Tyler Mitchell broke the glass ceiling at just 23. Only a year after graduating from film school, he became the first black photographer – as well as one of the youngest – to shoot the prestigious September cover for US Vogue. With the help of Vogue’s creative team, Beyoncé picked him for the cover shoot (he was well known to her circle, having photographed her sister Solange). She was drawn to him, knowing what his hiring would mean historically – and in fact, the shoot became so famous that only a year later, one of the images was acquired by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
When Mitchell, now 25, met Beyoncé, he was surprised by her warmth. ‘When she sat down for me, there was immediately the kind of comfort level you’d have with a friend,’ he told Vogue at the time. ‘You’d imagine someone as famous as Beyoncé to be protective of her image, but she was an open book – that’s exactly what you want as a photographer.’
Mitchell’s photographs and films, an exploration of black identity and beautifully curated works of art, have what insiders call a light-hearted, exuberant style – and what he calls a ‘black visual utopia’: ‘My photographs visualise what joy could look like for black people, if we weren’t denied certain freedoms historically.’ This feeling of optimism informs his recent exhibition and book I Can Make You Feel Good, shown in Amsterdam at Foam last year and later at New York’s International Center of Photography (the name comes from a Shalamar song he overheard on his way to discuss the exhibition).
As well as Vogue, he has produced work for several other high-fashion magazines, such as i-D and Dazed & Confused, and labels including Prada, Marc Jacobs and Givenchy. He takes inspiration from his personal experiences, but also from history, although he notes that he doesn’t speak for his entire race. ‘I don’t pretend to be globally altruistic,’ he says, acknowledging his middle-class upbringing. ‘I am just coming from the vantage point of being a young, black man who grew up in the South, in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, and who moved to New York.’
Like most people his age, he grew up with social media as a huge part of his life (he has over 300,000 followers on Instagram and in the early days eschewed an agent for showcasing his work on the platform) and has translated this style into his photography. He hopes this allows his work to be seen more and talked about in a deeper, more critical way.
Most of all, he hopes that, in the age of Black Lives Matter, his pictures will challenge society to question the way black people are depicted – too often, he says, they are used in shoots because they are black, not because they are people: ‘For so long, black people have been considered things,’ he has said. ‘The current question is for folks who are white in power in all industries, systems and governments worldwide to reconsider how they operate.’
However, he doesn’t think his images have the power to give any answers. ‘It’s not like photographs talk at you, photographs don’t even necessarily have any role in anything, it’s only up to the viewer what role a photo has.’ One just has to hope that that role is outlook-changing.
All American Family Portrait, 2018
‘Tyra Mitchell is a friend of mine. She’s also a photographer and we have very similar names, which is how we came to know each other. I was inspired by her and her journey with having twin girls at such a young age. The kids [Ava and Aurora] were about six months old and the parents [Tyra and her partner Naeem] in their early 20s. For the shoot, I went out to Howard Beach, an area in Queens, where there’s a history of race riots. It was where a man named Michael Griffith was killed in the ’80s in a racially charged murder. The area had a lot of Trump signs and American flags in people’s yards. As black folks, the American flag isn’t necessarily a welcome sign or a sign of democracy or freedom. It’s a scary one. So I really felt compelled to make this image of a beautiful family unit in front of this tattered American flag.’
Still from Idyllic Space, 2019
‘I just go back to thinking about lying on my mum’s carpet in Georgia eating gummy bears when I see this image. It’s recreating and plucking out a nostalgic moment from my past… Thinking about how that was a time when there wasn’t much to worry about.’
Boys of Walthamstow, 2018
Vogue, September 2018 That historic cover
Untitled (Toni), 2019 From a shoot for i-D’s The Voice of a Generation issue, June 2019
I Can Make You Feel Good, by Tyler Mitchell (Prestel, £45), is out now