Tyler Mitchell is 25 years old and the first black man to shoot a cover of Vogue in 2018 – he had immortalized Beyoncé, crowned with flowers. “It is a very delicate maneuver to honor the order of a fashion magazine”, explains the young prodigy. The principle of these editorial images is above all to give satisfaction to advertisers: that’s why they exist and that’s why they were invented. And that gives rise to strategic games: you have to know how to play it fine in negotiations with sponsors. ”
Beyond these commercial issues, the success of a good fashion image raises more existential questions. The advent of Instagram and the digital image for ten years has tense the world of the paperweight: the mainstream fashion photo that we now find on glossy paper no longer shines as before: the models are static there, often in total look and in a neutral decor. But Tyler Mitchell, and with him a few other young African-American photographers, like Dana Scruggs, Micaiah Carter or Nadine Ijewere, have come to breathe new life into these photos.
Mitchell just posted I Can Make You Feel Good, a book of photos initially revealed in 2019 as part of an exhibition of the same name. Photos showing black people relaxing. “The idea is to suggest a certain vision of the future,” comments Tyler Mitchell. To propose to see black bodies who have a pleasant and relaxed time, who exist as they wish to exist, who are as they are. It’s something special to show them like that when you think about the denial of history imposed on blacks. ”
Mitchell, who also shot Kanye West for the cover of GQ American last May, discovered the photo through Tumblr. The platform’s own mixed aesthetic – a visual torrent mixing high art and minor imagery and ignoring almost any timeline – is evident in his work. His creations summon both the Harlem interiors of the 1950s and the momentum of a skateboard stroll. “These are things that were already palpable on Tumblr and that aim to showcase the breath of the black experience, its dignity, its beauty.”
Mitchell studied film at New York University. He soon admired photographers like Ryan McGinley and Larry Clark, whose often transgressive work, located on the borders of art and fashion, took over from that of their predecessors such as Helmut Newton, Deborah Turbeville, Richard Avedon. or Guy Bourdin. He remembers being amazed by a book Clark did for the Jonathan Anderson brand in 2015, which turned its back on everything typical of fashion photography. “He had just documented a whole day spent in Paris with Anderson: it was fashion, but it was not explicitly fashion, at least to me as a novice.”
If Mitchell and this new generation of African-American photographers are making such powerful images, it’s because they represent black people in a way that is both majestic and intimate. A look so far rare or even nonexistent, including on Tumblr, in a fashion universe despite everything still attached to a kind of Eurocentric white fantasy. For Tyler to be able to show black bodies having a good time, playing and having fun in this way is ultimately a form of luxury. He also sees clothing, high-end or not, as something that normal people can wear, and never sees his models as simple coat racks: we can guess or imagine the lives of the people inside, and at his place. the style is clearly the meeting of a body and a fabric.
Take this shirtless young man, or rather bare back, taken from a low angle, his jeans falling to his hips. “You can tell he’s breaking free from who knows what psychic chains,” he says, also quoting McGinley, known for his images of shirtless teens. Fashion and clothes play an important role, for sure, but sometimes it’s even more important to break with them and take them off, concretely or symbolically. ”
There’s also the polo shirt the boy is wearing below, eating a cone of ice cream, and which looks like it’s really his: you can almost feel the feel, the thickness – you can almost feel that the teenager has sweated in it.
Black men have long been a part of the fashion world but have too often been overlooked. It is only today that they resume their rights in culture, through photographers like Mitchell, designers like Wales Bonner, Telfar, or Pyer Moss, or musicians like Young Thug or Lil Uzi Vert. “I have experienced several personal revelations, and in particular that of realizing that I live in a black and male body, and that it is in him that I live my experience of the world and of everyday life. It’s an intimate, autobiographical experience that I try to convey as best I can. ”
Mitchell nevertheless admits that since the film’s release Moonlight in 2016, a “new conversation” began around african-american masculinity. “It was a revelation for me and for the world in general, I think. Beyond all this, we know that today we can no longer accept the prejudices and stereotypes that mainstream culture has fostered around black men and their bodies. It is more than ever necessary to review everything that has been said about us. And we can see that art, in all its forms, seeks to show by all means this new vision of what a black man is. A black man is what he is, he dresses how he wants to dress, and it has nothing to do with all these preconceptions that can go around. “
Via GQ US