At 23, South Philly’s Quil Lemons becomes the youngest photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover
The VF image brings new sophistication to a singer who first came on the scene as a young teen. “We’ve known her since she was 13, and now she’s 19," Lemons says. "That’s a very different person.”
Quil Lemons was a South Philly kid who fiddled around with his aunt’s digital camera when she visited his house during the holidays. During his high school days at Charter High School for Architecture and Design, a friend gifted Lemons with a Canon instant film camera, and he attended concerts around Philly to photograph musicians.
He earned national acclaim at age 20 with Glitterboy, a 2017 photo series that highlighted men of color wearing shimmering makeup and challenged preconceived notions of masculinity. Since then, he’s photographed Spike Lee, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Yasiin Bey, Chloe x Halle, Pamela Anderson, and Young M.A. His work has been featured in Vogue, the New York Times, Variety, Allure, and Highsnobiety. He’s shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he’s shot for Gucci.
And now, with the March 2021 issue of Vanity Fair that hit newsstands last week, Lemons, 23, has become the youngest photographer to shoot a cover for the magazine, according to Condé Nast. His subject: pop giant Billie Eilish.
The Vanity Fair image brings a sophisticated new glamour to a singer who first came on the scene as a young teen. “I knew Billie wanted to feel more mature to really fit her age,” Lemons said. “We’ve known her since she was 13 and now she’s 19. That’s a very different person.”
His photo shoot with Eilish, in Los Angeles, had the biggest budget and the most space that Lemons has ever had access to. With the help of his set designer, “we came up with the four sets that were used. Most of the sets are white walls. and you have to go and build them. We brought in flooring, mirrors, drapes.”
Lemons shoots in film exclusively; he can’t see his images until the photographs are developed. He consciously tries to reflect the Black experience in his work, considering it a responsibility. “I’m conveying my version of Blackness and how I’ve come to understand that,” he says.
He spoke to The Inquirer from Brooklyn, where he now lives, about the significance of this Vanity Fair shoot, his experience as a Black photographer, and his meteoric career. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did the photo shoot with Billie Eilish come about?
My relationship with Vanity Fair started after Glitterboy. I met the creative director, Kira Pollack, I’m not sure if she was the creative director then, but I knew she was high up at Vanity Fair. We met [in 2019] at the International Center of Photography Infinity Awards. They sat me next to Kira, and she was like, “Well what do you do?” and I told her that I was a photographer and she was like, “I want to see some of your stuff. I’m going to check you out.” And that was one of the first times I brushed shoulders with Vanity Fair. They kind of knew who I was but not really in-depth.
For the collaboration for the cover, they liked my Chloe x Halle shoot so much and it performed so well. Then they asked me if I wanted to shoot Billie Eilish for the cover and I was like “Yes!” That was a no-brainer. I was just astounded that these people even knew who I was, but I was like, “OK, but now I need to perform and make sure they keep knowing who I am.”
Take me back to that day. What do you remember about shooting with Eilish?
OK, so I get into L.A. from New York, and we were doing hella COVID-19 testing for the shoot. We got tested five days before, three days before, and then twice the day of. So it was a lot of testing. I kept telling myself, “Yeah, this is really happening.”
I remember when [Billie and I] first met each other. I came back to Philadelphia to vote and I had a Zoom call with her the same day I was voting. Then we were shooting the day of the election results. We all were clenched and anxious and tight. The shoot was a fun distraction from seeing the results come in.
It was nice spending time with her because we ended up really connecting. I remember asking her, “Girl, how does it feel to literally have five Grammys?” and she was like, “Well, b-, how does it feel to be shooting the cover of Vanity Fair?” And so we were just going back and forth with jokes and it was a really fun shoot.
One of the milestones about this shoot is that you’re now the youngest photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover. Have you had time to process the significance of that?
I am actively processing that. It still hasn’t set in, like historically, what it means for my life. I think a lot of it has to do with me just being in the house. I go to set to shoot things and I go back to the house with my family, or my boyfriend, or my friends. It’s been the same 10 people.
Before [the pandemic], when you did something large and historic like that, there was a lot of clamor. I’m very grateful for the peace. I’m just really happy for myself, but I realize that this is becoming larger than me.
Talk about the day you purchased the issue with your photograph on the cover.
I was very mindful about where I purchased the magazines from because a lot of the local magazine stores are closing up. So I went to Casa Magazines, one of the oldest magazine stores in New York City. I heard that during the pandemic they were struggling to keep their doors open. So I went there because it’s one of the only pillars of where I can buy magazines that I like.
It was surreal. I grabbed 20 of them. I was with my photo assistants who helped me do it, and we just celebrated. When I saw the whole stack of them, I realized that this would be in every grocery store in America.
With all of your high-profile gigs lining up within the last year or so, you’re quickly ascending to prominence. Do you feel that way, too?
I don’t want this to be just a moment, so I’ve been really protective of my time, my creativity, and my space. This is my life. This is the one thing that I want to do for the rest of my life.
Even before the pandemic I feel like my career had been bubbling, and then we went into the pandemic and everything slowed down. At first, I quit. I was like, “How do we do photography when the world is literally falling apart?” And everyone says you should get your camera and document the fall of the world, but that’s never what I was trying to make. I think people are always expecting photographers and artists to be making things and to have a response, but I need to process this.
So I took three months just to be at home in Philly with my family and to really just enjoy being 22. I feel like I’ve been on a journey spiritually. It’s been an interesting year, one that’s been coupled with a lot of growth. It’s nice to see my career go off, but at the same time, I feel a little guilty. So many people have lost their lives, and I’m having a very good year.
I feel like I’m reaching a creative prime; I don’t think I’m fully in it yet, but I want to keep expanding my mind and my ideas of what it means to see a Black person. Those are things I never want to stop doing.