "painterly" way; however, public opinion has been predominantly negative. The photographs of Biles are dimly lit, almost letting the gymnast blend in with the background instead of highlighting her features and personality. Some Twitter users took this opportunity to share work shot by less publicly known photographers, even Gabrielle Union's daughter, Zaya Wade, aged 13, whose photographic captures of dark skin tones showcase the subject as radiant and flattering — a complete opposite to the shots by Leibovitz.

This has raised concern for the lack of diversity, calling for more black photographers or photographers who understand how to light and edit darker skin tones and could have been hired by Vogue instead. Understandably so, the process from the initial concept to the final image involves several steps along the way and thus, people, which means that a better understanding of darker skin tones is not only required at the shooting stage but also during the initial styling and the final post-processing stage.

Interestingly, just last month, Today reported that Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief, had assured staff in a letter promising that the magazine will work towards diversity when featuring black models and photographers, which is something that could have been put into practice for the August issue. In an email obtained by Today, Wintour recognized the injustices and hurt experienced by "the black members" of the Vogue team and noted that "doing something about it is overdue."

However, using diversity as a marketing trick or as a buzzword during tumultuous times when race issues become more prevalent than before is paying lip service to real and genuine change and activism. Recently, we have seen Magnum and Nikon take a good look at their practices and inclusivity, but at times, it may be hard to distinguish real concern for changes needed towards a more inclusive industry and what could be seen by some as the small effort just to regain quick public approval and to be seen as doing the "right" thing. 

While Wintour's letter circulated among the staff, black photographers and designers took to social media to show what diversity would look like in practice. Using hashtag #VogueChallenge, which originated from Salma Noor, a model based in Oslo, Norway, these artists mocked up Vogue covers that featured Black models. Always having wished to see a representation of people that look like her, Noor was inspired to create a mock-up cover and kickstart this visual challenge, where other photographers and designers joined in.

Some of the participants of #VogueChallenge admitted that Wintour's apology is encouraging, but until real action and change take place, it may remain just a trend that companies and representatives follow to remain seen as part of the positive shift. As Noor concludes, this still gives hope to artists and creators like herself and others who are given a confirmation that regardless of their skin color, they can still be a part of the same platform as everyone else. Equally, the same notion applies across other parts of the industry, whether it is an agency, a magazine, a collective, or a camera brand. 

It might be too early to tell which organizations and companies have implemented or are working towards genuine inclusivity and which are doing the bare minimum for the sake of marketing and trends. What are your thoughts on Leibovitz's August Vogue photographs and Wintour's apology?

Lead image by EVG photos used under Creative Commons. 

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76 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

Just another sign that Western Civilization is consuming itself.

Rogier Bos's picture

Yeah... the suggestion that Annie Leibovitz does not know how to light darker skintones, is nothing but ridiculous. This is about taste, not ability.

Edward Nardozzi's picture

She's never been a master at lighting, none of her shots are lit amazingly. Just competently with simple lighting setups. The emotion she gets out of celebs is her strong point, but she didn't really even get that here. Over the hill.

Steven Dente's picture

This is not about Annie Leibovitz as a photographer. It is about politics. The concept that only black photographers must shoot black people is moving away from diversity. Should only white photographers make images of white people.

Like the images or not, it is art and that is OK. But stop making everything about race and politics. That is so weak.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

The sad thing is that this boils down to: only black people should work with black people.

It will lead to segregation like there is on universities with black only dormitories and campuses.

anthony marsh's picture

Yes and that is the choice of black students,it is not forced upon them.

Alnoor Meralli's picture

I do believe this is a much broader issue to do with consumption of photography via social media and mobile devices. Standards for styling and what defines an editorial story (vs. simply a collection of images of the same subject) have waned. Outstanding post-production delivers little value compared to raw celebrity rankings in the eyes of the general public putting into question whether the investment in post-production is worth the effort. Now dark skin tones do require more attention when lighting and post-processing so the impact of these trends is evident immediately. Nonetheless, we do expect one of the worlds best fashion publication to hold itself to the highest standards in production.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Of course there will also be many who claim that dark skin tones require no additional attention to lighting or post work. Meter it and shoot it - skin looks like it is...

Now if we want to create a particular look, then yes darker skin can require attention, but you'll find many who will decry any particular specialist lighting for dark skin with comments that we're not allowing its natural tone to come through.

The reality is that dark skin often does not "pop" like we often see in photography imagery. Whether that makes for an "interesting" image is another question.

For example, I will often expose +2/3 stop for darker skin tones so the image feels right on screen and reflects what my eyes feel they are seeing, (and my portrait clients like the results), but purists will say I should expose exactly as the meter demands.

I find it strange though that there seems to be an opinion aired in this article that darker skin should have a certain "look" where of course there is a wide range of styles on offer to photographers - so there is no right or wrong here. The claim that the subject blends into the background and so suggests bad lighting is a bit silly.

I personally shoot to give more separation and I have no issues with manipulating reality to get a great image - but skin tones (of almost any shade) often don't have the pop that real life gives us. Why does skin always have to be radiant? Why can't we show it as it often is, which is often muted and lower contrast.

Chris Johnson's picture

The notion that different skin tones should not be adjusted differently because it “doesn’t allow the natural tone to come through” is inherently flawed because every well-trained photographer knows that cameras never even come close to reproducing the full dynamic range of light and color the way the human eye (and brain) perceives them.
It seems rather silly for those “purists” to behave as though all you need to do is meter correctly and the photo will be a perfect mirror of reality. That is literally never the case with *any* photo.

Dale Karnegie's picture

To my eye, Annie's pictures are better lit and more interesting than the ones they are comparing them to. what the hell is going on

MC G's picture

Shes WHITE. Therefore BAD. Unconscious racism and all that bullshit

Edward Nardozzi's picture

The one in the jewel dress is really flat and dull.

Agnieszka Jakubowicz's picture

Images are fully in line with Annie's style of other portraits. I have no doubt she knew what she was doing and it was her conscious artistic choice. All other discussion is rather uninformed or political.

Rob G's picture

It must be great to be unarguably correct. "I have no doubt this is what she wanted and if you disagree you are uniformed". Wow.

Deleted Account's picture

I can't objectively comment on Annie so I won't but, it can be difficult to photograph dark skinned people in anything but optimal lighting. If you're going for a different look, you'll have to compromise somewhere.

MC G's picture

hahahaahhahaahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaa

Kelly Hacker's picture

I am quite sure that AL will have something to say concerning any negative critiques about her stylistic intent when shooting S. Biles. Annie wasn't born yesterday and she is very well aware of the current cultural admonishments on how skin tones have historically been manipulated to present a spectral mood or cognition. A true professional such as AL would have no problem saying "this was a miss" on my part" in retrospect. In addition, Biles may have loved the representation and gave AL her blessings to go with the shot--we may soon hear from Biles as well. All this conjecture w/o hearing from the sources--Oh Brother!

Tony Clark's picture

Note to self, file this under "Everyone is an expert".

Tom Pinches's picture

Getting Annie Leibovitz to shoot the cover of Vogue is like getting Jem Southam to shoot the cover of Country Life Magazine. Or for that matter, Philip Glass to write the theme tune for a pop song... What they're looking for is something technically sound that makes the subject look good. Vogue probably weren't interested in AL revealing Simone Biles' inner vulnerability or emotional turmoil.

anthony marsh's picture

PHILLIP GLASS's compositions may be considered "technically sound" however as a lover of classical music I find it repetitive,unnerving,frantic and unlistenable.

Jon The Baptist's picture

This is no different to the mother in law commenting on the wedding photos saying “I can’t see their eyes”

Plebs who lack the visual vocabulary to understand what they’re looking at and why.

Fuck these assholes, AL did what AL does. I think they’re beautiful.

Les Sucettes's picture

“But, but, but Annie is a woman isn’t that diversity,“ cries the feminist.

And so we dig ourselves deeper and deeper into identify politics.

Here’s the solution: how about 50% of the photographers are white females and the other 50% black females. Problem solved.

Dixon Wilkinson's picture

The better question is how is Vogue still in print and who still reads it?

Les Sucettes's picture

Anata Luisene apparently

Anete Lusina's picture

Got my name close enough, 5/10 for the effort! :)

Les Sucettes's picture

Who says I was talking about you? Not everything is about you!

But since I got your attention, perhaps the article should reflect who is committing the bigotry here... and claiming that your colour of your skin (or gender) somehow disqualifies you, is, I believe, rule #1 in the great book of the Bigot.

Ups I think your article got quite close... darn!

anthony marsh's picture

Who are "we"?

Thomas McTear's picture

The snowflake generation... Close your eyes, around every corner there may be something that’ll offend you.

stuartcarver's picture

A person who's instagram handle is 'abolish the police' doesn't get to have an opinion on anything im afraid.

Dixon Wilkinson's picture

They are the only ones with an opinion if you ask the media and many corporations lately.

stuartcarver's picture

It’s funny isn’t it, when you go on a training course about how best to approach job interviews, people are told that things as simple as your email address may have a negative impact on the outcome of the job application. What’s the bet the individual above gets turned down for a job because they are essentially saying ‘fuck the police’ on their Instagram handle (and god knows where else) then blames it on discrimination... yeah you are being discriminated against, for being a complete idiot.

Sam Edge's picture

What a waste of time...

Dillan K's picture

Annie Leibovitz isn't diverse enough? She's a Jewish lesbian. Oh but she's white. 2 out of 3 isn't bad.

Deleted Account's picture

As many minority, and sub-minority, groups as there are these days, she's more like 2 out of 50+/-.

Cheri Widzowski's picture

What does the subject have to say? Perhaps she loves the images. I think they’re striking. Powerful. In line with how Ms L photographs many of her subjects.

davidlovephotog's picture

Don't you blame Annie! She doesn't light her own pics she has a team that does that. She doesn't set up the camera or retouch either so blame one of those guys. Now if the shutter wasn't pressed correctly, then blame her. (Her Masterclass is basically her introducing her team.)

Peter Peterson's picture

A friend of mine went to her workshop years ago and said the same thing. Other people do all the technical stuff. I not a fan of the look she did for the story, but art is subjective.

anthony marsh's picture

It is a photographers duty to direct technicians in her or his employ. Aside from that LEBOVITZ remains true to her particular view of what a photograph means to her.

davidlovephotog's picture

What's true is she sits back and let's her editor turn her pics into LEBOVITZ look while she watches and calls out what she likes.

J Cortes's picture

Stupid a$$ shit . So now you can’t photograph anyone outside your race because it will be considered racism ?

Dixon Wilkinson's picture

Who the fuck cares?

Umit Pala's picture

You trying to explain this photo of Annie`s like; its her style, its her decision blah blah... lets just cut the crap and be honest, First of all it is a poorly lighted and badly edited photo and puts forward her dress more than her. if your intend is to introduce the dress its okay, but you are introducing the person in it, so it doesn't suits the purpose. it doesn't reflect the personality of her.

Alex Herbert's picture

Any racial commentary aside, it's pretty shit. Looks like something I might have done right after getting my first Canon Rebel. And if I shot that now, I wouldn't be posting it anywhere.

Les Sucettes's picture

Such a beautiful piece of art.

And of course, the Vogue is about the fashion not the model. As a photographer you should actually know your client.

I interpret it as Annie wanting to portray a darker mood. You know BLM, Black people not getting noticed and all that. And I see strong correlation with famous art pieces out there, with a darker twist.

But with all things art related, people have various levels of understanding, and you are, of course, entitled to your opinion.

We are in a free world after all...

Just keep your politics to yourself if you aren’t sure what you are talking about.

Thank you

Umit Pala's picture

Did i mention even a word about racism, black people or any kind of politics ? This photo technically feels wrong, underexposed or poorly edited whatever you name it.

Ryan Davis's picture

They should have hired Terry Richardson.

Les Sucettes's picture

Yes at last someone who knows how to properly light ⚡️ the talent, erm subject. I mean everything.

This made my day 😂

Delixir Sorbano's picture

Uncle Terry definitely would have raised some titilation...

Peter Mueller's picture

So let me see if I get this... Vogue (and all the other corps tring to demonstrate sudden wokeness) make changes that discriminate, in an attempt to curry favor with the group yelling loudest about their discriminatory history; to what end? To avoid losing their customer base? Seriously... the one's yelling, marching, looting and burning our cities down are NOT buying Vogue at the newstand, nor stopping along their path of destruction to pick up the magazine ("Hey! Stop a sec everyone! Look at this photoshoot!")... What a load of S**t.

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