Beyonce on the cover of Vogue. Picture: Instagram.
Beyonce's latest Vogue cover has been birthed into the world, and it is lovely. Which is a compliment. It's historic because it's the first cover shot by an African-American photographer.

As a fashion image, it's neither surprising nor particularly memorable. After all, giant floral headdresses are having a moment.

There are two versions of the Vogue cover, one in which Beyonce has donned a long ivory shirtdress from Gucci and an elaborate floral headpiece crafted by the British firm Rebel Rebel, and another in which she is wearing a multicolored, tiered dress from Alexander McQueen. 

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The image recalls the aesthetic in the performer's groundbreaking video opus "Lemonade," with its lyrical visual references to plantations, slavery and Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust." For all the styling effort that went into the picture, from the intricacies of the dress to the grandeur of the headpiece, the photograph itself has an enticingly slapdash, fuzzy imperfection. In this era of high-definition everything, Beyonce herself is almost blurry. In many ways, it looks like a test shot snapped before the final, glossy, impeccable one is taken. The message in photographer Tyler Mitchell's work is that the viewer is on-set and in-the-moment.

His technique is powerful. He situates the viewer face-to-face with Beyonce in a way that feels pre-digital. But then. What? Beyonce offers up a sidelong glance that's part Mona Lisa and part proud, aloof, self-confident, regal black woman. She offers up the Beyonce brand. 

This is stripped-down Beyonce. It's an alternative to the glamorous star in the mermaid gown, the new age feminist in the stark leotard, the gritty street-wise chick in athleisure-wear and cornrows and the earth mother in a gilded crown. In the magazine, the singer notes that she wanted to be photographed as natural as possible to underscore the importance of body acceptance. "I think it's important for women and men to see and appreciate the beauty in their natural bodies. That's why I stripped away the wigs and hair extensions and used little makeup for this shoot."

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The suggestion is that by shunning fake hair and mascara, some truth is revealed. But no. Nothing is divulged. It's simply a retelling of the same story with different costumes and more interesting lighting.

There have been countless photographs of Beyonce. Many have been stunning, including the ones taken by Mitchell. But the iconic performer does not have a body of iconic portraits - photographs in which independent observers are able to cast her in a larger cultural context. That's a shame because photography has the ability to capture the essence of a subject for the historical record in a way that video does not. A portrait allows the eye to linger, to engage and to assess. It is the decisive moment. And that is beyond Beyonce's control.


-The Washington Post