The Photographer Showing the World That Black Is Beautiful
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because every picture tells a story — listen up.
By Constance C. R. White
Peek behind the scenes at a fashion shoot, and there’s a high probability you will see a man wielding the camera. It’s been this way for a long, long time — at least 50 years, since the seminal 1966 film Blow-Up cemented the image of the fashion photographer as a sexy, omniscient white male. Surely, had the stylish Michelangelo Antonioni movie, starring David Hemmings as the photographer, cast a woman in the lead role, it would’ve been framed as a fantasy flick.
Today there’s more diversity among fashion photographers, and yet progress has been so meager that it’s still jolting to see Itaysha Jordan, who’s both female and African-American, controlling the lens. Jordan’s photographed for Lancôme and Iman Cosmetics, Marie Claire and Essence magazines, and her most recent project is a series for P&G’s celebrated My Black Is Beautiful campaign.
“People see my work and they think it’s by a man,” Jordan tells OZY, having just returned from Utah and Canada, where she photographed a group of Olympians for a client. “It happens to me all the time. Just recently a designer said she was showing my photos to a friend in the business, and he said, ‘Oh, these were shot by a woman? She shoots like a man.’ It’s supposed to be a compliment,” Jordan says dryly.
Growing up in Boston, Jordan recalls being surrounded by “Polaroid instant cameras, my parents’ textbooks about art and my dad’s record collection.” Art and music were early influences that the Brooklyn resident still infuses into her work, but her interests took a different direction from the start. “I remember being opinionated about how I dressed and wore my hair from a very young age,” she says. Jordan and her best friend began collecting fashion magazines, and, in high school, she found a mentor in David Pritki, a teacher who introduced her to photography and gave her access to a darkroom.
Jordan’s dilemma as a photographer is symptomatic of a wider resistance to Black talent behind the scenes, where shoots are overseen by all-white glam squads.
Today, Jordan is proud to share the spotlight with a burst of talented women photographers, including Cass Bird, Petra Collins and Emma Summerton, who are gaining ground in the industry, but the upper ranks of fashion photography remain as homogenized as a gallon of milk. No one I spoke with, including Jordan herself, who is 40 and holds a degree in visual arts, could name another Black female fashion photographer. In fact, they were hard-pressed to name any Black males in the field (Haitian-born Marc Baptiste, California-based Kwaku Alston and Keith Major in New York top my list).
Who, then, are the current luminaries in fashion photography? Several are well-established veterans — Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber — while others are newer and fever-hot: Ryan McGinley, Mert and Marcus, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.
These star talents have their fingerprints on most of the major ad campaigns that pay exponentially more than editorial work, but lavish spending on commercial shoots is not as common as it once was. Meanwhile, the online space has expanded, giving up-and-coming photographers plentiful opportunities both to solicit work and hone their craft. “Though I would like it, maybe I’m not waiting for Gucci to pay me,” says Jordan, who has landed jobs via Instagram and other social media channels.
This summer, Jordan assembled a mostly-from-Brooklyn, African-American crew to take part in a multimedia fashion story debuting on OZY (see below). The group included designer Fe Noel, hairstylists Pekela Riley and Andrita, wardrobe stylist Suzette Selman, makeup artist Griselle Rosario and videographer Jeremy Richardson. They felt the need, they say, to prove a seemingly simple point: Black talent can do good work.
Jordan’s dilemma as a photographer is symptomatic of a wider resistance to Black talent behind the scenes, where shoots are overseen by all-white glam squads — even for products aimed at Black consumers. Some celebrities have the clout to insist on working with more inclusive teams of stylists, but for Black photographers, the big ad campaigns and the big covers have remained stubbornly unyielding.
“It was very difficult for Black photographers to get work,” recalls Ken Barboza, a New York–based talent agent since 1971, who early on represented his brother, trailblazing photographer Anthony Barboza. Today, the majority of Barboza’s clients are African-American and Hispanic photographers, hairstylists and makeup artists; he also represents white talent and says he’s seen several instances where clients “pay Black glam less than their white counterparts.”
Looking back, Barboza says, the civil rights movement and a ballooning Black middle class have improved the situation because they ushered in Black-owned businesses, from hair care companies to media brands like BET, that employed Black talent alongside whites. But Barboza saw the promise of Black photographers fade as these companies sold out to predominantly white-owned corporations.
Still, talents like Jordan are pushing forward into new territory. She encourages young African-American girls to break into the field she loves and develop an eye and a point of view that sets them apart. Celebrities are mushrooming in both number (athletes, YouTube stars, life coaches) and needs (from red carpet and press events to personal websites and social media feeds), creating fertile ground for opportunity.
In Brooklyn, where Jordan has lived for 15 years, she’s envisioning a partnership with companies like Nike and Bank of America to encourage them to work with African-American and local photographers and glam squads and promote Black off-the-runway talent.
“There are plenty of qualified artists,” says Jordan. “I’d like to see an effort to have more artists of color do work, to want to change the narrative that this has to be done by certain people in the industry. This has been heavy on my mind.”