Why is it so hard to take a great fashion photograph?
To start, there’s just the logistical challenge, says Tyler Mitchell, the 25-year-old wunderkind who became the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover when he captured a flower-crowned Beyoncé in 2018. “It’s a real fine game of negotiating needs in a fashion commission,” Mitchell said in a recent Zoom call from London, where he is living for the summer, “because the function of an editorial is to please advertisers. That’s why it was designed, and that’s why it was invented. There’re mind games you have to play.”
But making a great fashion picture also poses a larger existential query. For the past ten years, as Instagram made images both a global language and currency, and digital media seemed to edge out print, commercial fashion photography felt in some ways stuck in a rut: head-to-toe runway looks, shot on a static model, often captured in midair. Mitchell is part of a new generation of Black photographers—first codified in GQ contributor Antwaun Sargent’s 2019 monograph The New Black Vanguard—including Dana Scruggs, Micaiah Carter, Nadine Ijewere, and others, who are imbuing a new life into fashion photography.
Next week, Mitchell releases I Can Make You Feel Good, a book of photographs first exhibited in a 2019 show of the same name that demonstrate the ambition of his vision of Black figures in relaxation. “It’s about proposing a future,” Mitchell said. “It’s about suggesting the idea that visualizing Black bodies enjoying leisure time, and just existing as they want to be, is a very special thing when you think about denied histories.”
Mitchell, who also captured Kanye West for the GQ’s May cover, first honed his eye on Tumblr. The impact of that platform’s endless waterfall of imagery—its refusal to distinguish between fine art and vernacular, its divorcing of decades and fads from chronology—is evident on his work. Photographs conjure the macrame curtained interiors of a midcentury Harlem home as easily as they summon the flaneur physicality of skateboarding. “All that’s floated in there,” Mitchell said, “and it’s meant to present the breath of beauty and dignity of the Black experience.”
Mitchell studied filmmaking at New York University, and grew up particularly admiring the work of photographers like Ryan McGinley and Larry Clark, both of whom advanced the provocative meld of fashion and art photography that was first established in the 1970s and ’80s by photographers like Helmut Newton, Deborah Turbeville, Richard Avedon, and Guy Bourdin. Mitchell recalls coming across a book Clark created for Jonathan Anderson’s eponymous brand in 2015: “It’s this whole day of them just running around Paris together,” he said. He liked how it rejected the cold commercial eye of other contemporary advertising and editorial. “It was something that was fashion,” Mitchell said, “but it wasn’t overtly fashion, at least to my eyes as a newcomer to that world.”