Our culture has an affinity for reinterpreting iconic photos of the past with contemporary public figures. As the process goes, a group of creatives identify two artists who have concrete similarities, one from the past and one gaining momentum in the present. They stage the latter artist in a shoot that recreates a legendary photo of the former artist.
When done right, the redo simultaneously stimulates our love for nostalgia while getting us excited about the future. For example, a photo (that was not staged) recently made its rounds on the Internet showing Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King cradling their daughter on her lap at his funeral. It was placed side by side in a collage with FLOTUS Michelle Obama cradling Sasha in her lap at the Democratic National Convention. Genius!
Another example is T.I.’s cover of Blow! magazine which recreates a legendary photograph of Malcolm X. T.I.’s image, at the time, was courageous, unafraid, radical, focused, and independent, which coincided with Malcolm X’s attitude in the original photo as he stood, rifle in hand, ready to tackle whatever danger threatened him on the other side of the window.
As powerful as these photos can be when they’re executed the right way, they’re disastrous when done wrong. When Amber Rose dressed up as Grace Jones for Complex magazine, for instance, the androgyny was there, but the sense of empowerment, boldness, and defiance against convention that Jones embodied was replaced with sexuality and objectification.
In the same way, Teyana Taylor’s recent reinterpretation of Janet Jackson’s famous Rolling Stone cover falls flat. Jackson’s cover represented a coming-of-age story. It chronicled the evolution of a woman, whose persona had previously been rooted in being the little sister of Michael Jackson and in her role as a child star on “Good Times.” Whether the public was ready or not, that little girl had grown up and was ready to boldly claim and flaunt her sexuality. That dichotomy is captured brilliantly in the photo as Jackson’s soft features and girlish curls are juxtaposed against her womanly body, fully exposed save for a man’s hands covering her nipples and a pair of unbuttoned jeans. Taylor, by contrast, isn’t able to replicate that balance of controlling her sexuality while maintaining a sense of innocence and charm.
Taylor’s photo calls to mind the time The Dream and Christina Milian immortalized their ill-fated relationship by recreating Jackson’s Rolling Stone cover for Vibe magazine. The result was sloppy, tasteless, and embarrassing. While Taylor’s cover isn’t as bad as Milian’s and The Dream’s, neither lives up to the original. Which proves that Jackson’s cover is one of those brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime photos that should be left just as is.