October 25 2019

The New Black Vanguard Went Around Editors to Gain Following

New York-Fashion Week
Today is the release of Aperture's newest book The New Black Vanguard. Written and edited by curator and critic, Antwaun Sargent, the book portrays 15 black fashion photographers who have all gone around traditional media to build their careers. Talent like Tyler Mitchell, the first and only ever black photographer to have his work on the cover of Vogue, Micaiah Carter and more have all contributed to the book, which is filled with beautiful imagery as well as important conversations between the older and younger generation of black photographers. Before the launch party at the Top of The Standard, we met up with Sargent to discuss the powerful message behind the book.
The Standard

First just tell me a little bit about your new book.

“The New Black Vanguard” is a book that traces the global movement of young black photographers who are making their concerns and fantasies and ideas known in the space of photography. It includes 15 photographers from places like Lagos and L.A., London, and New York, South Africa, who are really thinking about black identity as it relates to beauty and sexuality and things like leisure. 

In the book what you get are these beautiful photographs that really – it’s thinking about where we are right now as a society but also look back to the past. In any number of photographs you see influences from photographers such as Malick Sidibé or James Van Der Zee or Roy DeCarava, who came before this generation and who didn’t have as much access or as many platforms because of racism. But you have these photographers following, in some ways, their footsteps to image blacks’ identities and to stake a claim to what it means to represent blackness right now.

"We’re not just seeing blackness as a monolith, but we’re seeing blackness in all these different ways, represented in the photographs." - Antwaun Sargent

Were all the 15 photographers people you knew before or how did you find them?

Some of the photographers I did know just from my work as a critic, and some of them I learned about through research, and then others I learned about on Instagram. I think that’s one of the great things about right now with social media; you can see a lot of work without having to actually be there. And so it started out, me coming up with a list, and then kind of testing some of my assumptions around what it means to be a black photographer today.

And really one of the things that I was looking for was a way to show the vast diversity of concerns and the diversity of the ways that black photographers are working today. And so in the book you have someone like Awol Erizku, who’s an L.A.-based photographer who grew up in New York, who is interested in still life, right; and then you have someone like Nadine Ijewere, who’s a London based photographer. She’s interested in the ways that landscapes interact with style.

You have photographers with really different kind of ideas about, how you create an image; and I thought that was important, because I think it gets to this question of diversity that we’re seeing. We’re not just seeing blackness as a monolith, but we’re seeing blackness in all these different ways, represented in the photographs. I thought that that was really important to show in the book.

Campbell Addy, Jamal Nxedlana, Micaiah Carter, Tyler Mitchell
Campbell Addy, Jamal Nxedlana, Micaiah Carter, Tyler Mitchell
Campbell Addy, Jamal Nxedlana, Micaiah Carter, Tyler Mitchell
Campbell Addy, Jamal Nxedlana, Micaiah Carter, Tyler Mitchell
Campbell Addy, Jamal Nxedlana, Micaiah Carter, Tyler Mitchell

Another thing, again, I thought was really important, is to think about the history. So, in the book, you have these dialogs between older generation photographers and this group of photographers. You have someone like Mickalene Thomas and Quil Lemons who talk about queer desire and how that might show up in their photographs, and what they want their photographs to express about notions of family. You have someone like Tyler Mitchell talking to his mentor, the photographer Deborah Willis, who’s Hank Willis Thomas’ mother, who’s a professor at NYU, who taught Tyler. She has written over 20 books about black photography. They are talking about their relationship and how she was influential in Tyler becoming a fashion photographer.

I think that you see that, say the model Alton Mason, for example. He’s shot in this book maybe four or five different times. And you really see him grow up into the model he is today throughout this book with images by Micaiah Carter and Arielle Bobb-Willis shot him. There are other photographers who have also taken his photograph. And when they were taking his photograph, he wasn’t this kind of model walking for Chanel and Louis Vuitton. It was because they saw something in him.

There are other models like that in the book as well who have gone on to have these great careers right now, but who are from this community of photographers, hair stylists, fashion stylists, fashion designers, who are creating these images that really do speak to different black worlds.

"I joke that Tyler Mitchell is the first and second black photographer to shoot for Vogue, because he shot two covers for American Vogue, and no other black photographers have been allowed the opportunity to do that since." - Antwaun Sargent

Tyler Mitchell’s cover of Vogue obviously made big waves not only in the fashion industry but in the general public, and I don’t think a lot of people actually knew that the cover of the biggest fashion magazine in the world had never been shot by a black photographer. But I always feel like it’s a one step forward, two steps back kind of situation with all minorities. What’s your take on that when it comes to being black in fashion?

I think you’re right. I think the only reason why these image makers are shooting at mainstream publications now is because they went around them to get their images out. So they didn’t wait on traditional editors to commission them. They went on Instagram, and they went on Tumblr, and they used social media; and they created their own buzz. And I think it’s important to remember that, because what’s happening right now – which gives me hope – is that these photographers are forcing these fashion and art museums and magazines to change. But I must say that – and I’m very open about it – I think when Vogue announced this was the first time a black photographer shot the cover, it was embarrassing.

I will also say that we have to also remember that we’re not satisfied with one. I joke that Tyler Mitchell is the first and second black photographer to shoot for Vogue, because he shot two covers for American Vogue, and no other black photographers have been allowed the opportunity to do that since.

Antwaun Sargent, Tyler Mitchell, DeRay Mckesson, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Mickalene Thomas, Jeremy O. Harris
Antwaun Sargent, Tyler Mitchell, DeRay Mckesson, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Mickalene Thomas, Jeremy O. Harris
Antwaun Sargent, Tyler Mitchell, DeRay Mckesson, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Mickalene Thomas, Jeremy O. Harris
Antwaun Sargent, Tyler Mitchell, DeRay Mckesson, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Mickalene Thomas, Jeremy O. Harris
Antwaun Sargent, Tyler Mitchell, DeRay Mckesson, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Mickalene Thomas, Jeremy O. Harris

That’s so crazy.

I would say that this book is just the beginning of a conversation that is long overdue, and that I’m happy that these photographers have given their images and their time to have this conversation. I’m equally happy that we just launched a campaign with Burberry this morning, and three of the photographers shot a social campaign for Burberry’s new puffer collection.

Wow.

It was an idea, that I came up with with someone on the Burberry team. I said, ‘you know, being on set and seeing all black creators creating these images for this major fashion brand, for me, felt like change.’ Because I cannot remember another time that I’ve been on the set of a fashion shoot, and there were three black people, let alone all, the whole set being black. I felt confident in working with them, was because from the beginning, they were like, ‘okay; the creative control is with this group of photographers.’

"We offered up our ideas, and then to have our ideas taken, and not credited for in any meaningful way." - Antwaun Sargent

What is your take on Kerby from Pyer Moss’ statement that inclusion is just the buzzword of the moment?

I think Kerby has been very, very, very clear about the fact that, yes, this is great, that he’s being included now; but the work still needs to be done; there’s work that still needs to be done.

And I think that the business of fashion situation is a prime example. What resonated with people with that particular situation was the fact that we have all felt that way before: We offered up our ideas, and then to have our ideas taken, and not credited for in any meaningful way; or to have our ideas taken and then have a white designer be thanked for them, which is part of the business of fashion situation.

Not at all.

And I think that, in those moments, you have to be careful to really listen to what people are saying and to give them, again, the space to say them and to address what they are saying. And so, in reading that response, I was like, oh, you really don’t get it.

I’m always conscious of that, and I think that all of the attention that the book and the exhibition is getting – I’m really grateful for that, but I’m also really cognizant of the fact that people have been doing this work for years, and I’m more interested in partnering with people who have been doing this work for years and who understand the nuances and the difficulties of this work than to, say, someone who just sees this as an opportunity to make them look good.

Micaiah Carter, Trevor Begnal, Jonathan Samedy, Joshua Edwards, Ali Williams
Micaiah Carter, Trevor Begnal, Jonathan Samedy, Joshua Edwards, Ali Williams
Micaiah Carter, Trevor Begnal, Jonathan Samedy, Joshua Edwards, Ali Williams

Why did you choose to do this book with Aperture?

First of all history: Aperture has been doing really great, high-quality photo books. I also chose to do this book with Aperture because over the last several years, Aperture has worked with black photographers to help to try to change the narrative of photography. And so over the last several years, Aperture has worked with Mickalene Thomas. They’ve worked with Lyle Ashton Harris. They’ve worked with Sarah Lewis who did “Vision & Justice.” And also, there were a few others that I’m not mentioning. Those projects, I think, helped to change our notions of what is considered valuable in photography, because photography is, again, overwhelmingly white based. Most of the images that we consumed have been taken by straight white men.

Oh, for sure.

And so I was interested in working with an organization who were committed and who had a track record of a commitment. Aperture did LaToya Ruby Frazier’s book, “The Notion of Family,” about her family in Braddock, PA, thinking about what it means to be working class, changing the notion of what it means to be working class. What I mean is that black people are also working class, also helped build this country, also were in mines and all these things.

I think that there is still work to be done everywhere. I do think that it says something that Aperture has done five, six, seven, eight books with black photographers and black thinkers, that really have helped to shift the conversation. I see this book as just one more of those projects that further help to reconsider photography and also reconsider the medium of photography itself.

The New Black Vanguard is available at the shop at The Standard, High Line

Photographer
Thana Brick
Writer
Lars Byrresen Petersen