Last month we shared a photograph on Twitter and Facebook that quickly became our most popular image ever posted on social media. It wasn’t a vintage shot of some glamorous fashion model. It wasn’t a Monet landscape or even a glittering piece of ancient Egyptian jewellery. It was a black-and-white photograph of a penguin.
The photograph was used as a link to a selection of images we had chosen to illustrate World Penguin Day and it and the selection of images it linked to was viewed hundreds of times that day. It seems that everyone likes a penguin. I think one of the reasons penguins are popular is because they are so easily identifiable. A penguin’s black and white plumage acts as camouflage against predators but also makes it immediately distinguishable to its many fans in the human world.
Last Friday evening I thought about the popularity of the monochrome penguin as I watched the incredible Janelle Monáe perform on stage at the O2 Academy in Brixton. Monáe is possibly best known as the guest vocalist on the band fun’s single “We Are Young” which reached the top of the charts and dominated pop radio stations back in 2012, but Monáe is an accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right and the gig in Brixton was part of her tour to promote her latest album “The Electric Lady“. Monáe is an astonishingly talented performer, a combination of Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Grace Jones with Elvis Presley’s stage presence thrown in for good measure.
When out performing and promoting her music, Monáe cleverly keeps to a strict uniform, only ever wearing black and white, with an occasional slash of red. When she accepted her “Young Gifted and Black” award at the 2012 “BET Black Girls Rock!” show, Monáe explained that she cleaned houses as a maid to support herself when she first started her music career and that her mother was a janitor, her father a trashman, her stepfather worked at the post office. Monáe continued: “They all wore uniforms and that’s why I stand here today, in my black and white, and I wear my uniform to honor them.”
When promoting her previous album, she spent a lot of time dressed in a tuxedo but in the stunning video for her single “Q.U.E.E.N.” that monochrome style had evolved into a strong 1960s look, complete with backing dancers in striped mini dresses channelling “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?“.
True to form, Monáe appeared on stage in Brixton in a succession of black-and-white outfits, but the monochrome look didn’t stop there: the stage was entirely white, with a black-and-white striped microphone stand for Monáe. The backing singers appeared in the striped dresses from the “Q.U.E.E.N.” video, whilst her band dressed in variations on the black-and-white theme with white lab coats and bow ties. This attention to detail and devotion to black and white is an incredibly clever idea: it gives Monáe a look that is memorable and recognisable without seeming too much like a costume, and by ensuring that the whole stage, from band members to instruments, tied in with the monochromatic theme, it made the stage look like a theatrical set without detracting from the fact that it was a concert, first and foremost. It’s a neat gimmick that manages not to be gimmicky or distracting.
I decided to look through the archive and put together a selection of images inspired by Janelle Monáe’s monochrome style. Some of these images directly reminded me of Monáe’s style, others I chose because of how strong the image looked, thanks to the stark contrast between black and white. I’ve avoided any penguins though!