Photography wunderkind Tyler Mitchell and curator Isolde Brielmaier discuss cooking, black joy, and Mitchell's new exhibit at the International Center of Photography.
Presented in partnership with ICP.
Photographer. Artist. Filmmaker. Graduate of New York University. Self-published. First black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover. A favorite of Beyoncé and Zendaya. Featured in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery permanent collection. Lecturer on the politics of image making. 25 years old. This is Tyler Mitchell.
Now an up-and-coming sensation, Tyler began considering themes around black identities at a young age. Tyler shares anecdotes from his childhood when his mother would be concerned about what he was wearing. “Do you have to wear that to this?” his mother would ask. Tyler says ideas of self-policing were common as a child, and he appreciated the motherly concern but believed that she shouldn’t have to feel that way.
At the heart of Tyler’s current exhibition, which is on view from January 25, 2020 - May 18, 2020 at the International Center of Photography, is the exploration of “the black body through fashion, exploring identity through dress and considering these ideas of what it is to be young and black today or young, black, and middle class in the South today,” says Tyler. He also notes the importance of remembering his roles as both photographer and filmmaker in the way he envisions young black men and women.
Assistant professor at New York University and Curator-at-Large at the International Center of Photography, Isolde Brielmaier collaborated with Tyler for his exhibition and emphasizes the importance of understanding that Tyler works in multiple spaces that are intricately connected, while also having a “strong awareness of audience.” Isolde describes Tyler as self-aware, thoughtful, collaborative, holistic, and intentional. Reflecting on the curation process, she remembers how it all began with looking at numerous thumbnail images and discussing how each image resonated with her and Tyler. She often asked herself, “What kind of conversation could we create if we put this image next to this image?”
Isolde also reflects on the idea of utopia in Tyler’s work. “His work is referencing a reality that we as black peoples live. We have joy. We have pleasure. There's laughter. There's leisure,” she says. Is that utopia or the everyday life of a human being?
Listen to more of Tyler Mitchell and Isolde Brielmaier themselves in Gesso Media’s episode, Tyler Mitchell, in partnership with ICP wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to subscribe to the Gesso Media podcast for future releases. You can see Tyler Mitchell: I Can Make You Feel Good on view at the International Center of Photography at 79 Essex Street in New York City from January 25, 2020 through May 18, 2020.
I’m Henna Wang, and you’re listening to Primer — a podcast by Gesso about human creativity, history, and the spaces we live to learn about.
Let’s dive in.
TYLER: I've been using the word recipe a lot lately because it feels like… shoots are like a recipe, like when I make images, it's like a recipe. It's like bringing the right model together, or friend or person or the right color, or the right fabric or the right scenario… everything is like recipes in art, I feel like.
Tyler Mitchell is a photographer, filmmaker, and artist. But recently, he’s been cooking a lot. This has provided him with a helpful analogy for the creative process.
When I look at recipes, I don't like knowing the quantities. I just like to know the ingredients so that I can kind of be like, like in anything like It's just like -- you don't almost want to know that it's exactly 1/4 of a tablespoon because that would make it, it's too scientific. It's like, you’re kind of feeling it out as you cook it. Then it's better .
Tyler is just 24, almost 25. He was catapulted to internet fame in 2018, when Beyoncé hand-selected him to photograph her cover of American Vogue. He was the first black photographer in the magazine’s history to do a cover shoot.
Now, Tyler’s solo show, entitled “I Can Make You Feel Good,” is up at the International Center of Photography. It first premiered at the FOAM Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam. This one is his first solo show in the states.
So, what exactly are the ingredients that make up a Tyler Mitchell photograph? He and Isolde Brielmaier, the show’s curator, work backwards from the final dish.
ISOLDE: I've been following his work for several years now, and really have become sort of entranced with the world that he, and I don't want to say has created, but is kind of consistently creating with his work… the sort of kind of utopic elements of his work, the notion of black joy, the notion of identity and how that can be worn on the surface but is intricately connected to one's interior.
TYLER: My work is, really, you know, exploring the black body through fashion, exploring identity through dress and considering these ideas of what it is to be young and black today.
If “I Can Make You Feel Good” is, at its core, a utopia populated with joyful black bodies, the components that make up this utopia are a collection of specific, well-thought-out visual cues.
I would say it's characterized by a few things. You know, natural light, certain, kind of, candy colored palettes, um captivatingly, you know, direct gazes from my subjects... There is a certain kind of poetry to visualizing the body resting or enjoying leisurely pleasures.
Tyler’s influences are varied, making classification difficult. He flits between worlds with relative ease, those of high fashion and fine art, the glossy pages of an editorial magazine and the stark walls of the museum, the personal and the commissioned. Rather than isolating the different influences and making them discrete, he prefers his work to be viewed holistically.
I think I utilize the tools of multiple different genres of image-making to kind of all say the same thing... The whole experience all has one feeling, and all the work in the show has one feeling.
Tyler: There's something that, um makes it all make sense for me, which is, which is like, an expansive energy that I think an artist can have, like in terms of the thesis statements behind their work or the ideas behind their work, which can be expansive into multiple fields, almost, like -- it's not that everyone can cross these boundaries so fluidly... I think currently there is a certain disregard for boundaries. But I think it’s also about the kind of energy that work has, or that my work has, that’s able to allow that.
Isolde -- who is a seasoned curator with credentials everywhere from Columbia, NYU to the Guggenheim -- noted her own particular interest in Tyler’s disregard for boundaries. Together, they worked out a format for the installation to ensure that viewers must walk through the full collection, rather than picking and choosing which works to encounter.
ISOLDE: I actually did come up as a young curator where there were sort of, you know, specific kind of parameters or sort of, you know, boundaries for lack of a better term, in terms of how you existed as a curator, actually, how you got to be a curator... And I think you know, as we said earlier with, you know, Tyler, he just exists in the world in a different way.
... I think what we're seeing, you know, with artists like Tyler and many of his contemporaries, is that they actually don't delineate. They don't actually see those borders. And they're very clear in terms of their practice that one informs the other.
Another dichotomy that Tyler’s work challenges is that of utopia vs. reality. As much as his photographs contain a sense of bliss, some are tinged with a feeling more ominous. One, called Untitled, in parentheses, (Powder Blue Hoodie), depicts a black person in a pastel hoodie face down on the ground, their hands grasping each other behind their back, almost mimicking the position of one handcuffed.
TYLER: We know this idea of utopia is searching for, trying to build some kind of idea of perfection in a place or in a community. And we also know that it isn't physically possible... there’s something that we know that’s not real about these, in maybe a kind of a sad way. My images remind you of the freedoms that aren’t allowed. As much as there is kind of this idea of, like, fantasy and positivity, there's also this, you know, these other things I'm thinking about, like Tamir Rice, who was killed, you know, at the age of 12 playing with water guns, or toy guns outside. So, there's also this idea of Utopia as a contained place that's not that's not reachable.
In the utopia Tyler creates, his subjects have the freedom to wear what they want to wear, do what they want to do, and feel what they want to feel without fear of repercussions -- which may not always be the case in real life.
TYLER: You know, my mother was concerned about things I would wear out the house a lot. And growing up, I remember kind of being like, Well, why are you worried about this? You know, like super young, like I would kind of leave somewhere and she'd be like, Well, do you have to wear that to this? And it would be this, like, motherly concern, But it would also be this other level of like, um, I just don't want you to be looked at in this wrong way or I don't like your your pants are too low here or you know what I mean. And there's this idea of, like, self-policing which growing up was ingrained into me, which I started to feel like, she doesn't have to feel that way, or she shouldn't have to feel that way.
The limits of utopia, its unattainability, make the taste of fantasy presented in Tyler’s photographs all the sweeter. And there is perhaps a slight resistance present in the photographs, too -- by ignoring the limits of reality, his idyllic work refutes their necessity. In his conjured world, societal pressures and systemic oppression are simply suspended to make room for pleasure, a pleasure so often reserved -- at least in the media -- for white bodies.
Isolde: There's a bit of a refusal to simply suggest that black people don't have joy, that we don't have pleasure… that our bodies are not constantly struggling, surviving, you know pain, work laboring and all of that, but that the that in some way, his work is referencing a reality that we as black peoples live. We have joy. We have pleasure. There's laughter. There's leisure.
We actually, in fact do go to the beach and chill out right, and I think it's in that way, for me, it's just so incred - it’s like, Is that utopia? Or is that part of our daily lived experience that all of us, because we are all human beings, partake of and enjoy?
It’s up to the viewer to decide.
This interview featured the voices of artist Tyler Mitchell and curator Isolde Brielmaier.
This podcast was produced by Georgia Wright for Gesso Media, in partnership with the International Center of Photography. It was narrated by me, Henna Wang.
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