Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate, her white dress billowing around her hips—it’s an iconic Hollywood image. That scene from The Seven Year Itch has inspired countless tributes and parodies over the years.

Artist Tya Alisa Anthony was researching the history of Black media when she came across an old Jet magazine cover featuring Donna Summer re-creating Monroe’s peek-a-boo pose. Anthony’s parents had collected the weekly digest when she was a child, but re-examining back issues revealed a disconnect between the magazine’s eye-catching covers and its articles on Black agency and pride.

“These women were not being recognized or respected as Black women,” says Anthony. “They were representing European ideals, highlighted with stories like ‘Are Black Women Getting More Attractive?’ or ‘Stripper to Singer.’ It didn’t settle right with me, attempting to connect to the women on the covers.”

The portrait series Complexion is Anthony’s response.

Examining the Past

To create the images in the series, Anthony began by downloading thumbnail-size images of Jet covers. Then she would open an image in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and remove unwanted details. Next, she opened the images in Adobe Photoshop and enlarged them to her desired physical dimensions. (This process introduced visual distortion that she incorporated into the works.) Then she went to work with the Pixelate filter.

“In Glitch, for example, I felt it more appropriate to pixelate and blur in Photoshop rather than in Lightroom,” says Anthony. “Whereas in Lightroom, I was able to remove unwanted marks from the transfer and handling processes,” she says.

Altered Jet magazine cover image of singer Donna Summer re-creating an iconic Marilyn Monroe pose

Just Add White, part of Anthony’s Complexion series, features an altered Jet magazine cover image of singer Donna Summer re-creating an iconic Marilyn Monroe pose. This cover sparked the idea for the series.

The works that comprise Complexion took shape through the digital process. Anthony explains, “Brown Skin Beauties was initially supposed to be a complete layer-over-layer image looking at facial structure similarities.”

Superimposing images was Anthony’s way of looking for a pattern in what Jet defined as beauty. She explains, “That piece then inspired Woman as Muse.

Woman as Muse (left) and Brown Skin Beauties. 

Color, or its absence, is at the core of ComplexionJet ran black-and-white photos of models over color backgrounds until 1970. Anthony wondered whether she could find some sort of methodology in the use of background colors. She asked herself, “Were certain background colors used for certain skin tones and facial structures? Could I find some sort of hierarchy in the use of background colors?” So she removed them with the Clone Stamp tool. “I then desaturated them,” she continues, explaining that she used Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation settings to achieve a color palette of tones connecting to the natural environment, according to her own aesthetic preference.

Glitch and the vintage Jet cover that inspired it. 

By playing with the magazine’s color schemes, Anthony saw a pattern where vibrant reds and stark blacks emphasized sexuality. “Did that play a role in how that woman was perceived?” she asks. “That’s my question through this process.” She then transferred the images onto watercolor paper.

A Question of Identity

Anthony used digital tools during her years of working as a commercial photographer, but her art incorporates a variety of materials and approaches. Experimenting with different processes, by hand and by mouse, reveals what individual pieces will become. Resizing, printing, and scanning degrades the images and introduces anomalies that inspire further pixelation and blurring.

“This process also revealed a constant loss of information of the subjects,” she says. “I am interested in unpacking select, idealized, and missing information distributed to the masses in the form of beauty.”

The regimentation is soothing to an artist who started out in film photography, and it echoes the repetitive production processes of print media. Anthony even mimics photo development and offset printing by transferring her work to watercolor paper using xylene.

A hands-on approach helps Anthony connect with her work. One unexpected creative impulse led her to add tribal markings to the nearly completed pieces, a move inspired in part by her recent exploration into her own lineage.

“I would ask myself over and over again, ‘What if these models were able to represent an African-inspired identity? How would they have been received by the masses?’” she says. “The markings are a direct reflection of marks used during ritual, ceremony, and traditions of West African cultures.”

The Bigger Picture

Now based in Denver, Anthony calls Baltimore her hometown, and she grew up traveling the world in a military family. Her father was a hobbyist photographer, and she still remembers going to get film developed with him. A nomadic upbringing also influenced her perceptions and processes. “Residing in so many places over the years allowed me the opportunity to see outside of any single experience, creating a plethora of memories to draw from,” she says.

Later images in Anthony’s Complexion series incorporate facial markings that reflect marks used in West African cultures.

Commercial photography was a little different from her initial dream of documenting the world's food cultures with a medium-format camera for National Geographic, but Anthony wanted to focus on work that would allow her to raise her daughter.

To find that connection, Anthony earned a BFA at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. As a student, she further honed her photographic talent but expanded into other forms of expression in order to find her voice. By graduation, her career had changed to become centered around art.

“I photographed weddings and babies and artists and families and models and celebrities and events and, and, and…. That all became so distant to my personal narrative,” she says. “The truth is, I absolutely loved and adored every single commissioned commercial project, but I still longed for personal meaning. I wanted more connection to who I would become and the purpose of my work.”

A Means of Communication

Complexion has been exhibited several times, and reaction has been balanced. “Since the series deals with the topic of colorism, it is hard for all audiences to fully articulate their experience with the work,” she says. “Exhibiting the work has inspired me to take more time with the work and keep considering its presentation as a vehicle of communication.”

Anthony collaborated with artist Thomas Evans on a series of photographs pairing models with objects and artifacts from the Paul Hamilton Collection of African Art. The objects for each model were chosen based on DNA test results—the models took DNA tests and were photographed with artifacts specific to their lineage.

Life beyond commercial photography isn’t any less hectic. Recent projects include a found-object collage series about tarot and Foremother, “an ongoing, exploratory series of artifacts and photography gathered in a Cabinet of Curiosity addressing identity. These works reflect memory, life cycles, and recognition of the African Diaspora.”

As much as she loved her former career and continues to appreciate amazing models and design (while wishing the fashion world would welcome a wider variety of body types), she’s moved past her commercial photography.

“Commercial photography—do I miss it…ever? Not really. Actually not at all,” she says. “I’d love to photograph Jay-Z and Beyoncé one day for fun, but that’s every photographer’s dream, right?”

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