Tyler Mitchell has hung out with Jaden Smith at Fool’s Gold Day Off, shoots high-end style editorials and tags along to Givenchy parties with NYFW models, but he doesn’t allow the industry’s attractive accessories to distract him from the unhealthy condition of the photography community.
The 20-year-old photographer and director is existing in what he calls the post-DSLR generation, wherein the fast pace of the Internet is more suffocating than motivating, and Instagram likes and Tumblr re-blogs are perceived as more self-proving than are conscious contributions to the progression of artistry.
His frustrations have pushed him to study the work and philosophies of his idols, translating his inspired perspectives into tangible additions to his portfolio. Most recently, he directed an MTV-premiered music video for Kevin Abstract-led boy band Brockhampton and a compiled a colorful book of photos from a month-long trip to Cuba.
Mitchell’s work is diversified, and he stands at the intersection of hip-hop, fashion, and conceptual photography. As he traverses among these worlds, his eyes have been opened to the attractions and downfalls of working with musicians and models, his potential to create worlds of his own, and photography’s frictional relationship with the Internet.
How has the way you’ve approached photography changed since you moved to New York two years ago?
Coming to New York was, in some ways, my downfall. It’s been two years of living here and I feel really jaded. The clique-y nature here can discourage a lot of creativity. There’s also not a lot of color, which is why a lot of times, I’ll intentionally shoot in settings that look placeless. Even if I take a photo in New York, I don’t want to be looked at as a New York street photographer. I want you to know that this is my world that I’m making.
I have to be with myself a lot to encourage my photography. It’s been a lot of watching and reading, making sure I take my time and move slowly with art, rather than moving fast like everyone else. People are focused on getting an image out as quickly as possible. They’re not concerned with how they shot it, the colors, or anything. I’m frustrated.
We have to understand that crowding the Internet with our cries for gratification isn’t going to help us. We have to find something much more important.
Do you think that’s because we’re primarily sharing and consuming on the Internet?
A lot of photographers and creatives are focused on getting big off social media instead of using the tool to share real work. That’s fine if you want to be in a lane where you’re working creatively with one person, but I don’t think that’s expanding yourself as an artist at all. There are a few people I look up to, like Noah Dillon and Cary Fagan, who aren't worried about what magazines are going to post their work or what artists they can finesse a tour with. They’re not worried about working quickly, either. To artists like us, it’s more about quality.
Look at any big news conglomerate in 2015: blurbs are written and tossed up for the masses in 30 minutes. There’s a weird race to be the first to post a story, when the more significant story is around the corner. The stuff that really matters is getting diluted and lost. I don’t think I want any part in it.
I might spend two weeks conceptualizing and shooting a single image that a publication turns around and posts, usually without giving credit, only for some kid to swipe past it on Twitter. I feel like it’s my job to focus on the quality, though. It’s the only chance I can give my art will to live years after I die.
How have you been working to better your art?
Studying. I go to a photography bookstore in New York every day and talk to Charlotte, this French woman who works there. I swear I’m in love with her. We look at photography books. I don’t even go on the Internet anymore. Six months ago, when I got more serious about photography, I looked at Tumblr everyday. Then I got so damn tired of it.
It’s sad because I even have a private Instagram where I follow 700 some-odd people I look up to so I can see what’s out there, and I still get super bored. I’ve been reading a lot of Marcel Duchamp interviews. He was saying the same things in the ‘60s that I’m saying now. When pop art started and tons of lazy artists were mass-producing work, they called anything art. “This chair is art,” or “This table is art,” they’d say. Marcel talks about a need to slow down and re-focus on the context and the spirit of the art. The same is happening now and it’s 2015. Companies could be creating the most beautiful content for consumers if they just sat down and thought about it. But instead, some of your favorite companies are releasing things sloppily with no concern for an engaging roll out or decent content. The few doing it right are the ones rising to the top.
Do you feel like young artists right now aren’t studying as much as they should?
When the Internet smashed the world flat, we all jostled for position. A lot of kids wanted to be photographers because they saw a cool photo on Tumblr. They went out and bought a Canon T2I. They copied what they saw, but it’s clear that they lacked a vision of their own. I know because I used to do the same thing; when I was 15, I was copying everyone. I grew up and had to stop all that. That’s why I keep saying I’m a member of the post-DSLR generation. Most of your favorite creatives in 2015 got their starts by picking up a DSLR and taking pictures of trees in the suburbs. We had to start from somewhere and realize the copying wasn’t gonna cut it.
It came down to me slowing down and studying. All I’ve done for the past two years has been sitting and looking at images. Kanye looks at 1,000 images a day, and I realized I couldn’t make good stuff until I did the same. We have to understand that crowding the Internet with our cries for gratification isn’t going to help us. We have to find something much more important.
What was the concept behind the most recent addition to your folio, directing Brockhampton’s “Dirt” music video?
The “Dirt” video was made under the pretense that it would premiere on MTV after Brockhampton won a contest. That in mind, the concept I came up with became this satire: what a boy band might do when they sell out. I think that vision is both super funny to watch and perfectly subversive. The video shows these 18-year-old kids from the Internet over-styled getting their photos taken at a big-time photo shoot. It’s so over-the-top that it becomes funny, especially because it’s Brockhampton, and we’re so young navigating this corporate world. Now I think it’s crazy to see our stuff getting on national television before we can legally drink.
Your work recently has included portraits of celebrities, including one of Jaden Smith. Tell me the story behind that one.
I’ve looked up to Jaden for so long. Childish Gambino said in one of his interviews that Jaden is the first black royalty of our generation. Everyone is looking at Jaden. There’s room to fail, and I feel that same pressure. I’m an upper middle class black kid and truthfully, we’re a super rare breed. A lot of white people and black people alike can’t fully comprehend being somewhere in between worlds. I know Jaden identifies with that, and I know I identify with Jaden because of that.
To this day I’m still conflicted by the politics of the Jaden picture I took. It felt forced. It felt hard to truly form any real connection. How can you form connection, when everyone is worn down and cautious of something fake? It’s super hard to truly explain to someone in his position, “You don’t know this, but one day we’re gonna make a movie together and the change the world; just give it a few years.” But truthfully, me saying that would have been a lot more real than me snapping a picture that ends up on his Instagram and then never talking again. Sadly, that’s the politics that comes with taking any celebrity’s picture. Hopefully I just push forward in the direction of forging real relationships between innovative image-makers and influential figures to create collaborative content.
Do you feel that frustration with every musician you shoot?
Being in the music world and shooting famous people is really some shit I just don’t want to do. Unless it’s fully agreed upon by that person, I can’t comprehend the desire to shoot someone without a real life connection. It’s a method for survival in photography, but it’s not genuine. It’s our job as photographers to represent our subject accurately. If you’re just taking a picture of them backstage, is that furthering their image and their purpose?
I’M TRYING TO CREATE SOMETHING PEOPLE CAN HOLD AND TOUCH, RATHER THAN SOMETHING THAT SOMEONE CAN JUST DOUBLE TAP ON INSTAGRAM. HOPEFULLY THAT CAN HOLD SOME VALUE IN THE WORLD.
These days photographers want to shoot celebrities so they have recognizable faces to add to their own portfolios, rather than to contribute to their aesthetic catalogues.
This is what I’m saying about making work quickly. It’s just kinda snapping a photo; it’s not sitting down, forming that relationship, and constructing an image with someone. That’s what I’m doing with people like Kevin Abstract. We’re sitting down and we’re talking about the creative details around Death of a Supermodel, his next album. That’s what I want to do for anyone else who is a good fit. The only problem is the difficulty of letting people like Jaden know I’m the one for the job.
Why do you shoot fashion?
Fashion’s sick because it’s the other end of the spectrum. You’re able to create your own world. You’re able to do whatever you want to do with the face you’re shooting. When you shoot a celebrity, it’s more about the face in the picture than any sort of artistic choice. When you’re doing fashion, you’re completely tasked to take a face that no one knows and create something incredibly exciting around them. That’s art as a photographer, if you ask me.
Making your own world seems to be a consistent theme in your work. How did that theme continue when you shot for a month in Cuba this summer?
For the past few months I’ve worked everyday on designing and publishing my own full photography book with new work from Cuba. That place is immaculate, and the colors, decrepit architecture and the people were really inspiring. I need people to hold that experience in their hands. I need to create something people can flip through, touch and connect with, rather than something people can double tap on Instagram. Hopefully something that will hold value in the world.