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Beyoncé brings her bat to the cover of ‘Vogue’

She picked black photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot her cover image

The most powerful female artist in the world is going to be on the cover of the most important issue of the most important fashion magazine in the world — and, for the first time, the cover will be shot by a black photographer.

Beyoncé will be the cover girl for Vogue’s 2018 September issue, HuffPost reported. And because Beyoncé wields her leverage like a benevolent, marigold-clad goddess, she’s bringing change to the fashion bible. Tyler Mitchell, 23, will shoot the cover, the first by a black photographer in the magazine’s 126-year history.

The news of the cover photo and who will shoot it is a story about cultural capital and those who know how to use it. For years, Vogue editor Anna Wintour has been the ultimate arbiter of taste among a certain thin, rich and predominantly white set. She has not always used her power for good. Under Wintour, LeBron James appeared on the cover of Vogue as basketball’s King Kong, mouth agape, clutching a smiling Gisele Bündchen-cum-Fay-Wray in April 2008. Ten years before that, Wintour agreed to put Oprah Winfrey on the October cover, so long as she dropped 20 pounds first.

Every year, Wintour, the model for The Devil Wears Prada, determines the guest list and seating arrangements for the Met Gala, an annual over-the-top celebration in which celebrities and fashion industry people assemble to show off and raise money for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She pairs guests with designers, and she picks the theme.

Beyoncé is now basically guest-editing her own spread in Wintour’s magazine. She’s writing the captions to Mitchell’s photographs herself. And she’s making history by insisting upon using Mitchell. Mitchell previously shot Beyoncé’s younger sister, Solange, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since Solange is the tastemaker of the family.

The announcement of the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover holds both triumph and shame: triumph that Beyoncé got it done, and shame that it took 126 years to happen. An announcement like this one also provides a little more context for the life and compromises of André Leon Talley, the longtime Vogue editor-at-large. A 2017 documentary about his life, The Gospel According to André, revealed the sacrifice that Talley made to realize his dream of working at the magazine: namely, that while his homosexuality was acceptable, Talley often had to set aside his blackness, or simply honor it in small ways that Wintour and the magazine would allow, such as styling an editorial of black models as the heroes and heroines of Gone with the Wind.

Beyoncé, who last appeared on the cover of Vogue without bothering to grant an accompanying interview, has spent several years answering the question of how celebrity can be useful in making statements about social change. She brought an insouciant take on the Black Panthers to the Super Bowl, African orishas to the Grammy stage, historically black college culture to Coachella and nonchalant hair braiding to the Louvre. She’s only 36, and Beyoncé has collected many of the major totems of whiteness and remade them in her own image. After the September issue, there’s only one question worth asking: What are Beyoncé and her baseball bat coming for next?

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.