When you walk into Tyler Mitchell’s new exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York, the first thing you feel is its softness. Rather than experiencing his photos behind glass in picture frames, these are hung on pastel-hued fabrics, dangling from the walls and ceiling like a laundry line, moving freely in the wind.
I Can Make You Feel Good, which opened this weekend, really does make you feel good (or at least better). There is a lounge room with soothing music, shots from his famed fashion shoots, video works, and more. The exhibition, which runs until May 18, imagines a black utopia, focusing on black leisure, like a younger, cooler version of Kerry James Marshall paintings.
Take his video “Idyllic Space,” where black youth enjoy simple pleasures — a picnic, ice cream or playing tag. Showing black people in chill mode is very much what Mitchell calls “an urgency to visualize black people as free, expressive, effortless, and sensitive.” It’s a call to action in response to the 2014 shooting of Tamir Rice, who was killed by police for playing with a pellet gun.
Mitchell propelled further into the spotlight last year after he photographed Beyoncé for Vogue, making him the first African-American photographer to ever shoot a cover for the magazine. One of the photos was even purchased by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The Brooklyn-based photographer has been shooting since he was a teenager in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. He moved to New York to study film at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, graduated in 2017, and has put his lens on youth culture, be it skateboarding youth in Havana or the Parkland shooting survivors in Florida. More recently, he has become a rising star in fashion, having shot campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, and Prada. Still only 23 years old, this U.S. solo debut is a moment in art history. Here, Mitchell talks about black utopia, the American flag, and meeting Beyoncé in a past life.
How have the past few years been? Your work has exploded.
It’s hard to reflect because I’m a very “in the moment” person. I keep going. I look forward, rather than backwards. But I should journal or something.
Any works here that haven’t been shown before?
A lot of the laundry works haven’t been shown before, the banner image of the show is new, and the video pieces have never been shown in the U.S.
The dialogue is intriguing for the video, what’s the story behind that?
I asked my community of followers online, my friends and family, to submit stories through voice memos or on their iPhone of when they’ve felt stifled in their lives. Either racially or related to their identity. A lot were different, but a lot were kind of the same; childhood stories where a friend or a teacher reminded them of what they feel insecure about themselves. A lot of times it was tied to race and to blackness. I contrasted the audio with this video of my friends enjoying this lush picnic. It makes me think about Karry James Marshall’s vignette paintings of black folks enjoying leisure time and what that means. I’m contrasting futurity and fantasy with our real-life interior.
You’ve used the phrase “self-contained black utopia” to describe your work. Does that bleed into the whole show?
Absolutely. In one way or another, all these images, the laundry line, or through idyllic space, absolutely. I think now is the time to imbue emotional or personal narratives into personal work. So, I try and do that. A lot of these are personal images, but some are commercial work. This one with the American flag in the background was a magazine shoot featuring clothing from Calvin Klein, which was shot for Document Journal.
Your work obviously has commercial success, but are you hoping people will look for the deeper layer?
A lot of my work is fashion editorial, but I’ll often use fashion to speak about identity. For example, this one photo has protective orange vests and a sense of danger but also protection and family. I’m always mixing a possibility to both project fantasy for black folks and project what I would like — a freedom in images, a sense of protection, but also a sense of danger in this. There’s that idea in playing with the idea of what an all-American family is. The danger being, what these two young girls’ future is going to be like in this picture with the harrowing American flag in the back.
What are your thoughts around the future of America?
I’m optimistic about it, I’m making a show about optimism. But I think I like to use a quote which Arthur Jafa used, which is “These aren’t the best times we’ve seen but they’re certainly not the worst.” And when I think about myself and blackness in general, there’s a lot that’s happening right now. I would boil it down to being not the best but not the worst. I’m hoping with my work to project a futurity within that. Or, a world where black people can just exist in captivatingly poetic ways.
How much does it exist for you?
I think to me it exists because I live that out. But to me, I’d like to allow or empower or remind other people that it exists as well. When I think of my mother, who is so concerned about what I wear outside of the house, that’s a typical thing. I was visiting Hampton University, a historically black college, and to me, the dress code felt safe. It was a black college, but the rules were kind of self-policing: no sagging pants, you must wear a belt, don’t wear a hat indoors. These things are ingrained in our community’s psyche. So, for me, these images allow a place to be free of those rules or regimes that control the way we present ourselves in day to day life.
Is it true that you felt like you met Beyoncé in a past life?
Yeah, in a way. Just in the way we connected. It’s just, when I photograph people, and with her, there’s always a collaboration. There’s always me sitting and allowing that person in front of the camera to expand on my ideas of what a good portrait is. Beyoncé did that. We connected.
What makes a good portrait to you?
For me, there are certain characteristics. For other people, there are other characteristics. I appreciate a certain ease to images, a certain kind of language, a poetic gaze to the camera. Something that feels timeless and young at the same time. How can a person be all of those things at once? That’s what I’m looking for.
Why did you want to put some of the photos on fabric?
Fabrics are throughout my work, and laundry lines are also practical and poetic. Practically, when I work out of my apartment, fabrics make for seamless backdrops for photo shoots; it allows for a wider range of color to explore how I’d like skin to look. Poetically, I’m looking at the pictures of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, historical photos of families in Harlem, James Van Der Zee, I include fabric backdrops or laundry lines, whether its accidental or on purpose, as an illusion to the domestic work and black body. I wanted to put the work back onto laundry lines to draw you to that literally and metaphorically.
How do you deconstruct black masculinity?
I don’t know about deconstruct, but maybe presenting a self-contained or alternative point of view of what masculinity can be. If we don’t preset present these images or allow them to proliferate through pop culture, men won’t feel like they can be however they want to be. You know what I mean? For me, it’s about presenting those options for people and letting them meet the picture halfway. “Oh, that is really cool.” I don’t feel like I need to be in a straight line in my masculinity.
What’s the story behind the hula hoop photo?
I find myself going back to images that bring out a certain youthful sensibility with black folks. That leisure time, sense of play often feels radical to me. In a way, that leisure time in America is a very rare thing for black folks. When I think about people like Tamir Rice, who was killed for playing with a toy gun in a park, that image has power to it. Groups of black people gathering and playing with hula hoops, to some people, could be viewed as a threat. While I see it as a soft, sensuous thing. I had the idea in my head, drafted it up and went out and took it in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with some friends. I think a lot of times, there’s an exchange with the models and my friends asking, "What are we doing? Why are we hula hooping?" and I’ll say, "You’ll see."