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Five Lessons from Tyler Mitchell

Published on
Jan 1, 2019
Written by
Kaylah Wilson and Connor Garel
Published by
Edited by

Earlier this year, the Internet broke. Vogue had just unveiled its momentous 2018 September issue (the most important of the year), and gracing its cover was none other than Beyonce, effortlessly sporting a floral headdress, a radiant maternal glow and — of course — a ruffled white Gucci gown. What was perhaps most striking about the moment, though, was not the subject (though Beyonce is, and always will be, a ubiquitous muse), but rather its author: a 23-year-old photographer named Tyler Mitchell, who, suddenly, had become the first black photographer ever to shoot the cover of Vogue magazine. He’s also one of the youngest.

Mitchell’s photographs find a signature in their softness. There’s a warm sensitivity about them that cleanly illustrate an urgent concern with producing fuller, more humanized representations of people of colour — namely Black people, using a technique the photographer has called “an honest gaze” in various interviews. It was precisely this personal aesthetic that drew both Beyoncé and Anna Wintour to hand-select Mitchell and to task him with photographing one of the most important figures in global popular culture, for one of the most important fashion magazines on the planet.

“You’d better make those test shots the best photos you’ve ever taken.” — Tyler Mitchell

In early December, we got the chance to sit in on a moderated discussion between Mitchell and singer TiKA the Creator, where the photographer discussed his journey as an artist, disrupting the status quo, and how he got to where he is today.

And so: Here are six memorable and inspiring things we learned from Tyler Mitchell that we think every young artist might benefit from hearing.

Beyoncé for Vogue September 2018, shot by Tyler Mitchell
Beyoncé for Vogue September 2018, shot by Tyler Mitchell
Make the World Your Muse

Mitchell talked extensively about the experience of making films about skateboarding. When he was much younger and still living in Atlanta, Mitchell took up an interest in skateboarding and found himself immersed in a community that fostered passion and individuality. He would take videos of his friends skating, edit them — instinctively — and publish them online. He developed a distinctive style of video, and he soon became recognized in the community for his eye. As it turned out, skateboarding was more than just a hobby. It became a site of inspiration that he could draw from to produce work elsewhere, about other things. He began to see the world differently: a bench became a ramp to skate on; a stairwell, a place for a stunt. Mitchell began to look at lines and shapes differently. The seemingly mundane act of skateboarding became something that shifted his imagination, allowing him to experience his surroundings differently and better himself, strangely, as a videographer.

No Matter the Project, Make It the Best You’ve Ever Done

At some point in the talk, someone in the audience asked a question about opportunity and barriers to entry. She explained that she’s had trouble booking jobs because many of them require some wealth of experience in the field of photography. But, of course, it’s difficult to develop that experience when every job asks you to already have some. She went on to explain that she’s been stuck doing test shots for models before shoots, but is really interested in transitioning into the role of taking the images that will actually be published. “Then you better make those test shots the best photos you’ve ever taken,” Mitchell responded. He suggested she play with the test shots and show her style, and to use the opportunity as a platform to impress her client. They aren’t just test shots, he argued, they’re your work, and they should look like it. No opportunity should be squandered.

Lighting is the Key

In one standout moment, Mitchell discussed his love of blackness and black people. He primarily shoots black subjects. But the photographer also uses film photography as his preferred mode of capturing, which comes with its own set of unique problems: film itself is meant to capture the light, and not the shadows. Which is to say that, essentially, film was not made to photograph black people. This seemingly small fact about the science of photography allowed the audience to better understand not only the importance of Mitchell’s work, but also of the urgency of good lighting. Mitchell uses natural light to make brown skin glow because he is acutely aware of how film often does not capture dark skin, which falls into the visual category of “shadows.” The process of taking a photograph takes a lot more thought than just snapping the image — lighting can make or break your project.

Find Something in Common With Your Subject

The worst thing for an image is an awkward or an uncomfortable subject. There are some photographs where you can tell the photographer and the model have a weird relationship to one another. When someone feels uneasy, it all shows up on camera. To eliminate this from a photo, Mitchell says it’s important to find something in common with your model. This simple act of socializing and relating to the person can be an instrumental part of making them feel at ease.

Adut Akech for British Vogue January 2019, shot by Tyler Mitchell
Adut Akech for British Vogue January 2019, shot by Tyler Mitchell
PLAN, PLAN, PLAN. Then, Forget It.

When asked whether he had a routine to prepare for his photoshoots — moodboarding? extensive research? — Mitchell offered the audience a thoughtful answer. He expressed his profound love for moodboards, of course, and the detailed checklist he bumbles through before thinking about taking the photos. There is the obsessive research, the reading, the talking to the client, the moodboard, the second moodboard (and a third, and a fourth), the revising, etcetera. The planning could go on and on, he explained. This pre-process, to Mitchell, is important because it allows for a fuller picture of what needs to be accomplished on set. But while that is an essential component to creating great images, Mitchell says it’s equally important to leave it all at the door on the day of the shoot. There’s no use revisiting the moodboard or re-reading the research. You’ve done the work already, and you know what you want: Now, it’s time to let it go and trust your instincts. Doing this allows you to let go and give yourself the space to branch out of what was planned and into new and uncharted territory. Things frequently change on set and don’t always turn out the way you planned, which can be frustrating if you’ve cleaved yourself to the pre-process. But being open and letting go will allow you the room to be with the work, and not somewhere else.

Don’t Be Intimidated by Celebrities

“I hope you don’t do that. They’re just people,” says Mitchell. “Treat them like people.”