The big picture: the black body redefined

The headline act at this summer’s photography festival in Arles is an exhibition devoted to the young black photographers who are – literally – changing the face (and bodies) of fashion photography. The New Black Vanguard features the work of Tyler Mitchell, the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover, and Dana Scruggs, who achieved the same extraordinarily overdue milestone at Rolling Stone, when she photographed the rapper Travis Scott nel 2019.

Scruggs, born in Chicago and based in New York, started out photographing vintage clothes and furniture for her own Etsy store a decade ago. Nel 2016, frustrated by the continuing lack of diversity in advertising and fashion, she crowdfunded the launch of her own magazine, SCRUGGS, to showcase her distinctive ways of expressing light and movement, focusing on the black male body. “There’s a fearfulness of black men in American society and globally,” Scruggs said. “I wanted to change the narrative.”

This picture, shot in Death Valley in 2018 for a swimwear campaign, is characteristic of Scruggs’s work. “I focus on shapes and bodies and skin,” she suggests. “I don’t view the model as a [Abiti] hanger.” She invites her subjects – the model here is LA-based Nyadhuor Deng – to loosely improvise and take control of their presentation. “I want people to understand that black people are powerful and have autonomy over our bodies,” Scruggs has said. Though the barriers that she and Mitchell and others have broken down are significant, she is under no illusion that the battle for greater creative equality is anywhere near won. “Just because a small number of black photographers have become more visibly successful doesn’t mean that diversity in hiring is no longer an issue. Nine times out of 10, if I didn’t suggest black stylists and makeup artists, then I would still be the only black person on most of my sets.”

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