I had thought this was a fuss about nothing. But when you look at the images side-by-side, it's pretty obvious that Vogue's latest cover featuring LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen is indeed a sly homage by Annie Leibovitz to King Kong. In fact, the references by photographer Annie Leibowitz to one image in particular, identified earlier this week by a tipster to Jezebel, are unmistakeable. This First World War army recruitment poster-urging loyal Americans to destroy a "mad brute"-features a Kong-like gorilla with a right arm holding a weapon and a left gripping a virginal white beauty. It's much like the position basketball star LeBron assumes on the Vogue cover.
Veteran Leibovitz, the go-to photographer at Conde Nast titles such as Vanity Fair and Vogue, has still not acknowledged her inspiration. (Portfolio's Jeff Bercovici, in an inspired journalistic move, actually thinks to put in a call.) But Leibowitz is known for borrowing iconic imagery from old movies.
Let's assume the Vogue cover was indeed an homage to the xenophobic wartime poster. There's nothing so reprehensible about that: it's a photographic commentary on the ancestral American fear of black men, an interesting and provocative idea.
But here's the real question. Had the magazine knowingly intended to begin a debate about racial imagery, it would have at least devoted some text to the issue, and demonstrated awareness of the controversy it was inviting. Instead, Vogue seems to have been caught unawares. Did Annie Leibovitz gloss over her cover concept in order to get it past the generally conservative Vogue editors? If so, they're going to blame her for the mess in which the Conde Nast magazine finds itself.