Annie Leibovitz has come under fire from the public and media alike for her recent photographs of United States Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, taken for Vogue.
Jackson, the first Black woman on the US Supreme Court, is depicted at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. However, Leibovitz's images shared on Twitter (below) are overly dark and underlit, leaving her subject underexposed and poorly represented – a criticism that has long been leveled at the photographer when photographing Black subjects.
"This is a longtime problem of Leibovitz's," wrote Tayo Bero in a scathing piece titled 'Annie Leibowitz proves yet again: she can't photograph Black women' (opens in new tab).
"The photographer has dropped the ball many times in her depictions of other powerful Black women, including Simone Biles, Viola Davis, Serena Williams and Rihanna. In all cases, she manages to make her subjects look dull, ashy, pained and sad, a far cry from the lively and graceful people that they usually are."
United States Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., 2022 / For @voguemagazine pic.twitter.com/5jMI3KwIbcAugust 16, 2022
She also referenced the unfortunate, if unintended, subtext that many have picked up on. "Having Abraham Lincoln be the focal point of the first image came off to many critics as projecting a white savior narrative."
Twitter was, as you might expect, in uproar. "Annie Leibovitz is an incredibly accomplished photographer. And she's shown again and again she doesn't know how to light dark-skin models," one user tweeted (opens in new tab). "A great example of sometimes you should pass an assignment on to someone else who has better skills than you in an area."
The sentiment that the legendary photographer could have passed this job on to another professional – particularly a Black one – was a common theme among responses.
"Annie, I know you're famous, but you've proven time and time and TIME again that you don't know and don't care to learn how to photograph Black people. How to appropriately use lighting." came another tweet (opens in new tab). "You CAN say no. You CAN recommend talented Black photographers who will do better than you."
The biggest issue with the images is the remedial issue of exposure; it's a fairly rudimentary photographic fundamental that the eye is drawn to the point of the image with the highest contrast. Which, in this case, is the background – not the subject. Something that even non-photographers noticed.
"In both photos your focus goes to the background before it goes to the subject," came one criticism (opens in new tab). "I don't think you really even need to have an art background like I do to be able to point this out."
Perhaps the most scathing remark (opens in new tab) came from a user who suggested that Leibowitz should start shooting on a Google Pixel 6 (opens in new tab), which features Real Tone inclusive camera technology.
Great photographs, like all great art, should challenge us and start conversations. However, we can't help but feel that these aren't the kinds of debates that Leibovitz was hoping to provoke with these portraits.
We've previously shared advice from a professional on photographing dark skin tones (opens in new tab), which can require a different approach to lighting. If you're interested in improving your portraits, refresh your overall know-how with our portrait photography tips (opens in new tab), and discover the best cameras for portraits (opens in new tab) and the best lenses for portraits (opens in new tab).