Dario Calmese tackles racial prejudice in photography

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Last year, Dario became the first black artist to photograph the cover of Vanity Fair in its 107-year history. Here he collaborates with Adobe Creative Cloud to create a set of portrait tones that respond to black and Brown skin

Occupying the space of both art and artefact, photography has become one of the most influential forms of expression in world history. Fluent in all languages, speaking over a thousand words in each frame, photography’s ability to transcend time and space makes it an extremely flexible tool. But, like all technological inventions, the perspectives and biases of its creators play an important role in shaping its capabilities and development. Invariably, racial prejudice has long played a role.

With the creation and mass distribution of color films in the mid-1950s, lab technicians implemented a skin tone calibration system that would enhance and flatter the characteristics of their target market: white women. Until 1954, Eastman Kodak maintained a monopoly until the federal government asserted its power to break it – but by then the damage was done. Kodak produced the Shirley Card, a prototype that would be remade for decades to come that featured a pale brunette as the gold standard to calibrate light and shadow over skin tones during the printing process.

If you didn’t match this aesthetic, the color film was unlikely to flatter you, especially if you had darker and darker skin tones. Writer Syreeta McFadden recalls seeing evidence of the photograph’s color bias. “I was 12 and I was leafing through a photo album … In some photos I’m a mud brown, in others I’m a blue black,” she wrote in a story for BuzzFeed News. “Some of the photos were taken moments away from each other. “You look like charcoal,” someone said, laughing. I felt insulted, but I didn’t have the words for it yet.

But the Franco-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard did it. In 1978, the mastermind behind New Wave movie classics like Breathless and Contempt received a commission from the Mozambican government to collaborate on a new state television channel. He declined to shoot on a Kodak film, saying it was “inherently racist” not to capture the variety, complexity and exquisite undertones of black and brown skin tones. But art and integrity were not enough to effect the change; the only color of the Kodak saw was green.

Tellingly, it wasn’t until chocolate and wood furniture makers started complaining that they were “not getting the right tones of brown” in their photographs that the industry finally took stock and decided to recalibrate the ability of color films to read browns and blacks. In 1995, Kodak finally produced a multiracial Shirley card, adding black and Asian women (and later, a Latina).

But the timing couldn’t have been worse: digital photography was taking over, and long-standing standards of the 1950s were being mapped to new technology. Things have slowly changed over the past three decades. As recently as 2019, Sarah Lewis asked, “What is stopping us from correcting the inherited bias of camera and film technology? ” in The New York Times. “Isn’t there a fortune to be made by the tech giant that is the first to market?

Enter photographers Dario Calmese, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, and Summer Murdock, who collaborated with Adobe’s Creative Cloud to create Premium Presets, a set of portrait tones that offers a wide range of settings tailored specifically for black and brown skin tones. . Sorted by Clear, Medium, and Deep, the Premium presets are calibrated to accurately represent the rich tapestry of skin tones around the world.

“We center the subject and help photographers make them look great” – Dario Calmese

“The beautiful thing about this project is that Adobe doesn’t say, ‘We can’t see the color’. They say: “We to do see you and we understand you have specific needs, so we’re going to bring in people like you to do this job, ”Calmese said. “It was a really fun project. We each took a spectrum of skin tones: Summer took Light, I took Medium, and Laylah took Deep tones. We each worked individually, then shared our presets and tested them out together. It was very collaborative. We were not only looking at the black skin of Africans, but also the skin of people in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. We center the subject and help photographers make them look great. “

And if there’s one thing Calmese knows, it’s how to bring out the best in his subjects. Whether it’s running the Pyer Moss show, running the Institute of Black Imagination’s website and podcast, or working as a photographer, Calmese recognizes the importance of addressing systemic issues up front. and downstream. “Right under my work is this concept of freedom,” says Calmese, who explains that his idea of ​​liberation goes beyond oppression to include the freedom to dream, to imagine, to establish a sense of belonging and just being yourself.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Calmese studied clinical psychology before moving to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. In 2012, he embarked on photography while studying at the School of Visual Arts; a year later, he began working with Kerby Jean-Raymond and directed the fashion shows for Pyer Moss. Working at a photo studio in the South Bronx in a community that includes Jordan Casteel and Renee Cox, Calmese has created her own path.

For the artist, the key to freedom begins with releasing the belief that the world is fixed and still, and understanding that the structures around us – like color photography – have all been designed. “Once you see that, you ask, ‘Who designed this and why was it designed this way? “It takes you down a path of inquiry to realize that even the things you think you want might not actually be your wants,” Calmese says.

“I had this conversation yesterday with (former Black Panther Party President) Elaine Brown. We were talking about identity and talking about how the English language itself as a design framework is actually changing the way we are. see the world. The syntax of it – the subject which always acts on an object – there is a separation that the subject is primary and there is this “other”, but it is only a structure of design If you study different languages, you realize that there are other points of view.

Recognizing the interplay between the overt and secret layers of life, Calmese is a born rebel, overturning the status quo by infiltrating the mainstream with his distinctive blend of classic and radical aesthetics. In 2020, Calmese became the first black artist to photograph the cover of Vanity Show107 years of history with a portrait of Viola Davis that referred Whipped peter, the famous 1863 abolitionist photograph of Gordon, a slave who escaped from the Louisiana plantation of John and Bridget Lyon.

“Understanding the spectacle is necessary because there is a level of aesthetics and design that we as humans respond to and have to respond to – but inside of it there is much more to it. place to play once you’re in that space ”- Dario Calmese

For ten days, Gordon dodged slave hunters and bloodhounds until he reached a Union camp near Baton Rouge, where he was granted freedom. With Whipped peternoted American photographer Mathew B. Brady, who documented the Civil War, painted a low-key portrait of psychological terror and physical violence. Sitting with his back to the camera, Gordon exposes his heavily scarred back, a heartbreaking landscape retracing the countless lashes he has received throughout his life. The photograph, published in the July 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, the most widely read newspaper at the time, became one of the first Black Liberation service images ever published in the United States.

In the portrait of Calmese, Whipped peter is a subtext for those who know or want to learn. Here, in a symphony of deep tones, Viola Davis is the epitome of “Rhapsody in Blue”, as grand and imposing as George Gershwin’s song. Sitting high, her hair a halo of afro curls, Davis offers a proud and regal profile. She sits with her back to the camera in a royal blue wrap dress. Her unblemished skin ripples with a richness that demonstrates the power of melanin to erase the vestiges of time and preserve the suppleness of youth. At 55, Davis defies the stigma of being an older woman – not to mention Black – in Hollywood, embodying the poise and wisdom that comes from staying true to yourself.

“We all live our lives, but we don’t always have the words to speak directly about what we are witnessing. I think of the media – TV, newspapers, movies, music videos, concerts, Super Bowl – like a show, ”says Calmese. “You can understand how those in power have used the spectacle to distract the masses, to give them bread and circus. Understanding the spectacle is necessary because there is a level of aesthetics and design that we as humans respond to and need to respond to – but within that there is a lot more room to play. once you are in that space.

With the portrayal of Viola Davis, Calmese took over the concept of the magazine cover and all of its conventions, and found a way to move into the known and add another layer for those looking for something more than the standard celebrity fare. Calmese’s work meets people where they are. Viewers can take the picture as it is: a glorious picture of a black woman defying the odds – or they can go deeper into the past and connect the dots of photography, history and liberation. .

“The magic point is finding the balance between (the convention) and how far you can go,” says Calmese. “With the) Vanity Show cover, it was happening in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement and I knew it was something that should look good and stylish, even given all the restrictions that are happening since it was the first shoot since lockdown. We had to consider Viola Davis’ timing and needs. She deserves to be beautiful. How do you do all of these levels – and then for me, as an artist, to say something? “

Determined to use the cover to take a stand, Calmese presented his case, campaigning for the image and working tirelessly to convince the magazine that this was what was right. He remembers having written several essays explaining the importance of the details of the work, up to the symbolism of the color blue. “These were warnings because people were being called out for posting the black square,” says Calmese, “but I understood that the result was a win-win-win. The community wins, the magazine wins – we can all. to win.


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