Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Unfiltered Charm of Jet’s Beauties of the Week

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A new book, “Black Is Beautiful: JET Beauties of the Week” (powerHouse Books), collects some of the pictures that LaMonte McLemore, a vocalist and a founding member for the psychedelic soul band the 5th Dimension, took for Jet in the forty-plus years he worked for the magazine as a freelance photographer. Jet, which had more than a million subscribers, was the saucy little sister of Ebony. Both magazines were part of the publishing tycoon (and fashion mogul) John H. Johnson’s Chicago-based Black media empire. Ebony launched, in 1945, as an African American answer to Life magazine, catering to the tastes of upwardly mobile Black readers. Jet was less buttoned up. In 1975, the magazine published an interview with Pam Grier on the subject of how “it takes more than one man to satisfy [her],” plus an update on her rumored romance with Freddie Prinze. Jet did not feel the need to present a prudish image of Black people to counteract white stereotypes about their hypersexuality. Jet was for Black people who wanted to look at other Black people. In fact, one of its best-known rubrics was a listing of every time a Black character was going to appear on television week by week. Jet was also not like the respectable Ebony, but it was still respected, especially when, in 1955, it became the first outlet to publish the open-casket photographs of Emmett Till. McLemore, the first African American photographer hired by Harper’s Bazaar, was so proud to have his name associated with Jet that he squeezed in “Beauty of the Week” shoots between 5th Dimension tour stops.

There was an amateurish chaos to the “Beauty of the Week” photos that made them feel charged with erotic possibility. These were “around the way” girls, as the LL Cool J song goes. (The rapper wrote in his 1997 memoir, “I Make My Own Rules,” that he decorated his childhood bedroom with “posters of Bruce Lee and, later, Run-D.M.C. and Jet magazine’s Beauty of the Week.”) They looked like someone whom you might catch a glimpse of at the Jersey Shore one day. “Hey, did I see you in Jet?” was a pickup line someone once tried on my aunt.

Though a professional photographer, McLemore knew to make the images look as natural as the beauties he was tasked with shooting. In one of his photos, a woman named Darolyn, clad in a red bikini and matching leg warmers, opts for an asymmetrical pose that makes her chest look lopsided. Another woman named Karen, wearing a gold necklace spelling out her name and a peach crochet bikini, blows soap bubbles from a plastic bottle of the kind I remember buying at the local dollar store in the summer months.

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