Your local newsstand may not yet have the February issue of Elle, but the stampede to critique Mindy Kaling's cover has already prompted her to defend the black-and-white close-up to no less than David Letterman.
The other covers in the four-piece "women in television" issue featured full-color, fuller-body portraits of Amy Poehler, Zooey Deschanel, and Allison Williams. As Kaling told Letterman, critics deemed her cover, a headshot, as judgment against her curvy—or as she called it—"fat, beautiful body." Some even called it racist.
Amid the outrage and talk of fat-shaming, the conversation over Kaling's portrait missed out on any reference to the larger history and vocabulary of photography. To read some commentators, you'd think black and white was just a filter invented by Instagram, rather than a feature of some of the oldest and most beautiful photographic methods. (The film itself limits the detail to black and white, not the camera.) I can only imagine how much richer and more intelligent the conversation might have been were visual arts education more widespread.
This image of Kaling wasn't just edited or chosen, it was made by the photographer Carter Smith, who's credited on all four covers. According to past interviews, Smith began his photo career as a teenager in the '80s, which means he started by shooting on film, probably using a manual camera — the kind that requires you to set exposure through a combination of lens settings and shutter speed. Smith left fashion school to take up photography, so maybe he was self-taught, but odds are good he took at least one class along the way—if not several—and knows well his predecessors in black and white portraiture.
Did he intend to do more than shoot a lovely photo of Mindy Kaling that would help sell lots of magazines? Probably not. Still, he didn't stoop to the old, tired ploy of emphasizing a woman's fecundity, her cleavage, her body, over her whole person.
In Kaling's portrait, Smith gives us an intimate photo that plays up the reasons we've come to like her so well as an actress and writer: the bright soul that animates her body. What Smith saw in Kaling, in that frame at least, was not a woman with a magnetic body but magnetic eyes (something people used to write songs about). And he captured her not in ephemeral, often-immaterial color, but in time-tested, eloquent black-and-white — perhaps even on real silver gelatin film.
When I took an intro photography course as a college student, the curriculum combined darkroom and aesthetic basics with a brief history of the medium. Like painting, photography includes a range of styles, from the iconic landscapes of Ansel Adams to the equally definitive Works Project Authority portraits of Dorothea Lange and others. Portraiture has gone in almost as many directions as there have been photographers. From the unposed documentary work of Jacob Riis to the whimsical street photography of Robert Doisneau and elaborately constructed self-portraits of Cindy Sherman, Smith owes a debt to the many who shot before him.
Does it matter if we're in the dark when it comes to the art of photography, if we can't tell you a thing about composition or recognize famous images?
On one level, no. Recognizing a Riis won't get you out of a traffic ticket or help you ace a job interview. But learning the history of any subject's pioneers, rebels, and language is part of developing a sense of literacy. In our image-drenched era, I would argue that visual literacy has grown ever more important. In a practical sense, it can be the difference between mistaking a phishing site or email for the bank or friend-in-need it masquerades as. But we risk more than that by viewing images uncritically.
In her book Seeing and Believing, the scholar Margaret Miles argues that images shape our beliefs and values more profoundly than we often realize. Though Miles' work in that book focuses on film, her thesis could be applied to photographs, too. As James K. A. Smith writes in Desiring the Kingdom, "Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses."
As a culture, we've made some advances in visual literacy — we're more aware of distortions from Photoshop editing or Instagram filters. Yet, we still fail to adequately assess and understand the images we get bombarded with, too eager to jump to conclusions without taking stock of the situation in question. The Mindy cover controversy is just one example of this collective instinct. It doesn't take a photography lesson to improve your visual literacy, just a few basic habits when analyzing an image:
1. Note as many relevant, observable facts about the picture and its production before making any conclusions. With Kaling's portrait, most people keyed in on the publication context, image crop, and lack of color. But other relevant details include the focal point of the picture (her eyes) and its creator (a photographer, who probably worked with editors and others to refine the final image). You could further infer from the context (magazine cover) that the image was shot as an intimate, detailed close-up rather than a zoomed-in crop of a full-body shot. And, as I have done, you could infer that the picture was shot on actual film, perhaps even in the sort of large-body camera that makes the most beautifully detailed pictures.
2. Ask and try to answer questions prompted by these observations. Who was the photographer? Carter Smith. What's inside the frame? Her face. What's outside the frame? Her body, but also the studio space, assistants, the photographer. Does the frame suggest any relationships?Where was the photographer standing? Close to her, which makes the shot more intimate for all involved.
3. Find out if there's any relevant history you should consider in your assessment. As I have tried to argue here, it's worth at least acknowledging that black-and-white portraiture has a long and rich history. Rather than a form of derogation, use of black-and-white connects Kaling's portrait to many timeless and beautiful images, including most of the celebrity portraits from Hollywood's golden age.
Those weighing the alleged racism of Kaling's portraits would also do well to consider the history of depicting the bodies of women of color in mainstream media. If anything, women of color are more often sexualized than white women. I'm not qualified to comment on how Kaling's portrait fits into this history, but it sure seems premature to argue that her "cropped off [photo] feels like more social exclusion" than a full-body portrait would have.
In the end, Kaling liked her portrait, which ought to count for more than a little. Perhaps those lamenting her black-and-white close-up as second rate have mistaken as an insult a rather nice compliment.
Anna Broadway is the author of Sexless in the City and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics. She wrote her master's thesis in religious studies on belief and religion in photography.