The chromatic, crystalline elements in Tyler Mitchell’s new photographs — a tire swing, a white-picket fence, a bouquet of balloons — conjure images of innocence, safety and repose.
Look again. On a recent day at his studio in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, where he makes the work that now graces museum walls as well as the pages of glossy magazines, Mitchell talked about the complexity of his recent compositions, and how in them he aims to explore the history of Black Americans, their relationship to landscape and his own identity as someone from the Deep South.
“Coming off making a lot of my fashion work, which had this signature of optimism — I can make you feel good — I want to continue that, but also think through ways the land hasn’t held up its promise,” said Mitchell. “I’m thinking about 40 acres and a mule. I’m thinking about even the past two years, in which systems have not worked out for Black folks.”
On Oct. 6, at a relatively young 27 years old, Mitchell will bring a vibrant new body of work to Gagosian in London, his first solo exhibition for the gallery, even as he prepares a new commission for the Frieze Masters art fair, which opens in London on Oct. 12 with works that continue to explore relationships between young Black men and landscapes.
On Oct. 28, he is organizing a night of art and film at the Victoria & Albert Museum. And that same day, a traveling exhibition featuring Mitchell’s work, “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion,” opens at the Saatchi Gallery in London.
“Tyler has, in short order, established himself as one of the defining photographers of his generation,” said the curator, Antwaun Sargent, a director at Gagosian, who organized the Gagosian and Saatchi shows. “He’s exploring the ways in which reality shapes moments of deep pleasure and moments of deep devastation because it’s always there — what it means to be a Black person navigating this contemporary moment.”
Dressed in a white T-shirt, black shorts and dress shoes with green socks, Mitchell exudes the sunny youthfulness seen in his sleek photographs. But while he speaks with unjaded enthusiasm about the experiences that have fast-tracked him to this moment — most famously being the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue in 2018 (Beyoncé in a towering floral headdress) — he also conveys a clear sense of what he wants to say.
“For the last six years, I’ve been fixated on Black folks’ relationship to the outdoors through reclaiming space, rethinking history, or the ways we have been denied,” he said. “The images call forth those histories but also propose new futures.”
His Gagosian exhibition, “Chrysalis,” comprises 13 photographs shot in upstate New York and in studios in New York and London in 2022. The title references “the state between being a caterpillar and a butterfly,” he said, “a transitional state of meditation where one is in a cocoon.”
Along with utopian images of subjects communing with nature in green fields under blue skies are photographs of young men immersed in muddy water and of a woman fenced in (titled “Cage”). Even Mitchell’s seemingly idyllic images of youth have an undercurrent of disquiet.
“There is something wistful in those images of childhood,” said the curator Helen Molesworth, who featured Mitchell in the “Feedback” show she organized last year at Jack Shainman’s gallery in Kinderhook, N.Y. . “He’s showing us a dream space for young Black and brown bodies and images of childhood filled with daydreaming and wonder and a lot of tactility, like the surface of grass, the warm air on your skin, what it’s like to blow a bubble of bubble gum.”
Mitchell describes his photographs as “lightly staged.” He has a vision for an image, with several specific ingredients, and then goes about realizing it: the tire swing that is a memory from childhood, water pouring from a pail over a boy’s head. “I’m collaborating with these people that I’m photographing,” he said. “Sometimes the final resulting moment turns out to be even more intimate than I imagined.”
What Mitchell looks for in the people he photographs is “a charisma,” he said, “a certain gaze, a confidence but also a tenderness, an openness.
“Something in them that reflects myself,” he continued, “but also something that reflects the proposition of a new potential masculinity or a new way to be, a new Black existence.”
Born in 1995 in Atlanta, an only child of a mother who was a conference planner and a father who was a financial consultant, Mitchell described himself as a “reflective, thoughtful” child.
“I was always friends with the kid who didn’t have friends,” he said.
Borrowing the cameras of friends, Mitchell said he was particularly inspired by the work of Gordon Parks and influenced by the vernacular imagery of the South, such as “photo albums of families in their yards.”
Mitchell applied to New York University’s film and television program, where the professor Deborah Willis, the author of the groundbreaking photography book, “Reflections in Black,” became his mentor.
“She exposed me to so many Black images,” he said. “I didn’t know we could look like this, and I was interested in contributing to this canon.”
When Mitchell found himself wrestling with whether he could be both a filmmaker and a photographer, he said Willis told him, “‘Think of Gordon Parks — he told many stories, sometimes all at the same time. You’re doing the same thing, carry on.’”
While at N.Y.U., Mitchell did an exchange program in Cuba, where he fell in love with the country’s pastel colors, ultimately self-publishing a book of his Havana photographs, “El Paquete” (‘‘The Package’’) in 2015.
He also started connecting with musicians through his popular Instagram account (he currently has 485,000 followers) and in 2016, the hip-hop artist Kevin Abstract asked Mitchell to photograph him for Fader magazine.
This led to additional commissions, and in 2018, at the Aperture Foundation gallery’s annual open-submission exhibition, he met Sargent, who served on the jury. “I said immediately to him, ‘I think I’m interested in this art thing,’” Mitchell recalled. “He said, ‘It’s going to be a long ride.’”
At I.C.P., Shainman, the gallerist, was struck by how Mitchell’s images were, at the same time, pastoral and provocative. “They’re so layered and so beautiful to look at — he takes photography and makes it more sculptural,” Shainman said. “There’s no angst. They’re images we’re not used to seeing — they’re cerebral, they’re calm. It’s a picnic, it’s at the beach, it’s play.”
In 2020, Shainman took on Mitchell, which put the young photographer among some of his heroes on the dealer’s roster, namely Parks, Hank Willis Thomas (Deborah Willis’s son), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kerry James Marshall and Carrie Mae Weems.
“I think they knew me as the kid who showed up at the openings,” Mitchell said.
At a time when photography has solidified its status as a fine art form and become more widely accessible through Instagram, when the boundaries between commercial and art photography continue to collapse, Mitchell represents a new model.
“Tyler is of a generation when photographers like himself are having it both ways,” said Brendan Embser, the senior managing editor of Aperture magazine. “They’re blending fashion into art and art into fashion. He is setting a tone for young artists and showing they can have both at the same time if they have integrity and work as hard as he does.”
“I look to him and a few other people as North Stars for striking this balance,” Mitchell said. “For him there is no hierarchy of an image published on a page or exhibited in a gallery space.”
“I enjoy both,” he added. “I think each plays its role.”
Oct. 6-Nov. 12 at Gagosian, London, 17-19 Davies Street, London; +44-20-7493-3020; gagosian.com.