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Simone Biles covers the August issue of American Vogue and you know what? The cover is a stunner. There has been a lot of furore around this cover and the subsequent photo shoot within its pages on social media. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, a favourite of Wintour’s and much of the fashion world, her signature is as we have come to expect it. The cover which typifies, metaphorically, the state of current affairs, is reminiscent of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon in the aftermath of its metamorphosis; a moment of beauty and life. Her dress is not as vivid, the background is slab grey and she is in mid performance but there is a softness amidst the strength and beauty of this shot. In its flatness we are being reminded of the world as it stands, and with the gentleness, hope for what it can be, kinder, softer, when all is said and done. That’s my interpretation.
Much of the gripe with this cover is with its near lacklustre but this is a Leibovitz’s signature, her images are flat, sombre even, mostly void of any brightness, underexposed to highlight a natural light and she works in and around the elements. Leibovitz is indicative of a time and technique and often times her images feel like a person who is being forced to reckon with a digital age she neither cares for nor envisaged. The image with the encrusted Marc Jacobs dress is one that set teeth on edges; it is very art nouveau and Klimtesque at a particular slant, but there is something no nonsense about it, an impatience. A disinterest at the imposition of Mother Nature. Leibovitz meant to capture Biles in this way and we see many aspects of the champion as she processes the time at hand. Simone the great in the Bottega Veneta swimwear, Simone the magnificent in the Dior Haute Couture cover shot. An unstoppable woman who is forced to stop, dressed in Marc Jacobs, where on the one hand she looks irritated possibly, at missing out on the Olympics this year, after it was postponed due to the pandemic, and on the other, she is contemplative at what the future might hold for her. What next? What now? What? There is a story behind every frame and that story is open to interpretation by one and all.
Initially, I thought Leibovitz might’ve been the wrong photographer for this shoot but in retrospect, she is a particular type of photographer, this is her signature. The images are powerful; Biles is strong and statuesque, a radiance shines through effortlessly and I appreciate the fact that her stretch marks were not edited out. If it were meant to be romantic then Testino would have been the choice or maybe Meisel for a more fashion forward quirky romantic aesthetic (all the things I attribute to Meisel). Maybe Vogue missed the moment it should have hired a Black photographer. Maybe that would’ve been too performative to be seen as sincere considering in its more than a century long history it has only once, to my knowledge, hired a Black photographer at Beyoncé’s request when she was photographed by Tyler Mitchell for the 2018 September Issue. Who knows?
What’s important is the fact that Biles appears to love the shoot and that is all that matters; it’d be terrible that the fuss over it ruined the moment for her.
A lot of the retouched images of this shoot cropping up all over the internet use filters to sharpen the image which misses the point of the narrative entirely because this is not meant to be pin sharp or overly exposed, much as some would rather it was. The softness and moodiness translates, in my opinion, to a re-emergence after the chaos, that fluttering butterfly. All art, is subjective, we cannot see things the exact same way otherwise it would defeat the purpose of art. But we can all agree that when we emerge from this, it should be to a softer world. A gentler world that allows for some blur in the midst of all the sharpness.