The photographer Kennedi Carter is soaring, thriving, arriving. One of Durham’s own by way of Dallas, Texas, Carter has had a momentous year. 2020 marked the opening of Flexing/New Realm, her first solo museum exhibition, at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, along with Vanity Fair publishing her iconic portrait of “The Squad,” the four women of color recently reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
To cap it off, British Vogue recently unveiled its sleek December 2020 issue, which features a 20-page photo shoot and three covers Carter shot of the one and only Beyoncé. At 21, she’s the magazine’s youngest cover photographer ever.
Recently, Carter sat down with the INDY to talk about this year, working with Beyoncé, and her artistic influences and vision.
Chief among those influences: the artists Carrie Mae Weems, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Frida Kahlo. Weems—American, Black, female—is a multidisciplinary artist perhaps best known for The Kitchen Table Series (1990), which combines 20 photographs and 14 text panels to provide an intimate view into one woman’s life. Artemisia Gentileschi, a seventeenth-century Italian painter, rape survivor, and protofeminist, was painting professionally by age 15. Her paintings, which include Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-1620) and Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-1639), center female agency.
Meanwhile, Frida Kahlo, the 20th-century Mexican painter known for her surreal, provocative self-portraits and radical political art, is someone whose complexity inspires Carter. She praises Kahlo’s visual storytelling—the way threads connect—and how adept she was at incorporating motifs that critics are still unpacking. She appreciates how Kahlo “plays with the masculine as well as the femme, and turns on its head how womanhood should look or be portrayed.”
“[Kahlo] found this way of expressing herself in her work that feels very her,” Carter says. “It’s one of those things where you see her work and immediately, you know. That’s something I want as well.”
When she was a child, Carter’s parents encouraged her to explore interests ranging from ice skating to learning how to play the piano. But once she began studying photography in high school, her world shifted. In just a few years since, Carter’s career has ascended into history-making with her group shows and solo museum exhibits.
For the British Vogue shoot, as the magazine reports, the superstar requested to be photographed by a woman of color. Together with editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, Beyoncé chose Carter, another Southern Black woman. Before Carter, there were Irving Penn and David Bailey, who shot the covers at the ages of 26 and 23; then, in 2018, 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, who became the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover, with his portrait of Beyoncé.
When asked how she feels about being the youngest Vogue cover photographer and working with Beyoncé—and doing all of this while being a Black woman who is living through a pandemic in the South during a period of national social justice uprisings—Carter pauses.
“It feels really surreal,” she says. “Some days it feels like it didn’t really happen. Maybe it will get real once I get the physical copy.”
Carter has listened to Destiny’s Child since she was three years old. She says she was initially nervous to meet her longtime idol, but quickly realized that “Beyoncé’s human, too.”
“[She] is really nice, open to direction, and open to getting whatever ideas that we have accomplished,” Carter says.
The photoshoot stretched over two long days in August between a studio and a location in the Hamptons. Although Carter loves shooting on her Mamiya RZ67 with Kodak Portra 400 film, this photoshoot was digital. She worked with Kwasi Fordjour, co-director of Beyoncé’s 2020 visual album Black Is King, on site, while Enninful styled the shoot via Zoom. The energy, Carter says, was “come and get it done.”
Carter’s shooting philosophy privileges gesture and the organic. Striking a balance between making a subject larger-than-life and not-too-posed takes skill, and the resulting photos, which Enninful and British Vogue have released on Instagram over the past few weeks, are evidence of that skill.
Whether she’s lying on a plush mauve carpet wearing a chartreuse Adidas x Ivy Park catsuit; squatting in a black, strong-shoulder Alexander McQueen blazer with red accents; or glancing over her shoulder in a lipstick-red, backless Christopher John Rogers gown, Beyoncé’s gaze conveys agency, confidence, and a touch of je ne sais quoi. The collection feels instantly iconic.
Carter’s developing voice finds her in artistic conversation with photographers Deana Lawson and LaToya Ruby Frazier and painters Barkley L. Hendricks and Titus Kaphar—all of whom are known for their beautiful, poignant, and provocative portraits of Black people, Black history, and Black life.
Where does Carter go from here? What does she want?
“I’m not sure,” she says, “Maybe freedom. So I have room to evolve and test things out and be able to afford living and making what I want to make.” Echoing her earlier observations of Kahlo, Carter says that her motivation is to create work that “ages well.” She wants it to be remembered, timeless. Most of all, she says, “I’m trying to make work that I’ll be proud and excited to look back on.”
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