Friday, June 14, 2024

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS | LAMONTE MCLEMORE: ‘There’s a soul-to-soul connection’

February 8, 2024 by  
Filed under Cover Story, Feature

LaMonte McLemore 

Virtually every Black American of a certain age can conjure the feeling of opening the mailbox to find the newest edition of Jet. And many of those readers would immediately flip the magazine to “Beauty of The Week”: a full-page spread featuring photographs of gorgeous, bathing suit-clad Black women from all over the country, accompanied by a few words about their professions and interests. 

Photographer LaMonte McLemore (also a founding member of the legendary group 5th Dimension) was among the artists that Johnson Publishing — the empire behind both Jet and Ebony, magazines beloved over seven decades for their compelling, authentic stories and vivid photographs depicting Black life and culture in America — turned to when it was time to find and photograph the next model. Today, he is the creative force behind “Black Is Beautiful,” a new coffee table book that collects the photographs he took and documents a legacy of African-American excellence.

How did “Beauty of The Week” come to be? 

The “Beauty of The Week” feature existed before I became a featured freelance photographer at Jet, which I did for over 50 years. I’ll share this story. A gentleman by the name of John Cook walked into a photo studio I had started with my pal Cliff Hall … and suggested I submit my photos of beautiful Black women to Jet. In fact, he snatched one and submitted it himself — and to my surprise, Jet featured it. The determined Sylvia Flanigan, the senior editor of Jet, liked what I was doing as opposed to the three or four staff photographers who seemed to be displaying rather awkwardly posed models. I think what appealed to Sylvia, as a proud Black woman, was the essence of what I was bringing to the table. I celebrated the body. I never promoted an anorexic model; I was a Black photographer shooting Black models. I liked to push it to the limit and “bring the woman out of the woman.” The “Beauty of the Week” became the highlight feature for Jet readers.

What “Beauty of the Week” model brought the most acclaim? 

You’ll hear from fans how they loved my shots of stars like Kathleen Bradley of “The Price is Right” fame. But the wonderful thing about Jet was that each publication brought new excitement. Since “Beauty of the Week” was the go-to for readers, each new edition brought acclaim for that model. Everyone deserves that light to shine on them, especially Black women.

How did you go about finding the models? 

I credit Sylvia Flanagan, again. See, with the 5th Dimension, I got to travel the world on tour. So, Sylvia encouraged me to take advantage of my global perspective of women of color. My secret to shooting is instinctual … I just see things. So how could I not “see” those gorgeous Black and brown women the world over and ask them to be a part of “Beauty of the Week”?

What did “Beauty of the Week” contribute to the image of Black women? 

When you take photos with the idea of heightening the elemental beauty of womanhood, you don’t realize you could change history. I recognized, after studying magazines like Vogue and Glamour, there were many ethnic models I was working with who were just as beautiful as those being spotlighted in the major fashion magazines. Did you know I formed the first lifestyle magazine for both Black men and women, called “Elegant,” in the early sixties? I thought, I’ll devise my own magazine after encountering so many astonishingly beautiful Black models who were rejected by major magazines because of the color of their skin. The “Beauty of The Week” was a game changer. It gave Black women a platform all their own where their uniqueness was explored.

What is the highlight of “Black is Beautiful?” 

It’s an overall effect. There’s an energy in “Black Is Beautiful.” One woman is just as exciting as another. Some who have seen the book in previews feel it has a high-definition feel — the ladies jump off the page with sensual elegance, fierceness, sportiness, and gentility. I’ll tell you, the entire book is one big highlight, and these timeless photos come off as fresh! I must thank the methodical LeRoy Graham and my lovely wife Mieko for helping me digitize thousands upon thousands of photos. These are the photos from which art gallery impresario and co-author Chris Murray carefully curated this coffee table book.

How do you know you took a great photo of a model? 

There’s a soul-to-soul connection, a mutual respect, a trust factor as a photographer and what you share with a model. There may be laughs, even tears of emotion. I never over-snap a photo shoot. Again, I’ve always said, “I just see things,” — and when I’ve seen enough, when eye-to-eye we can tell we’ve both felt enough, it’s like hitting a home run. The feeling is indescribable and the bond lasts forever. For instance, like the bond I share with my dear friend Jayne Kennedy. Then there are former Beauties of the Week who write me to this day on social media saying, “My experience as a model for Beauty of the Week was transformative and pivotal in self-actualization.” My biographer, Robert-Allan Arno, compiles these things for me and I always like the way he puts it.

What should every photographer remember when taking a photo? 

Composition is key. I can only tell you my perspective, and I’m happy to share with you if it may influence another photographer — even in a small way. What gave me my epiphany early on was the chance to shoot at a dance studio. It was the dancers, the inherent composition of their moves, the very way their toes and even fingers were pointed that became the backbone, so to speak, of the composition of my photos. Essentially, a woman’s curves became the art, one of detail and balance. My signature became sexiness without being explicit, but don’t get me wrong — this included the model’s intelligence, which is intrinsic in their beauty. 

Las Vegas Black Image Magazine would like to thank LaMonte McLemore’s biographer, Robert-Allan Arno and Patricia Penix for making this interview possible and for all your support.

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