Tyler Mitchell’s Redefining Portraits

Two young people on swings.
Photographs by Tyler Mitchell

In 2018, Tyler Mitchell photographed Beyoncé for Vogue’s September issue, and the art and fashion worlds took notice. Mitchell was the first Black photographer hired to shoot a cover for the magazine—a hundred and twenty-six years after Vogue’s début. Currently based in Brooklyn, Mitchell is a skateboarder, filmmaker, video artist, and photographer. I first noticed his critical eye when he was an undergraduate student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I was fascinated with his work because I saw how deeply committed he was to changing existing visual narratives about being Black, male, creative, and young.

Absence was a key motivator for Mitchell in becoming a photographer and filmmaker. “I felt there was actually a lack of imagery that reflected myself, and that I could see myself in,” he has said. Social media played a critical role in Mitchell’s image-making. Born in 1995, he grew up in Atlanta, where Tumblr was an outlet to youth culture and creative expression. As a teen-ager, he purchased his first camera, a Canon digital S.L.R. Inspired by Spike Jonze’s early skate videos, he also learned how to make videos. Mitchell’s Beyoncé cover-shoot video focussed on the performer wearing designer gowns in a contemporary imagined home environment (actually a dilapidated English country house), with children playing, a lush green garden with trees, and the music of Curtis Mayfield, harkening back to the home-movie aesthetics of the nineteen-fifties. I consider Mitchell’s photographic style to be revolutionary because of his commitment to collaboration, which he ties to the tight-knit skateboarding world. (“The thing that makes skaters like artists,” he said, is that each discipline “thrives on community.”) Mitchell’s posing of Beyoncé draws on art-historical references: models in Paris salons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the stylized studio portraits of the twentieth century in Paris and New York. He introduces a dazzling new narrative about Black beauty and desire, embracing themes of the past and creating fictionalized moments of the imagined future.

How the Black body has been imagined in the past has been important to Mitchell. By making photographs of his artist friends and designers, musicians and filmmakers, models and others who are self-fashioning through the lens of history, he redefines and transforms the reception of such imagery. What emerges is a revised visual representation of the Black subject, one that emphasizes empowerment and play. One model with blond curly hair sits in the middle of a road with her lace blouse hanging partly off her shoulder. Another wears a pink dress that appears torn, exposing her thigh as she rests her hands on top of her head. Another leans against a pastel-colored stucco wall wearing a prize ribbon across her yellow pleated dress, with full sleeves and Nike tube socks, looking away from the camera. The composition of the image is overshadowed by the imagined narratives that Mitchell and his subjects create. His images of a picnic, where young men and women run, play, sit on swings and blankets looking freely at a blue sky, reflect a sense of belonging.

Mitchell challenges conventional perspectives on beauty, telegraphing an affirmed confidence through bold colors, styled shirts and dresses. Mitchell’s brown-skinned models are wearing colorful ribbons, white lace, pink mesh and bows, flowy gowns made with taffeta and cotton. He combines stripes and plaids with solid colors; hand-painted dresses with capes and floral wallpaper; ruffles and polka dots. His images call to mind those of the twentieth-century Malian photographer Seydou Keïta; to sit for Keïta, as the scholar Manthia Diawara has written, was “to be transformed as an urbane subject even if one has no power in the market or at the train station.”

The writer and curator Antwaun Sargent has identified a New Black Vanguard in fashion photography, one that is “rethinking how the fashion image can be less censorious and more reflective of real life.” Mitchell’s images are encoded with this new language of representation, which broadens our understanding of desire for the consumer, the viewer, and the model alike. As a fashion photographer, he says, “I’m thinking of conveying black beauty as an act of justice.”

The camera, for Mitchell, enables the projected dreams of his sitters. An image of three figures seated in front of a painted, tree-lined wall implies land and ownership, the models carefree in pastel pin-stripes, white shoes, and wrapped sandals. Luxury is implied in images of two men, possibly twins, with beads lining their sculpted hairlines, or of two men wearing fur jackets, shorts, and designer sneakers, holding a basketball and sitting on the hood of a white Mercedes-Benz, or of young women in trendy sweaters and large gold hoop earrings. All inform the notion, in Mitchell’s work, of a self-conscious consumer.

This piece was drawn from an essay in “I Can Make You Feel Good,” by Tyler Mitchell, which is out in August, from Prestel.

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