Behind the Cover: Quil Lemons on shooting Billie Eilish for Vanity Fair

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Last month, 23-year-old photographer Quil Lemons became Vanity Fair’s youngest cover photographer. Here, we take a deep dive into the process behind the shoot

What do Pamela Anderson, Spike Lee and Billie Eilish have in common? On paper, not a whole lot, aside from the fact that they have all featured on magazine covers shot by Quil Lemons. “I’m only interested in shooting people who are interesting to me,” says the 23-year-old artist, who recently became the youngest photographer to shoot a cover of Vanity Fair. “My roommate pointed out that these people would never be seen in the same room…. That is so cool to me.”

Speaking over Facetime from his apartment in New York City, Lemons expresses his ideas quickly and passionately, reeling off lists of visual references that are as diverse as his portfolio. For Lemons, an idea for a photograph can as easily emerge from memes and family archives, as it can from TV, film, and photography. Alongside shooting fashion campaigns for brands like Urban Outfitters, and editorials for publications including Vogue, Allure, and i-D, the photographer has developed personal bodies of work such as Glitterboy (2017), exploring the shifting notions of gender and masculinity in Black communities.

© Quil Lemons for Vanity Fair.

After a fairly quiet year following the outbreak of Covid-19, in mid-October 2020, Lemons was ecstatic to receive the commission from Vanity Fair. “Billie is undeniably one of the biggest stars of our generation… It’s probably one of the best shoots I’ll ever do,” he says. With just a few weeks to prepare, Lemons plunged himself into researching. “If you want something to be good, you have to prepare yourself,” he says. “I’m constantly preparing for the inevitable.”

The first thing he did was take a “deep dive” into Billie’s world. Guided by his little sister – “a big fan” – Lemons watched every YouTube video, and reviewed all of her past shoots. “It was important to make something we’ve never seen before,” he says. “I love that she plays around with this idea that she should be a good girl, but she’s not. I wanted to take that even further.”

Surrealist artists such as Dora Maar, and Helmut Newton’s 1990 photobook Private Property, which Lemons carried around in his back pocket, compelled him as points of visual-reference. “I love that [Newton’s images] have this sensualness. They look innocent, but if you look further into an image, it’s not,” he explains. “[Billie Eilish] is someone who has won five Grammys. I wanted to show that she is still looking forward to normal stuff. I wanted to bring a youthfulness and innocence into it, but also a whimsicality.”

Having a conversation with his subject prior to the shoot is also important. At 19 and 23, Eilish and Lemons are close in age, and meeting for the first time over Zoom, the connection was instant. “I remember being that age. I don’t think enough people talk about how formative those years are, between 19 and 22. That is a really interesting pocket of time, where people still think of you as a baby, but you’re not; you have a lot more agency.” Capturing her in this moment, on the cusp of adulthood, fed into the overall idea behind the shoot: playful on the surface, but with a layer of mystery beneath.

© Quil Lemons for Vanity Fair.

Once the initial ideas were in place, Lemons collated them into a web PDF, to present to the client. Vanity Fair were on board with every idea, and they proceeded to plan 10 different looks against four different sets.

Lemons collaborated closely with his set designer, Daniel Horowitz – “he makes my crazy ideas happen” – figuring out exactly what they needed, and finding a space to make it happen. “I wanted a mirror, multiple sheets of glass – one broken, one wet – orange backdrops, drapes, mirror panelled walls and floors, so many types of fabrics,” he gushes.

Collaboration, and maintaining conversations with everyone involved, are key. “Everyone on the shoot will have my cell, so they can text or call me with ideas,” says Lemons. “We pull our time together to make this moment… That’s why it means so much to everyone, and you can feel that on set.”

“Billie gets photographed so much. I wanted this experience to be therapeutic, and remind her why she steps in front of the camera.”

As a cover photographer, it is important to strike a balance between what you want to achieve, what the publication has asked for, and how your subject wishes to be depicted. On top of working with a skeleton crew due to the pandemic, turning around a result that everyone will be happy with in a day’s work can make for a high-pressure environment. But, for Lemons, “it’s all fun,” he says. “We need to have fun here. We do it because we love it, and that’s what makes it so good… Billie gets photographed so much. I wanted this experience to be therapeutic, and remind her why she steps in front of the camera.”

How has life changed since shooting Vanity Fair? It’s a question Lemons is asked a lot. “I’m still very much me,” he says. “My world hasn’t changed, but now, people know what I’m capable of.” As with many creative careers, the path to success is not always so clear-cut. “I don’t think anything about my career has been linear,” Lemons reflects. In the five years since he moved to New York, initially to study journalism at The New School, before pursuing photography professionally, Lemons’ success has fluctuated. But, “I appreciate those moments of silence,” he says, “because I feel like I get to sit and think about who I am in that moment, and what that means”.

In 2019, Lemons was included in Antwaun Sargent’s lauded publication The New Black Vanguard. “I feel that my existence as a photographer comes during this Black renaissance in photography… There are so many Black photographers, all under 30, killing it. I would say they are producing some of the most impactful shit in fashion right now.”

Lemons is grateful to have experienced success so early, but at 23-years-old, he is yet to reach the pinnacle of his career. “There is still so much I want to do. This isn’t it for me. I’m still at the tip of the iceberg!”

© Quil Lemons for Vanity Fair.
Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.