With his first Canadian exhibition, black photographer Tyler Mitchell fills a gap

Tyler Mitchell is best known as the first black photographer and, at 23, one of the youngest, to grace the cover of Vogue.

In 2018, Mitchell’s memorable photo of Beyoncé graced the fashion magazine’s much-heralded September issue, with Queen Bey adorned in a huge floral headpiece fit for royalty.

Mitchell’s multi-site “Cultural Turns” exhibit for the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival adds several more firsts to her professional artistic career. This is his inaugural exhibition in Canada and the first time the Brooklyn artist’s portraits have appeared outdoors in a public space.

Along with his exhibition at the Contact Gallery on Spadina Avenue, a series of portraits of Mitchell are on display at the Metro Hall, with two other photos on notice boards overlooking the corner of Dupont Street and Dovercourt Road.

Walking past Mitchell’s outdoor hallway of 13 photos bordering Metro Hall feels like stepping into another idyllic world where nature is revered and black bodies of all shades are celebrated for their beauty. That gorgeous glowing light and directness of subject matter he brought to Vogue shines here, as do the flowers and foliage that frame his shots.

This attraction to natural environments recalls Mitchell’s own childhood in Atlanta, Georgia. As a skateboarder moving through spaces, he was always aware of his surroundings. But as he began to think more deeply about his upbringing as part of his job, Mitchell was struck by the lush greenery of the southern city, which goes against the stereotype that Atlanta is a hyper-urban environment without trees.

“I was interested in shifting the lens to all of the southern nature and black people existing in that landscape,” Mitchell said in a conversation at Contact Gallery. “Nature and the ability to be in parks and outdoor spaces was especially important to me.”

When Mitchell and his curator, British historian and professor Mark Sealy, first visited the outdoor installation, he loved watching people engage with his work in new ways, slowing down the street to look photos.

“It feels like the city is steeped in this beautiful moment of pastoral calm,” Mitchell said. “I’m interested in how this conversation – which I feel as an American to be particularly from an American perspective – is also a conversation that people in the African diaspora can hopefully connect to. . I am thrilled to see how the images live and are discussed in a Canadian context.

In many ways, Mitchell’s career as a professional photographer went backwards from the typical trajectory to commercial success. As a film and television graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Mitchell followed his interests, unburdened by the weight of Eurocentric art history taught in most fine arts programs.

“I was exposed to black images more than any other image,” said Mitchell, who was intrigued by the Contact exhibit because her friend, acclaimed photographer Carrie Mae Weems, was the festival’s featured artist. in 2019.

While still at Tisch, Mitchell was already on the hot-stuff radar, doing commissions for various magazines. Demand only increased after he graduated, as did his desire to start his own practice. In 2019, one of the photos from his Vogue series with Beyoncé was acquired by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for its permanent collection.

“All of my commercial work at that time felt like personal work,” he said. “Decontextualized, they could have been hung in an exhibition. But now I feel that gap widening and the reverse widening, and I focus on cultivating my gallery and museum practice.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Mitchell’s relationship with his subjects: the intimate process he used to photograph one of the world’s most famous people is the same he used, for example , to capture the two “Southern Girls”, who effortlessly pose with a bicycle in front of the traditional stockade, or the powerful woman in the white suit and glasses, looking directly at the camera from inside a Cadillac convertible.

The title of this image, “Untitled (1932)”, is a nod to Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee’s seminal photographs of black New Yorkers, placing Mitchell in a long line of artists who strive to capture the essence and pride of their communities.

Mitchell is soft-spoken with a soothing demeanor, and it’s easy to see how confident his subjects would feel about this young talent and his vision. Her whole style is very intentional, from a model’s hot pink pants to a well-placed buttonhole. Mitchell often works with a trusted crew to embody his vision, which aligns with his philosophy as a filmmaker, where hundreds of people collaborate on a production.

But browsing through Mitchell’s exhibition at the Contact Gallery, another facet of his talent emerges. These photos are equally composed, but there is a telling sense of intimacy in many of them, founded by the artist’s attention to lines and the way they connect his subjects, like the twins in ” Tangled”, which cling to a tracery. cross the balloon string.

“Composition becomes a speaking tool for me. Images are so immediate that when you place things in relation to each other, that’s when you understand how the image maker feels about them,” he said.

Looking at these portraits, Mitchell also observed how Sealy curated a show that is really about skin. It is a showcase of black bodies, especially young black men and their representations. How often do we see images of young black men playing in a park or blowing a gum bubble, the vulnerability of an exposed neck?

Sealy pointed to the rare intimacy of “Connective Tissue,” a delightful photo in which a toddler sits on a man’s bare chest, a line of drool sticking out of his mouth.

As a curator, Sealy brings passion and deep thought to Mitchell’s work and her portrayal of black subjects. But as a father and a black man himself, Sealy is also looking for places where he can imagine a safe space for himself.

“As a kid, I was hyper-vigilant in public spaces where I didn’t feel safe,” Sealy said, pointing to a photo of two teenagers sitting on swings. “The boy with his eyes closed is like somewhere you can go, and it’s OK just to breathe and be in the atmosphere.”

Toronto may be Mitchell’s hometown for the month of May, but Sealy hopes the messages in her photos will prevail long after the show ends.

“One of the key things that happens in race issues is that distance is the thing that separates us. Once distance is there, it’s easy to be hostile with people,” Sealy said.

“So when you produce work that bridges that gap and brings us together in terms of imagination, fantasy and places of desire, we end up in a healthier place, intellectually and socially. he often passes through the prism of fashion, brings us together in a much more nuanced way.

“Cultural Turns” by Tyler Mitchell is at the Contact Gallery, 80 Spadina Ave., through June 30; at Metro Hall at King Street West and John Street, and at Dupont Street and Dovercourt Road until May 30. See scotiabankcontactphoto.com for more information.


Sue Carter is Quill & Quire’s editor and freelance contributor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @flinnflon

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