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Dec. 22 2009 - 1:56 pm | 3,063 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

What does David LaChapelle’s Kanye West/Lady Gaga photo say about race?

gaga_kanye_lachapelle

'Fame Monsters' West and Gaga. (Photo: David LaChapelle)

The question is rhetorical, I suppose. But my first thought when seeing this photo was that David LaChapelle is attempting to deconstruct the longstanding cinematic/societal image of the white man as savior. West, with strangely demonic eyes, is cast as the hero, striking a pose traditionally reserved for the likes of leading (white) men such as Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, et al. Gaga is the damsel in distress, her porcelain-white naked body sharply contrasted by West’s dark, muscular form. It delivers the same type of contrived shock value that LaChapelle has excelled at for years. And like nearly every LaChapelle photo, examine it too long and it turns into a mindfuck.

For example, West’s fiery eyes send mixed signals — treading the line between savior and captor, hero and villain. Maybe that was LaChapelle’s intent, or maybe not. But given the photo was shot for the deluxe edition of Lady Gaga’s new album, The Fame Monster, perhaps West is intended to be the physical — and rather fitting — embodiment of “The Fame Monster.” But that is only one subtext, and the more you look at this image, the more undercurrents clamor for your attention. Take a closer look:

David LaChapelle...

Has LaChapelle cast West in the role of the 'magical negro'? (Photo: David LaChapelle)

In its simplest form, this could be a portrait of modern American narcissism, with LaChapelle casting two of the mainstream music industry’s most infamous attention hounds in leading roles. However, that interpretation is obvious. It’s the reason the pair were slated to embark on a world tour together back in October — that is, before West hijacked Tayor Swift’s award-show shine, then canceled the tour and entered self-imposed media exile.

The most salient undercurrent of this photograph is race. As I stated above, it may be as simple as LaChapelle attempting to remix the notion of the white man as savior. But LaChapelle seems to also be tapping into an idea much deeper, something I couldn’t place until I read this comment on the RealTalkNY blog:

[B]lah blah blah….same old racist stereotypes. Jungle boy saves pretty blond *yawn*. Only thing funny about this is Kanye’s photoshopped six pack. -Osheezy (via RealTalkNY)

This comment reminded me of a topic Spike Lee has covered in his lectures on film. In his talks, Lee has discussed the role in film/fiction of the “Magical negro” — or what he deridingly refers to as the “super-duper magical negro.” Plainly defined, this character type is “often [a] mystical stock character in fiction who, by use of special insight or powers, helps the white protagonist get out of trouble.” (Read: “Movies’ ‘Magic Negro’ Saves the Day, But at the Cost of His Soul” by Rita Kempley for an excellent analysis of the term.)

But can this really be what LaChapelle is attempting to say with this photograph? And to what end — controversy translated into Lady Gaga album sales? Also, it turns out I’m not the only one making the LaChapelle/’magical negro’ connection. The crew over at Throat Chop University have similar questions about the photograph:

So, is Kanye West playing the magic negro? This picture makes me think Kanye is getting his Michael Clark Duncan Green Mile on … “I tried bawse.” Is this rap’s response to all of these movies recently with the white character saving the negro? Apparently this was shot by David LaChapelle for Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster Deluxe Edition album artwork. (via Throat Chop University)

If indeed LaChapelle is attempting to cast West as the ‘magical negro’ in this photograph, it’s questionable how exactly he is ’saving’ Lady Gaga. West seems incapable of saving himself from his own ego-fueled PR blunders. But maybe that’s the genius of this shot. Not only is LaChappelle making a commentary on racial stereotypes, he is also saying West is a victim of his own fame. But probably not. Whatever the motive or intent behind the LaChapelle/Lady Gaga/Kanye West collaboration, there is one sad, overarching truth that has become abundantly clear — I’ve just spent far too much time dissecting this photograph.


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  1. collapse expand

    At first blush, this came to mind — the Lebron/Gisele Vogue cover: http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2008-03-24-vogue-controversy_N.htm

    Again, this was an immediate reaction, not a considered one…

  2. collapse expand

    To what extent do you think Lady Gaga/LaChapelle is/are actually saving Kanye West?

    Personally, I think the message of the photo is Kanye’s redemption. It’s an image totally obverse to what took place at the AMA with Swift.

    If you read it as such then the meta-reading becomes REALLY interesting.

    i.e. redemption and positive representations of black people; which, in a way, links in with what Coates sent you.

    How long do we have to metaphorically redeem (via text/image) the figure/stereotype of the black man, until it becomes acceptable to stage a negative representation?

    I mean, that’s what the whole furore over the Vogue cover is about.

    Is it still too soon? I think the problem lies in peoples’ instinctive associations they make with these images. viz. if you think something “screams King Kong”, surely you’re part of the problem; doesn’t that association say more about what you think than the intention of the image?

    Anyway, thanks for providing a link for the ‘magical negro’.

    • collapse expand

      I can see hints of redemption, as I mentioned in the idea of West being cast as the hero. However, LaChapelle doesn’t seem to be playing this as straightforward as that. The way he’s manipulated West’s eyes, I believe, says a lot about his intentions with this photo.

      This shot was no doubt originally slated as promo for West/Gaga’s tour, so it may be as simple as LaChapelle attempting to play up the “Fame Monster” element for marketability purposes. You could also boil the image down to something as simple as West is helping to carry Gaga’s career — or at least that she greatly benefits from association with such a well-known artist.

      But at its core, LaChapelle seems to be using this photo to make a statement. And due to the sharp contrast of skin tones, the way the shot is framed, and the way he is playing with established archetypes, race seems a central issue. Remember, this isn’t a shot of West saving Gaga from a burning building, or pulling her from the wreckage of a car crash, or even catching her as she falls from a cliff. LaChapelle has set this in a dense jungle with a massive volcano in the backdrop — it seems more than a subtle reference to Monster Island from King Kong. The shot on its own is eye-catching, but LaChapelle is also a master of visual manipulation who seeks to extract reaction his work — hence the whole reason I’m sure he was hired to do this shoot.

      As you mention though, my take is subjective. Of course, you’re absolutely correct on that — every person’s individual reaction is so. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I have a few more points (sorry!)…

    Why is it that the “salient undercurrent of this photograph is race”? Surely that’s really subjective; you could equally argue the most salient undercurrent to be gender.

    Why would Lady Gaga place herself in the position of being saved by Kanye? Her whole project is about [female] empowerment. This point is only to reiterate my reading of this image/context dynamic as redemption.

    The other point has to do with this:

    “How long do we have to metaphorically redeem (via text/image) the figure/stereotype of the black man, until it becomes acceptable to stage a negative representation?”

    To what extent is that action in itself – the action of redeeming – something offensive; what if it only serves to perpetuate this image tension?

    I think this is why the photographers of the Vogue cover are right in deflecting accusations of racism. The most ethical thing one can do is to assume that the image/metaphor – whether negative or positive – of a people conceptualised has nothing to do them (is a fetish/fantasy), even if a particular person ‘confirms’ it.

    • collapse expand

      If you are in an impoverished situation whether the hood or appalachia color does not matter ,all have sinned and making a bad remark by anyone famous or not should become passe,because what good can anger and hate from any angle do in a world where we need positive upbeat approach daily and all leaders white or black should realize this by now, if they are truly leaders in any field there hearts should be thoroghly cleansed of the vitrolic hate legislated by 2 centuries of white versus black and 50 years of denigrating white males!Education,Redemption,Appreciation and cultural differences need to be embraced and respected versus hated and feared!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    No, race is not the most salient undercurrent here. Sex is.
    IMO, this photo works more than the Lebron James/ supermodel one. Mr. West is not posing as King Kong here, but rather as a hero. Ms. Gaga is no blushing rose, but rather an empowered and provocative performer. She is nude; there is no pretense.
    I don’t see the need to call Mr. West a “magical negro” (sic). That isn’t clever in the least.
    It’s not considered okay to call gays “faggots,” so why is my ethnic group still being belittled with that term??
    Get a clue.

    • collapse expand

      Sex is definitely a theme, but I see it as an afterthought. But I say this because LaChapelle has never been subtle in his work — and he often thrives on controversy, so to me this shot is purposely skewed. Obviously, these reactions — mine and yours — are subjective. And my intent with mentioning the “magical negro” argument was not a ploy to be “clever,” as you say. But rather it’s my way of explaining what I found as unsettling and/or overtly weird about this photo. If that’s offensive to you, my apologies.

      Re: “Ms. Gaga is no blushing rose, but rather an empowered and provocative performer.” That’s one way to look at it, I suppose. But then, as I mentioned above in my piece, both Gaga and West are self-obsessed attention hounds. And just because Lady Gaga’s PR team keeps telling us she’s “provocative” doesn’t make it so. But getting naked for a photo shoot sure will drive album sales.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    there’s something very Marilyn about the way Lady Gaga is appearing, so there is a ref here about pop culture. yes, it’s a taboo big black man and white woman, but what these photos ultimately say is that these 2 artists dont mind posing in a photo shoot that looks fun, hard work, daring pushing the boundaries. and let’s face it LaChapelle IS an original one who never graduated at arts school. no one in art school what with all that post modernism theory talk can produce works like this, why they all become writers and teachers.

  6. collapse expand

    This is promo for a new Hollywood film. It will be a remake of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. But with a twist. In establishing new directions, pushing the edge, and challenging the squares it will be entitled, “Guess Who We’re HAVING for Dinner!” Larded with irony and bad taste, it will be carefully crafted to today’s zeitgeist.

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