Tyler Mitchell is a 23-year-old, NY based, filmmaker and photographer. With firm roots in Atlanta. Having recently graduated from Tisch, NYU, he uses his work as a way to evoke conversations about “innocence, and truth in the lives of black people,” which earned him a spot on 2016's Dazed 100 list. Mitchell draws out the vulnerability in his subjects from Cuban skaters to Texan rapper, Kevin Abstract, and has shot campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, and Converse, to name a few. Most recently he photographed the cover of Teen Vogue featuring Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin - the new faces of gun reform.
This interview took place between Tate and Tyler at Sincerely, Tommy in Brooklyn
Editor: Becky Burgum
TVPS: So how did you get into photography?
TM: Well first I got into skateboarding because that’s what you do when you're bored and in the suburbs. I was teaching myself how to skateboard off of YouTube videos and then I met a good group of friends who I started skating with. We all got really into skate montages and skate videos - Spike Jones and things like that - and I started to realize that you could make really good skate videos for pretty cheap. So I fell into that, and then one thing led to another, and now I'm here.
What was one of your first work experiences?
I interned at Art Partner for six months back in 2016, at the exact same time that things were really taking off in my work, so I was going to school, interning, and shooting.
How did you balance that?
I think I feed off of it. I start to go into insanity mode where I don't sleep and just think about ideas all of the time. When I was going to school, working, and trying to do photography, I was maybe more successful at managing my time and being efficient because you have to constantly be in overdrive. Everything has to be so hyper-scheduled out, minute to minute, and you do get a lot more done that way. I also looked at interning at Art Partner as studying, I would go through all of the magazines, and their archives are incredible. From that experience, I started to look at my own photos as an actual body of work, and what fit and what didn’t. You have to take every opportunity very seriously. For me nothing comes lighthearted, nothing comes easy. If you treat things a certain way, you'll get that input.
Now that you’re doing photography full-time, how do you stay focused?
Photography being a full-time job is a hard thing to wrap your head around; there are so many aspects to it. There's the researching that goes on before, but then a shoot could just fall out of the sky right now. Ideas come and go, so you just have to be ready for when that comes and you have to be diligent, focused and work maybe even harder when you have all of this free time. Now that I live by myself in my own studio, I treat that as an important place for my work. Honestly, I haven't had much time to think, because straight out of school I was working. The whole summer after graduation I was waiting for August to come around so I could finally take a vacation, but that never came, I just kept working.
From looking at your Instagram, it feels as if you’ve suddenly popped up and started working with the biggest people, was it truly an overnight success?
It may seem that way, but I've been working on it for years, well, that’s at least how it feels from inside the of the belly of the whale. But the way you find out about people, the way information is passed along and perceived these days is the whole trickery of social media. You think that people have done this overnight, but they haven't. Nobody has done that. That's not real. I think what's got kids really twisted these days is that they think they need this overnight success. Yes, things did turn around pretty quickly for me and I'm really lucky, but at the same time, there were so many times where I was hanging around at shows and doing anything and everything that I could. I would be lying if I said everything just kind of fell into my lap.
How was shooting the cover of Teen Vogue, featuring Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin? What did that mean to you?
It was a very grave and important shoot to do. I had to do it and put all my heart and soul into it. There were times where I felt like crying on set but you just have to keep pushing forward.
Photographed by Tyler Mitchell
Stylist Coquito Cassibba, Makeup Grace Ahn, Hair Rubi Jones
What’s been the biggest aid to your success?
I was an early adopter of Instagram; I always knew that it was going to be ubiquitous. Three years ago we weren't all on Instagram using it the way that we're using it now, and about four years ago I knew that it was going to be the way everyone would communicate. I still love it, even though it's become more sickening at the same time. It's more polluted and clouded, but I find the good stuff always rises to the top.
The internet also taught me a lot about how I wanted to position myself online, which changed my career in a lot of ways, because then the internet became the main avenue for how someone’s photography gets noticed and propelled to success. It also taught me portrait tricks for sure.
In your opinion, what are the elements of good fashion photography?
When I think about my experience at Art Partner, specifically learning what I liked about fashion, I understood that it was very instinctive, almost a primal understanding of what I liked and didn't like about a magazine. It's about taste. It's about preference. There's this shift going on in the kind of imagery that’s being made now and Art Partner was the one to teach me that.
Do you have a go-to sentence to define your work?
I don't have an elevator pitch when it comes to my work because it's always evolving. It's looking at people of color, black people, and black lives, and it has to do with portraying honesty and truth in that. I always wanted to see people for who they are with sensitivity and optimism. My only description would be that it is about the black experience and humanizing black people. For me, it’s all about people, which is why I always wonder how I fell into the fashion space. My favorite photographers are more documentary, like Clayton Patterson or William Eggleston, pictures that just make you smile.
How do you protect your work? When did you first learn about licensing for photography?
Everything I learned about that side of it came just by doing, by asking and being curious, figuring it out. Nothing about NYU itself was fun, but being in New York City was the biggest learning experience in the world. I very quickly whipped into shape and had to adapt and understand things on a much sharper and quicker level. As soon as I learned what licensing was, I taught myself how to write contracts, as I wanted my images to be treated with the same respect as the photographers that I admired. From there, the way I started looking at photography changed significantly.
Photography because a seriously viable career path.
Did you have any other work experiences or how did you first start to meet the people that supported your work?
I interned at this very small, no longer existent film production company, and maybe one other, but my main job was putting my work out there. I was directing a lot of music videos, making any kind of visuals that I could with people that I was meeting on the internet. I was just reaching out to people, and that's how I met Abra, Kevin Abstract, and so many of the people that I work with today.
You mainly work with film, what do you think about the anti-digital movement that’s coming from our generation?
I think we shouldn't shame digital cameras as much as we do. I love digital cameras, some of the first videos that really mattered to me were made digitally, or on tape. I think using film was almost like me maturing my taste palate, I started to understand what texture was, and what a real photographic process gave you, but I think at the end of the day, it's about choices. It's not about A or B, film or digital, what's better, and I hate, “You're not a real photographer unless you shoot film.” I think that as a generation, because we grew up with so many tools, it's like swimming in just too big of an ocean. So, maybe that's why people are going back towards film. When you have too many options, when everything can be manipulated and lied about, in a way you just want to get back to some truth.
I think if I were mentoring someone or somebody wanted to learn photography and they said, "Which one should I take?" I'd probably give them a film camera first, sure. But I just think we're seeing this generational hate on digital cameras right now, and I don't necessarily want that to happen. I love film cameras. I shoot on film cameras, because they work for what I do, but digital cameras work for some things other people do. Not to be corny, but these are paint brushes, so just pick one. They work for different things.
How has the influx of digital media influenced your work? I know you spent time in Havana, Cuba, where you were completely removed from technology.
Havana was exactly what I needed at that moment, it was a saving grace. It was time spent away from the craziness, but at the same time, there was a lot of chaos going on in my mind about what I was going to be doing when I came back. It was 2015, right in the middle of college, the summer between my sophomore and junior year. So going there, I had the opportunity to have some space and time and think in a less scene-related way, in a less industry-related way. It was the first time I was forced to be introspective, I was asking, “What do I think is cool?”, “Who am I really?”, “And what about Havana do I really like?” The colors and the whole palette was the language that I wanted to be speaking. I started to realize, black people, are the same worldwide. We love being outdoors, we're vibrant, and those are the things that I started to understand and build into my language. You go out in Cuba; everybody's in the street, everything is both really beautiful and crumbling. The way things are expressed there, naturally, just started to work for me.
And you were also there during a really interesting political time as well.
Yes, I went when the travel ban was on. I had to get an artist visa, and there weren't really any Americans there. It was a really special time. In the last week we were there, Obama announced that there was going to be a US embassy in Cuba. That might've been the first time I went somewhere where I thought, I'm never going to see this place like this again. It made me realize that the work I wanted to make needed to be a bit slower, a bit more humble, and less machine like.
The moment I got back from Cuba, my best friend, Santangelo, transferred to Parsons and we started hanging out a lot. Then because he had to start over at Parsons, I started exposing myself to younger people as all of his classmates were two years younger than me. In this pretext, it sounds like we're two years apart, but I started to notice that these people interact so differently, every two-year gap is like a whole new generation. These 18-year-old Parsons kids have such an encyclopedic knowledge of anything, from memes to a whole different language. Even the way that they interact, I didn't actually think people talked like this, I'm was like, “What is going on? Help me adopt a bit of a younger spirit!” Now I understand how things are changing at a very rapid rate. That was when I started to pick that up and at the same time that’s when I was designing and putting together the book.
Who are your favorite photographers?
My all-time favorites are William Eggleston, and Viviane Sassen, who's like the godmother of all the shit that’s going on right now, and Clayton Patterson, whose documentary stuff is insane. Jamel Shabazz, Carrie Mae Weems, LaToya Ruby Frazier, James Van Der Zee, you put those all together and you have seven very different photographers, but you'll see that thread in what I'm doing. Right now, you can see people picking up phone cameras, you see fashion images looking more documentary, less slicked-up, greasy, sexy imagery, and you're seeing more female photographers, you're seeing more people of color photographers, and it's beautiful.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
I met Venetia Scott. I ran into her at some crazy place like Dover Street Market in London and said, "Are you, Venetia Scott?" She replied, “Yes.” Then I was like, "I just have to say, those photographs you did of this woman, they were incredible." She did these photographs in Document Journal, she shot it, styled it, did the set design. It was a plus sized model, and she was basically naked, wearing one piece of clothing and there was this amazing purple and turquoise rug. She replied, "Oh yeah. I did those all by myself in my small, small studio," and I think that just woke me up. Even at the highest level, my favorite things come out of just you being by yourself in a room - you can just make it happen.
Now, what's always on my mind are ways that the industry can do a better job of representing diversity and having more diverse castings. We are getting better, but I want more of it, as I'm sure a lot of other people do as well. For the industry, why do you think that this is such a slow process?
What we’re seeing now is a divide between a lot of the older folks, who are trying to hold on to how this industry used to be, and the new, younger people who are coming in and changing it. I think if you worked in this industry years ago, it was easy to form a habit of viewing women and people in a certain way, it became ingrained in your brain that this is what a fashion picture should be. Our generation in challenging that.
On paper, we are seeing things get better; we're seeing companies like Marc Jacobs giving people like me opportunities, we're seeing Burberry give Ibrahim Kamara opportunities, Kerry James Marshall got a solo exhibition at The Met, and Campbell Addy collaborating with Getty. I’ve only just named black artists there too; I haven't even talked about all the beautiful Indian artists, Asian artists, female artists, etc. On a literal ‘what's happening’ level, things are getting worse, but they're getting better too. I'm an optimist.
Also, with the influx of digital media, we now get to see the art that’s not from Europe or America; we can see someone's work from halfway around the world, in a small remote town. I think that can also help with diversity.
Yes, I love these little things that go viral now, like a Japanese artist who is just making sculptures in his room but it means the world to everybody. People need to be seeing that.
What does the future hold for you?
I don't have an, "in five years I'm going to be doing this," as I don't really like to look ahead like that, but I've been writing down things that I want for next year. I want to definitely expand more into film, it's where I started and I want to go back. I think 2018 will be a lot of film projects for me, hopefully in collaboration with musicians and other influential artists. I want to keep utilizing the fashion commission as a way to do what I do, and wherever that fits in is where I'll be working. I want to keep things growing and getting better in incremental ways, the work and the ideas are there, and I just want to find new ways to express it. That's all art is, right? I've figured out what I want to talk about, which is innocence, and truth in the lives of black people, and now it’s just finding different ways that that gets out.
What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer and fan?
Well it’s funny you say this, I was sitting in LaGuardia airport, going to Atlanta for the holidays a year ago, and two kids came up to me and said, "Tyler, we're big fans of yours, we're from Atlanta, we live between there and New York and anytime that we're in the same place, we'd love to assist you.” They had really good timing, because I was doing this thing with American Eagle in Atlanta, so I asked them if they wanted to assist and they were freaking out. They're were like kids in a candy store - and since they've been my assistants, casting directors, etc, we are true collaborators and friends in that sense. But back then I was doing this hilariously beautiful film for American Eagle - I love American Eagle, it's so bad - so I thought that it was such a good opportunity. I was directing the film by myself in Atlanta, in my old high school pool, using the metaphor of black people swimming to speak about a lot of things, and I texted them saying, "I need about 20 of our friends in Atlanta, all black men, tomorrow, at a pool. Do you have people you can send me?" And he basically cast the whole thing for me in three hours. It’s so good that they came into my life, because now we’re learning a lot from each other.
But anyways, when they came up to me they were wanting advice, and I help where I can, because I think it's really cool that I'm only 22, and can really resonate with these kids, and they feel like they have a place now. The imagery I make, it's not elitist. It's not about feeling elitist, and it's not even about glamour. I've been reading about glamour, and it's such a fucked up thing. It's supposed to make you want to buy more. But I think what my pictures are doing are not necessarily making you want to buy more through exclusivity or selling this high lifestyle, but somehow resonating with those kids who are like, "We didn't see ourselves here before." And those two kids who came into my life, it's been really fortunate, I tell them all the time, keep at it, and one of them actually moved to New York and now is my assistant.