It’s been about 51 years, but Rolling Stone now has a cover shot by a black photographer.
Dana Scruggs, a photographer based in New York whose profile has been on the rise lately with work for Nike and ESPN magazine, is laying claim to the title of first black person to photograph a cover of Rolling Stone. Scruggs admitted that the title “is sweet and bittersweet” in an Instagram post.
“I’m out here making history when a year ago I was on the verge of giving up on being a photographer altogether,” Scruggs went on. “Never give up on yourself or your dreams. Ever.”
She could not be reached for further comment.
Rolling Stone, founded by Jann Wenner as a music and culture publication that eventually expanded to include politics, long published on a twice-monthly basis — meaning more than 1,000 cover opportunities through the decades — and only recently moved to a monthly magazine format. This is part of some changes happening under Penske Media Corp., which at the tail end of 2017 took a majority stake in the title. PMC is also the parent company of WWD.
Catriona Ni Aolain, who in August joined Rolling Stone as its director of creative content, said she’d been following Scruggs’ work for a few years and was “a fan,” but the right opportunity to use her didn’t come up until Travis Scott was set to be in the magazine.
“She was in my mind for a few things…then Travis came up and I thought she would be a great fit for him,” Aolain said.
She added that her selection of Scruggs was led entirely by her aesthetic and body of work and was not an attempt at a p.r. move or a conscious decision to feature a black photographer. Apparently, it even came as a surprise to Aolain that Scruggs would be marking an end to half a century of de facto tradition.
“Maybe I had a feeling she was the first black female photographer, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around her being the first black photographer,” Aolain said. “I thought there had to be someone, maybe in the Nineties. But even now, as far as I’m aware, she is [the first black photographer for a cover].”
Rolling Stone, like plenty of other magazines, has long operated through the use of a handful of photographers kept on contract for all of its shoots, which could go some way to explaining how it’s taken a magazine that does not have a reputation for being risk-averse with covers — from a naked John Lennon spooning a clothed Yoko Ono to a just-turned 18-year-old Britney Spears in lingerie holding a teddy bear — so long to tap a black photographer for one. The use of contract photographers, which basically means a photographer is on call and gets paid a flat monthly wage, is said to be largely coming to an end at the magazine.
It’s also worth noting that Rolling Stone is not the only well-known magazine to back itself into a rather small corner of talent, be they high-profile or simply dependable. Vogue only recently had its first black cover photographer when the young Tyler Mitchell shot Beyoncé for the September 2018 issue. The fashion magazine is 126 years old, and while there are warring industry narratives of whether Beyoncé required a black photographer or Vogue chose to use one of its own accord, there’s no denying that some former standbys — Mario Testino and Terry Richardson, among other fashion regulars — have found themselves on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement.
If there’s a silver lining to any of it, maybe it’s that a dearth of high-profile talent means covers, and campaigns for that matter, could get a needed shot of creativity from up-and-comers.
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