Tyler Mitchell on Hierarchies and His New Book, I Can Make You Feel Good

The photographer, whose notoriety skyrocketed after shooting Beyoncé for the cover of American Vogue, has no interest in photographical hierarchies.

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell, part of his first monograph, I Can Make You Feel Good (Prestel 2020).

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with Tyler Mitchell, the 25-year-old photographer whose notoriety has skyrocketed since he shot the September 2018 cover of American Vogue starring Beyoncé, becoming the first and youngest Black photographer to do so in the process. Since then, he’s landed a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, and more. He’s now gearing up to release a photography book, titled I Can Make You Feel Good. But in this Q&A, Mitchell maintains that hierarchies and accolades are not the driving motivations behind his creating work—references to the past and a genuine curiosity and love for the craft are.

Are you in London right now?

I just got here two days ago, and I’m going to be here for a while. I’m really happy to just get a break for a second.

Are people starting to shoot again? I feel like nobody is really working, but maybe I’m wrong.

I think there’s a lot of shooting going on, actually. I’m taking it easier than others because the book is coming, which is a big focus for me, but also I’m taking some creative time. I’m doing a little bit of work, but I’m out here mainly to go back into lockdown.

Tell me about the book.

I would say like that, first and foremost, I’m addicted to books. I have been a big photo book junkie since going to Dashwood [Books] in my days at NYU. I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of making a photo book. I think every prestigious photographer believes that the photo book is the main way their work should be seen. It’s just such a moment, I suppose, in a photographer’s career to have a monograph of their work. I also think it’s the best way photographers can express themselves with all the design choices: the layout, the sequencing, the storytelling. It’s a lot more effective than an exhibit, for example.

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell, part of his first monograph, I Can Make You Feel Good (Prestel 2020).

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell, part of his first monograph, I Can Make You Feel Good (Prestel 2020).

How did you choose to include the images that are in this book? It looks like some of the photographs are from editorials, others are from personal projects, and some are…film stills?

In everything I’m making—whether it’s commissioned, or personal, whether it’s from a film, if it’s a photo from Cuba, or Atlanta or London—there is no hierarchy. I think that comes from my experience with images, which was primarily on websites like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram. With most of those images, they’re often presented without proper credit or context, which, some critics might argue on one level, devalues the onlooker’s experience with the artwork because it strips them of all the education they should have about the image and the historical context. But I actually find value in it. Because I saw images without that hierarchy, I wanted to make my book in a way that really reflects that.

I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about the International Center of Photography show you had at the start of this year, long before COVID-19 changed everything.

A lot has changed, certainly, but I’m also very connected to the now. I think the work is still really relevant for me, and I hope it’s still resonating with other people. I think any artist would hope for that. Hopefully when the show reopens, it’ll continue to have its resurgence.

What I liked most about the show was the prints you did on fabric that were then hung on clothing lines. Can you tell me a bit more about that choice?

I’m always thinking about ways to bring ideas to life in different mediums. If you think about me being a very young photographer, my work started primarily on Instagram and through digital mediums on my computer. That’s how I would experience it and that’s how 99% of everyone else would experience it. It only started to come into print and matter and on gallery walls within the last year. I’m not trying to present my work in a historical or academic way. I’m looking at the exhibit in a more emotional way, not a concrete way. The decision to incorporate the laundry line was just instinctive. It felt like that was how the images needed to be treated, which was with a certain sense of delicateness and subjectivity. I think when you look at photographs on a wall that are framed, you’re very set up to have a one-point-perspective experience with that image. The laundry line immediately creates a more subjective experience with all of those images, which are hanging in that hallway in ICP. Conceptually, the laundry line serves as a way to return to this idea of fashion dress, which a lot of the images speak to, and also to this idea of the domestic and working Black families.

I’ve really enjoyed asking different artists how they structure their days around their creativity and productivity. It seems like you’re always working—does it feel that way for you?

I’m definitely really bad at work-life balance, and I do work a lot. I love this stuff, so I’m full of curiosity and ideas are flowing out of my ears. The reason I’m working so much is to bring more of those ideas to life. There isn’t a ton of balance—it’s a lot of intense work for a while, but then I’ll take some time to myself. I think that’s the life of a photographer, though.

You just signed with UTA for filmmaking representation, and you mentioned you’re in London doing some creative work. I’m wondering if you’re working on a film.

I definitely don’t want to speak about it too much. But I’ve loved it. Just on a studying level, being able to go back and watch all the films that I’ve been too busy to watch, and thinking about tackling some film ideas. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s the hope, for sure, is to make some movies.

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell, part of his first monograph, I Can Make You Feel Good (Prestel 2020).

On Instagram, you’ve been really open about this idea of the reference. You actually have a separate IG handle to show people the research you do and where you’re drawing from. I’m wondering if you can speak more about this idea of referencing and its importance in your practice.

Right now, people seem very concerned with original ideas and anything that is not original is “bad.” I’ve kind of liked trying to get rid of that notion entirely from art. The best things are those that look at other things and make something that’s in response to those things, but applied to now. My research serves as a way to help me do that in my own work. To not acknowledge that work, and to not reference it, doesn’t make sense. The problem is this emphasis on individualism.

I wanted to talk a bit more about your ongoing collaboration with JW Anderson. I saw that you two had a conversation on Instagram Live the other week and you spoke about this idea of the photographer who would be this dictator type, from where all the creativity stemmed. Now it’s more of a conversation and a collaboration between everyone involved. Can you tell me a bit more about what it means to shoot a campaign now?

Actually, it’s funny, just as you were asking this question, I opened Instagram and it looks like Jonathan Anderson has put out our new campaign images. Working with Jonathan Anderson on the campaign side of things is exciting because he’s the one who approached me and wanted to champion my voice and perspective. I think that type of creative collaboration and structuring conversation is much more of today than it was 10 or 20 years ago. In the past, a photographer was hired to execute. A certain look for a brand was very dictated to the photographer. There wasn’t any kind of room for their vision or voice, especially not a vision or voice that was Black, or that was concerned with Black cultural experiences.

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell, part of his first monograph, I Can Make You Feel Good (Prestel 2020).

I interviewed Stuart Winecoff a while back, and we spoke about this idea of being nervous before a shoot. You’re in this headspace where you have this vision and you’re trying to execute it, and you’re not always sure if everyone will understand it, etc. Part of being a photographer or a director is performing a sense of comfort for everyone, even if you’re not comfortable yourself.

I’m naturally a very nervous person, and I’m that way pretty much all of the time. I look at this job as one that’s similar to gardening. It’s not that complicated. I am simply an administrator of emotions on the day when I shoot. I’ve just brought all these ingredients and recipes together, but I don’t know the quantity and I certainly don’t know what I’m doing most of the time.

Bringing things back to your book, I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit more about the design process that went into making it. Each part of it looks very carefully designed.

I went with Prestel, the publisher, for this book, mostly for strategy reasons, but also because of Viviane [Sassen]. I love Viviane’s Parasomnia book that she did with Prestel, so that’s the approach I took. The designer was Alex Lanny, a really great book designer with a very sensitive and sensible aesthetic, but is also very attuned to the photographer’s vision. We wanted to make something very sturdy and very classic to hold on to. I wanted it to be something that, 30 years from now, I’d look back at and still feel really happy with it. We wanted to avoid making anything that was designed for the screen, or for Instagram, that would stop making as much sense in the future. The binding of the book is actually done by hand in this very specific way. When you’re flipping through the book the paper is very subtle, but it’s unlike any glossy magazine that you may have seen these images in before. There’s no white border situation, or captions that reveal when these images were taken, it’s all really about the emotion and visual experience of the work. So another thing about this book is that we’re sort of proving you can make this handcrafted unique object available on a huge commercial level.

You featured two professors from NYU, Isolde Brielmaier and Deb Willis, to write the book’s introduction. Can you tell me about the decision to include them in this?

There are four people included: Mirjam Kooiman, the curator at Foam; Isolde Brielmaier, the curator at large for ICP; Deb Willis, the head chair at NYU’s photography program, and Hans Ulrich Obrist the artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery. Those are four people, who, from more of art historical or just photography and images perspective, understand and champion my work. They’ve all had a number of in-depth conversations with me about my work and supported it in their own way. All of them have provided a new context for me and my work, and brought new ideas to me. So I feel like those are the four people in my camp who have pushed me but also been really supportive.

How did the name for your book, I Can Make You Feel Good, come about?

The title actually came to me because of this Shalamar song from the 1980s. I was in the Atlanta airport headed to Amsterdam, and I heard it playing. It just resonated with me; I really liked the sentiment of that statement. It’s an “I” statement, which is sort of informal in this really great way, and it sets this intention for what the work should be doing. I love that it’s a title that’s less academic, and it’s more of a layman’s title.

The final question I like to ask photographers is this: all of your accolades aside, what are you most proud of?

Again, I’m not into hierarchies. They’re all something I’m equally proud of and are working toward something greater, I hope. All of these different accomplishments are hopefully leading to more opportunities for people to experience my work, so they all exist in one continuum. I don’t really look at any one of them as more important than the other.

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell, part of his first monograph, I Can Make You Feel Good (Prestel 2020).

Related: Artist Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. on Making Work in the Margins