On Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover shot
I mean for this blog to be about my work. At the same time, I also want it to be a forum where I can discuss photography with non-photographers; not that photographers cannot read my blog but to write it without the technical jargon and get people to think about what they see in an image.
This week, a certain image has gone viral and it continues to bother me, so I wish to say a few things about it. I speak of the cover of Vanity Fair magazine and its image of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner.
First, let me begin by saying I have been a long-time admirer of the work of Annie Leibovitz, the photographer who took the image. I follow her work and in the past have even joked, "WWAS?" - "What Would Annie Shoot?" I also know that she has had a lengthy collaboration with Vanity Fair and it has given her much artistic leeway in how she shoots, and rightfully so. I suspect, however, that tighter reins were held by its editor for this cover.
Why? Well, in my opinion - it is a terrible photograph.
But . . . it succeeded in delivering what I think Vanity Fair wanted. And that makes me dislike it all the more.
Let me explain. Look at the picture and take away the caption "Call me Caitlyn." Pretend that you have not heard all the buzz about this photograph beforehand. What do you have left? One of my mentors has always said, a good photograph should stand on its own, meaning it alone tells its story and the backstory is irrelevant. If you accept this, what I see when I look at this image is a badly posed person looking awkwardly at the camera. If I had a young woman and posed her atop a bar stool, sitting on her hands, it could work very well as a coquettish picture, as if she were a kitten perched on top. Instead, I am confused - why are the hands hidden? The very masculine shoulders, arms, and legs suggest to me that this is a drag queen - notwithstanding the breasts , a flare to the hips, and a lack of an Adam's apple as I know all of that can be achieved through Photoshop - and that the photographer just did not know what to do with large, mannish hands. And so told the subject to hide them. The face has strong features but it appears disjointed from the rest of the body, to my eye - there is something about it smoothness that does not match with the shoulders, as if too much makeup or too much smoothing in Photoshop was applied.
Now, look at the photograph in its intended context: it is the new Caitlyn Jenner, who we know is - was - Bruce Jenner. Who we know from much publicity has had cosmetic surgery to feminize her face and to augment her breasts. Knowing this, where does the viewer's eye go? I think many people went right to the "crux" of the matter - after a quick glance at her face, attention was drawn to her crotch. Is her penis showing? Can you see an outline? Was it taped back, as many drag queens do, or did they Photoshop that part? And then - to the breasts. Are they what Jenner paid for? Or did a little Photoshop magic enhance those? I think for many they then truly looked at the face, but not to see the person that is - Caitlyn - so much as to see if they could recognize the person that was - Bruce.
And that is why I say it is a success for Vanity Fair. It generated a buzz, it got them trending on social media - even here - and it will sell copies. After all, that is the objective of a good magazine cover image. It gets that person waiting in line at the grocery store (as intellectual as Vanity Fair might think itself, it still places itself near the tabloids) to pick it up, and once they have, the likelihood of them tossing it in with their rest of their purchase is increased significantly.
But at what cost? No, not the price of the magazine - the cost to the subject on its cover.
I am not going to say whether a person should seek whatever means to reassign their gender. I have dealt with this issue in my career as a Family law attorney. I learned at the time that the American Medical Association had a protocol by which a person seeking to transition had to live a year as the intended gender. During that time, they could receive hormone therapy but would also undergo regular counseling to deal with the changes their body would undergo and to help them become that new gender with a sound body and mind.
Which makes all this seem very rushed in Jenner's case. Perhaps it is being done to satisfy the producer of the reality TV show that is in production regarding this, since film schedules are built around budgets. Perhaps it is being done to satisfy the agent and publicist who secured a coveted interview with Diane Sawyer. Perhaps it is being done to satisfy the marketing team for Dancing With the Stars as the rumors say that Caitlyn - not Bruce - Jenner will be appearing next season. Wait too long and she might become old news.
This image, though, was certainly done to allow Vanity Fair to be the first - the first! - to bring us a picture of the "new woman." Look at her breasts! Look at her smooth crotch! Look how we have dressed her up in an iconic Hollywood style! We have undressed her as much as we could for you, so you can gawk at a transgender person's body!
Fortunately for Vanity Fair, people's memories are short so that they don't remember last month's cover and the curious juxtaposition it makes with this one:
Finally, this image brings to my mind a classic archetype. In my mind, Jenner has become Isaac of the Old Testament. In that story, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah, Before placing him on the altar, Abraham binds Isaac. Art has typically depicted this scene with Isaac's hands bound behind him.
In the story of Abraham and Isaac, an angel stops Abraham before he kills his son as God has seen the evidence of Abraham's faith and obedience.
I do not expect an angel to stop the Hollywood machine's hand here.