“Changing the images that have been washed on us for hundreds of years is about telling us who we are, our position in the world and our value, You Will Create History.” -Dario Calmese

First Black photographer of Vanity Fair cover

According to a recent article in The New York Times, until two weeks ago Dario Calmese had no idea he was the first Black photographer to make a cover for Condé Nast’s 107-year-old magazine, Vanity Fair.

Radhika Jones noted that in the 35 years before she was named editor of Vanity Fair, there had been only 17 covers featuring solo Black people. during her two and a half year tenure, she has published eight more — two of those featured interracial couples.

Photo from 1863 inspires VF cover

The Vanity Fair cover photo has Viola Davis posed in profile (opening photo, top row, far left). She wears a blue taffeta MaxMara trench dress that she put on backward so it could be unbuttoned to show her back. Her left hand is resting on her hip. The deep blue color is symbolic of the indigo cloth used in the slave trade. Calmese said, “For me, this cover is my protest, But not a protest in ‘Look at how bad you’ve been to me, and I’m angry, and I’m upset.’” Rather, it’s: “I’m going to rewrite this narrative. I’m just going to take ownership of it.”

On Photography: Dario Calmese, 1982-present
“Scourged Back” McPherson & Oliver

“Scourged Back”

The photograph of an escaped slave named Gordon was in Dario Calmese’s inspiration file. Gordon had escaped his master in Mississippi by rubbing onions all over his body to throw bloodhounds off of his scent. McPherson & Oliver of New Orleans took the original photographs according to Photo historian Kathleen Collins (History of Photography, Vol. 9, Jan-March 1985).

On the back of the mount are written the comments of S.K. Towle, surgeon, 30 Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers that read, “Few sensation writers ever depicted worse punishments than this man must have received, though nothing in his appearance indicates any unusual viciousness — but on the contrary, he seems intelligent and well behaved.”

“This image reclaims that narrative,” Calmese is quoted as saying, “transmuting the white gaze on black suffering into the black gaze of grace, elegance and beauty.”

On Photography: Dario Calmese, 1983-present
Dario Calmese, courtesy Vanity Fair


Dario Calmese has photographed Billy Porter (opening photo, top row, far left), George MacKay and Adrienne Warren both actors for Vanity Fair. He has done work for clients including The New York Times, CBS, Beyoncé, The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Restoration Hardware and New York University.


Dario Calmese is also an artist. His works have been shown at New York City’s Aperture Gallery and at Jack Shainman. Internationally, his art has been on exhibit at the National Museum of Turkmenistan.

Sources: The New York Times, dariocalmese.com, Wikispro and Vanity Fair.

Read about other inspirational photographers in On Photography.