Tyler Mitchell Wants to Make You Feel Good
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It didn’t take long for the young photographer and filmmaker Tyler Mitchell to make a name for himself.
When he was a teenager growing up in Marietta, Ga., he earned a following by posting skate videos on Instagram and Tumblr. As a junior at New York University, he studied with Deborah Willis, the respected black contemporary photographer. And at 23, Mr. Mitchell became the first black photographer — and one of the youngest — to shoot the cover of Vogue magazine. His subject: Beyoncé.
Mr. Mitchell is best known for his fashion photography. He has worked with Marc Jacobs and Converse, and he has styled many of his subjects, several of whom are friends, in clothes purchased at Goodwill. But his work also deals with the more complicated reality of identity, particularly race and gender.
Mr. Mitchell’s first solo exhibition, “I Can Make You Feel Good,” on view at Foam in Amsterdam, includes images from his personal and commissioned work. The photographs tell stories of family life and togetherness, revealing an imagined utopia filled with young black figures in bright, beautiful colors.
“For me, it’s an affirmation of certain autobiographical aspects of my blackness, but if other people enjoy that, too, I think that’s great,” he said of his work. “I think, ultimately, I would simply like people to walk away understanding the power of images to rewrite history.”
Mr. Mitchell selected five pieces from the show that highlight his vision of optimism, playfulness and freedom. I talked to him about his selections below. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The colors and the timeless, regal attire in this image really stood out to me. This is something you would expect to see on a middle-aged woman, but here it’s on a young black man.
The funny, kind of huge halo-like hat and this old, almost like a grandma’s coat that he’s wearing, those symbols came to me from looking at a lot of James Van Der Zee images, and vernacular images of black families. This is about exploring ideas of how we dress up, our visual identity and our notion of what’s beautiful. I also wanted to play with gender a little bit. It was kind of bringing all those things together in one picture. I’m also interested in instant things that black people have used visually to signify what they see as beautiful, and remixing those things in new ways.
‘Untitled (Topanga, CA I)’
There’s so much power in this photo. There’s something about the men sharing the blazer and holding each other up, but also the different expressions on their faces.
I knew I wanted to make something that was about visualizing unity, but I also wanted a break in that at the same time. The two boys are both Senegalese. I was looking to create a unified image of them, styling them together with one blazer supporting each other.
The element of the jacket also ties into my fashion work. Their emotions and their expressions were also totally intentional in terms of making sure one had this look of disdain and the other had a more optimistic look of freedom. This shoot was great because it was the day after I did a very embarrassing commercial shoot, so I was like, “I need to just go make something right now that I really, really care about.”
This work is very comforting. That idea seems to be a recurring theme in your photographs.
I try and make works that could function as therapy for some people. “Safety Blanket” was commissioned as a typical portrait of a musician. The older girl is Kelsey Lu, a classically trained cellist. My friend, who runs an independent magazine in London, asked me to photograph her, and I agreed. But the shoot turned into this much more meaningful portrait for us because I made the impromptu decision to cast Bella, the little girl.
Bella and Kelsey don’t have a relationship. It’s all staged. But I was really inspired by, again, ideas of comfort, togetherness, intimacy, protection, which has to do with the safety blanket. And that idea, again, of black family in daily life, but also protection and intimacy. Those things are all important to me.
‘All American Family Portrait’
The details in this piece — from the American flag to the orange jackets — are so striking. What’s the back story?
This one is similar to “Safety Blanket” in that is has a very protective vibe to it, and also because of the orange workers’ coats. This was on a fashion shoot. The subject is actually my best friend, who had twin girls about a year ago. I had also photographed her while she was pregnant. This was our first photo shoot with her twin girls and her boyfriend.
I knew I wanted to make this specific American family portrait. It was taken in Howard Beach, which if you know anything about Howard Beach, you know about some of the race riots that were going on in that area in the 1980s. So that’s the subtext. But, again, there’s that same focus on togetherness, family, comfort, caution, safety. All those things for young black families.
‘Boys of Walthamstow’
And what was your vision for this last photo with this group of men?
My take on men can get specific. I’m usually always with groups, especially black men. I’m trying to unlock some sort of freedom with them in certain portrait sessions. In this picture, which was cast in England, the five men are gathered together and blended into the landscape and also create a landscape of their own. That speaks to freedom within the group. It was nice because they all formed a shape of unison.
There’s one boy turned toward the camera with that silver chain. The other four boys have more optimistic body language. His is more stern or repressed with the chains around him, which are, of course, such an important symbol. It causes you to think about the idea of bling, and posturing and dress and fashion with jewelry in the black community. This picture relates to “Topanga” in that way.
“I Can Make You Feel Good” by Tyler Mitchell can be seen until June 5 at Foam.