Tyler Mitchell

Tyler Mitchell on photographing his American pastoral

Tyler Mitchell, Albany, Georgia, 2021, archival pigment print, 63 x 81 1/2".

Tyler Mitchell makes visible a Black autonomy, sociality, and joy historically excluded from mainstream American media. For his latest body of work, made during the past year, the twenty-six-year-old photographer phenom turns his eye toward themes of kinship and heritage. Dreaming in Real Time, shot entirely in his native Georgia, captures friends and families frolicking against a backdrop of sand dunes and shady meadows. Young men lounge on beach chairs atop concrete pavement while children play in grassy fields. An exhibition on view until October 30 at Jack Shainman’s two Chelsea galleries in New York presents new work from an ongoing series titled “I Can Make You Feel Good,” while a concurrent show, curated by Deborah Willis, runs at the Gordon Parks Foundation from September 24 to January 2, 2022.

THE IMPULSE BEHIND this new body of work was essentially a longing to return to the South, to Georgia. For me, these pictures represent a homecoming. Whereas “I Can Make You Feel Good” is very much a portrait and fashion project concerned about the idea of a Black utopia, I would call Dreaming in Real Time my take on the pastoral ideal. It considers how Black folks relate to landscape and how they can find solace, belonging, and rest on Southern land. 

My work contends with ideas of America itself. Who’s it for and who does it serve? It’s a country that sells you a dream of individualism and promise. While I’ve been fortunate to have an upbringing that’s allowed me a certain amount of leeway and the ability to travel, I know all too well the ways in which that freedom has been historically denied for Black people. Images of Black folks in moments of leisure are too hard to find in the canon of photography and of art more broadly.

Some of the new images have very physical red lines throughout the landscape and the body, invoking the history of redlining. Those lines become a very playful way to break up the composition with abstract gestures demarcating the land itself. They also become a reference to the systemic prevention of mobility that this country has inflicted on upon Black folks. I’m interested in the way images have a transportive quality. 

I mostly photograph friends, friends of friends, or people I’m familiar with on social media or connected to via Instagram. They’re usually creative and express themselves through dress or fashion in a way that I’m drawn to. I then go about asking if their own family, friends, or larger community would be interested in being in the work, and often an amazing dialogue follows. The casting process is very organic and intuitive. 

Many of the images I make are about Black folks inhabiting themselves fully, and that includes dressing in exactly the ways that they want to. I intend to put forth the message that no matter how you choose to move through the world, you should be able to move as quietly, as proudly, as boastfully, and as loudly as you want. I hope my work inspires a Black public outside of the art world to think more about this kind of aesthetic agency and potentiality.