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Tyler Mitchell End of the Decade

Tyler Mitchell on how a moment in history was a decade in the making

As he emerges as one of the most influential photographers of the decade, Tyler Mitchell takes us back to the beginning

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

It’s hard to precisely remember what the industry was like ten, even five, years ago. But from measuring the last few years, it’s drastically changed. A swell of online communities formed on platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram (which launched in 2010) have helped democratise the art, photography, and fashion worlds. Tyler Mitchell, who was only 14 at the beginning of the decade, was raised on a heavy diet of Tumblr posts of Ryan McGinley and Larry Clark work, but it’s his own images that kids are now poring over, saving, and re-posting.

Tyler first picked up a camera in the early 2010s while living in Atlanta, taking photos and making films at his local skatepark before moving to New York City to study film. I first met Tyler in a cafe next to London’s Old Street roundabout in October 2015. He’d introduced himself over email and we were having coffee and looking at his just-published book El Paquete. He’d broken away from a trip with his mum in Paris to come to London to show me his work and to see his friend perform, musician London O’Connor. “I was sleeping on someone’s floor I’d met from Twitter,” he recalls. It was an opportunity for Tyler to put himself out there, to show an editor at a magazine his work, and he had to take it. It’s something I’d come to learn about Tyler – he would wholeheartedly grab his opportunities and run full speed with them.

“Tyler Michell began the decade by envisioning a reality outside of what he could see and is ending it as a key player in bringing it to fruition”

In 2015, after speaking closely about our devastation surrounding the most recent shootings of unarmed black men in the US, I commissioned Tyler to make I’m Doing Pretty Hood In My Pink Polo, a photography series which merged politics with personal life, and fashion. It was a series which fully harnessed the self-contained worlds he had slowly been building through other projects like Wish This Was Real. We were both big fans of rapper Vince Staples’ music, but even more so of his cut-the-bullshit views, and we wanted Vince to discuss Tyler’s images in the context of then-climate (still current climate) for black men in America. It turned into a whole new shoot, with Tyler doing everything; making the photographs, styling, set design, directing alongside friend and fellow artist Noah Dillon, and ultimately, interviewing Vince too. From then on, I witnessed first hand how Tyler – with a precision few of us have – carved out a clear vision of what he wanted to leave as his legacy. From making music videos for Kevin Abstract and Abrafilms with Brockhampton to his first “real” fashion job with Givenchy and an online campaign for Marc Jacobs, shooting couture for Dazed and AnOther, that history-making Beyoncé cover for Vogue, and, finally, his first solo exhibition at Amsterdam’s Foam.

Tyler Michell began the decade by envisioning a reality outside of what he could see and is ending it as a key player in bringing it to fruition. For some, Tyler’s history-changing moment came out of nowhere, but for anyone watching from the beginning, it’s been a solid decade in the making. We’ve already spoken extensively over the years about various bodies of his work, as well as his influences and the personal narratives, so as he rounds out the 2010s as one of the most influential people in the world, I spoke to Tyler about the early-on moments that we might have missed, when he realised everything was changing, and asked him to predict what he’ll be telling me about his life in ten years time.

Can you describe what your life looked like in 2010? Do you remember?

Tyler Mitchell: Oh my god. Let me really think about that one for a second. I was 14 and I remember being an awkward 8th grader listening to really bad music. I was at a private school in Atlanta, Georgia. I was skateboarding a lot with my friend Noah Reyes and, that was actually the year before I first started to play around with my friend’s DSLR camera around the skateparks. That was the year when I decided to be more independent, to be a skateboarder rather than just your normal southern private school kid. Skateboarding was pretty different from what everyone else was doing in Georgia, which was basketball, football, or track.

What were you wearing?

Tyler Mitchell: I was really in my ‘I’ve started skating now’ phase. There was no uniform but we had to wear a collared shirt and then we had to have it tucked in, and that was basically the rule. I would wear these big ass Sean John polos, and then these knee-like denim shorts with white socks and Nike skate shoes.

Did you ever think about a career in photography or filmmaking at that point?

Tyler Mitchell: I wasn’t thinking about a career, but I was probably thinking about an escape route from Georgia. I didn’t want to go to school in Georgia and I knew that I didn’t want a career in something quote-on-quote typical, like involving math or science or law, something academic. So I was fiddling with making videos and then it probably dawned on me around 10th, 11th grade to try applying to film school. I graduated high school in 2013 and moved to New York in the fall of 2013. And then when did we meet? We must’ve met in 2015. That was my Sophomore year.

Yeah. And you’d just shot El Paquete that you wanted to show me. Was that one of your school projects?

Tyler Mitchell: So I got up to film school and my second year was really transformative because that was when I was really gaining traction, landmark events started to happen – at least they were landmarks for me. One of them was that I got really, really into Instagram and really, really into Tumblr, and really, really into connecting with people on the internet. In that year, I met Kevin Abstract on Twitter. Ciesay from Places + Faces came from London to New York and stayed in my college dorm and took me to a lot of my first fashion week parties. That was when I got a lot of access, seeing him photograph a lot of stars like Skepta and Drake and Virgil Abloh. I was watching from afar, I definitely wasn’t involved but I remember drinking that all in. I also learned from watching him shoot on a Yashica 35mm camera, which encouraged me to shoot on film, and after he left, I copied exactly what he was doing and bought the same camera on eBay. With that camera, I started constructing shoots and trying to post them on Instagram and spread my work out there. I would make little portrait shoots either in my bedroom or somewhere small and intimate that I could make a little studio in and I would basically shoot portraits of my friends, kids I went to school with, attractive people in New York that I thought were interesting. Then that summer, I went to Cuba. I had my Yashica 35mm camera and my love for photography had deepened and I decided to apply and go to Havana for a month and a half to engage in a documentary photography program. That was what changed my life from filmmaking to photography.

El Paquete was one of the first times you’d shot on film. I look at that and I see a lot of the groundwork of what your style is in terms of colour, shadows, light, composure. Were you thinking of these techniques and ideas back then as parts of your style, or were you just shooting? What were you trying to do with the book?

Tyler Mitchell: I had a lot of obsessions then. I loved Viviane Sassen and all the books in Dashwood. And when you have this infant passion, you want to make something similar to what you love. I didn’t really think twice about what it should be, I was really just going to make something that emulated my heroes; Viviane Sassen’s books, Wolfgang Tillmans’ books, Juergen Teller’s books, Ryan McGinley’s books or Larry Clark’s books. Essentially, Cuba was my playground. I fell so in love with the place aesthetically that I was just feeding off of that energy. I don’t know if I was thinking about it the way I think about photos now, because I’m very critical when I construct images (now) and it’s very conceptual and I like to cast and organise it. It was very free form (then). I was very much just trying to emulate my obsessions. 

You’ve spoken previously about how you loved Ryan McGinley, Larry Clark etc, but you felt something was missing from their works. I love thinking about a 14-year-old kid in 2019, who is looking for imagery, is coming across your work now. Deb Willis speaks about creating this archive, a drive which I know inspires your own work. Are we at a good point with creating that archive of black imagery?

Tyler Mitchell: I think we still don’t have enough. Deb opened up so much for me in terms of what I didn’t know about black image-making. I started on Tumblr, and you really only see the stuff that is popular there and that’s a very specific popularity – the Larry Clarks and Ryan McGinleys… and then Deb opened that up for me (with what she showed me). But absolutely, there’s not enough and that’s why I’m making the work I’m making now.

When I look at Deb, I see someone who inspires me because she has committed her life to (expanding the archive of black imagery). When she made Reflections in Black in the early 2000s with Carrie Mae Weems and Renee Cox, a lot of black folks told her that they didn’t know that black people looked like this. People didn’t know that we had the potential to be this beautiful in images.

Do you feel a responsibility to black image making?

Tyler Mitchell: Yeah. More than ever before. Since having done the Vogue cover, I feel a responsibility to the black image archive, to uphold that history, to pay it forward, and to reference it when people are looking at me. And I feel that way, not because that’s a contrived sentiment, but because (those photographers) truly broke down the doors for me to able to do what I do now. There is an existential dialogue between black artists in terms of what responsibility we have to uphold and talk about our racial identity, or how much of our work can be purely aesthetic. And I think that is always a dialogue, so right now – and tomorrow I might feel differently – but I feel a specific responsibility to have my work based on and speak about identity through aesthetics, through fashion, through beauty, and through all of these symbols. Tomorrow I might just wake up and just want to make abstract expressionism work, you know what I mean? But right now, what needs to be imbued (in my work) are these ideas behind identity, behind blackness, behind personhood, that I’ve been feeling all my life... it’s autobiographical.

You’ve always worked between fashion, documentary, music, and art, and I know you’ve struggled thinking you needed to be boxed into one. Have you finally made peace with able to exist within all those realms?

Tyler Mitchell: I think it's human nature to want something you don't have. This obsession, and fire, and passion to have things I don't have, has driven me into these different worlds. It’s a desire to just eat everything up in front of you and it's ploughed me through the music and music video world, into photography as a documentary, personal outlet, and then into commissioning for magazines, and then into fashion and high fashion. Doing couture shoots for Vogue. It really started with the Fader – which is so far from Vogue. Nobody in fashion wanted to give me 16 pages worth of space just to try out ideas with clothes. But it comes down to ambition, and direction, and intention, and critically thinking about what I want to make. I don't look at anything as an impossibility anymore.

When did you realise things were changing for you?

Tyler Mitchell: I think there are three big moments that I can point to, and then there were tons of little ones peppered in that pushed me along the way. Making El Paquete, despite not being categorically a photographer yet, and despite being in film school, really changed a lot. Taking my own money and self-publishing a book, and trying to emulate a publication like my heroes would make, and making that work from Cuba have a standing power in print was huge. Then after that shift from filmmaking into photography, I began to focus on fashion and that led to me really pushing for a commission with Marc Jacobs for their campaign in 2017. (Marc Jacobs) was a moment because I took as much space as I could in terms of having Carte Blanche and really opening peoples' eyes to what a fashion campaign could look like. I was reinterpreting Marc's clothes, which were referential to streetwear, and placing them back in the settings which I believed they deserve to be. Casting people that I wanted to see these clothes on. There was a lot of play with gender, but also a reference back to the world of Jamal Shabazz, and Brooklyn, and blackness, and that era. That was a huge moment because that really brought attention to my work. Then, the third, of course, the Beyoncé cover. Those are three moments that shifted my work into what it is now.

What are some of the moments you recognise as a change within the fashion industry generally?

Tyler Mitchell: I don’t think that I realised that the whole thing was changing from anything I did. I actually think photographers Durimel did a lot for me. There were little inspirations along the way that really showed me that I could be fearless in terms of my motivations and things I wanted to do. To see Durimel as some of the first young black photographers that were getting ten, 12, 14 pages in Pop magazine… well, that’s a very European, Eurocentric, Anglo magazine that I thought there wasn’t space for me in but that I really liked the look of. So when I saw Durimel doing that, that inspired me. And they weren’t changing their work or changing their values or what they wanted to photograph just to fit the aesthetic of the magazine. They were keeping very much to their own values and they were keeping to their own casting and they were casting people in Watts, Los Angeles. They were casting people from around Crenshaw and just photographing them just as beautifully as they could. And to see that making its way into the pages of these European magazines I was like, ‘OK, I can really do anything’. They reminded me that I could be ruthless and didn’t need to compromise on my casting and then – no offence because I love them – but it doesn’t take shooting the Hadids and Jenners to make it into these big fashion magazines. It takes having a point of view. So I really felt something was changing in image-making then.

“It doesn’t take shooting the Hadids and Jenners to make it into these big fashion magazines. It takes having a point of view. So I really felt something was changing in image-making then” – Tyler Mitchell

With the Beyoncé cover, we knew when you were asked to do it that it would make history, but we were a little naive to how huge of an impact it would make. It’s hard when you’re that close to something to see how big it can be. Can remember your mindset at the time that it came out?

Tyler Mitchell: I felt it and there was a huge rush... my phone was exploding, and there were all of these things that were definitely changing in my life and everybody else’s life because of this historic breakthrough which absolutely shattered this glass ceiling. My only goal was to make those Beyoncé images as close to my work as possible. As close to feeling like ‘that’s a Tyler Mitchell picture’ and ‘that’s as him as possible’. But I wasn’t really soaking in the moment of what it was changing because the ripples were so wide and vast that I wasn’t able to see all of them. I can see it a bit now reflected in the culture of image-making and of fashion. But when you are inside it, you can’t see outside it. When you get a huge commission like that, you can’t really reflect on it too much, you just have to live in it and you’ve got to do it to the best of your ability. 

What do you think we’ll be reflecting on in ten years from now?

Tyler Mitchell: I’ll be telling you about my first or second movie by the end of the next decade.

What lesson do you want to leave behind for the kid who’s coming up in the next decade?

Tyler Mitchell: That we don’t need to go into life’s situations with swords and shields. I’m hoping that we can all open up and be a little bit more vulnerable and transparent.

What are you hoping from art and photography in the next decade?

Tyler Mitchell: I’m hoping for some new institutions to open up, new companies that are able to move things out of the way. I think in these moments like Napster and Netflix and these companies that really shattered the way we consider movie-making or music or the way we consume those things, I want one of those to come through for photography. Instagram did that, but I want a couple more of those institutions to really shatter something in the new decade and make all of this a bit more accessible and high quality. And then I want someone to come and surpass me in terms of what I’m doing and really dominate the trail that I’ve left behind... And I’m only 24.