Jacqui Palumbo and Christiane Amanpour, CNN
After a number of high-profile Vogue cover shoots, evocative solo exhibitions in New York and Amsterdam, and the release of an accompanying book, photographer Tyler Mitchell is now showing a new collection of images at Gagosian in London.
“Chrysalis,” Mitchell’s follow-up to “I Can Make You Feel Good,” extends the photographer’s practice of making idyllic portraits of Black youth at play or at rest, reveling in a sense of freedom and companionship.
“(The title refers to) the state between sort of being a caterpillar and a butterfly, but also a transformative, transitional state,” Mitchell told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “And a lot of these pictures I was making were really about this idea of a meditative state of repose, leisure, but also really cocooning.”
Photographed in New York and London, the new works toy with fiction and “emotional truth,” as Mitchell puts it, as he stages theatrical scenes that aim to be deeper, richer representations of Black life and were influenced by his own Southern roots. Symbols of childhood add a sense of play but carry a weightier message: One image features a boy in a lake, eyes closed, his head just above the water line, with a string of balloons rising in the air beside him.
“It’s an image of a boy staying barely afloat on the surface…these images we made upstate (in New York) are really about a psychological state,” Mitchell said, adding that many of the photos touch upon “being Black and in public space.”
Though many of the works were shot outdoors, others only hint at the presence of nature — through the backdrop of a garden behind a model, or a mosquito net above a boy’s bed — but were created in a studio setting.
“A lot of these (photographs) are directly about the relationship between Black people and nature,” Mitchell said. “Growing up in Atlanta, a lot of my personal upbringing was in nature — more than most might imagine.”
The artist also told Amanpour that he was thinking of his own growth as he made his sophomore body of work.
“I feel like I’m emerging into myself,” Mitchell said. “But I’m also aware of the fact that I am a name that is pushing the conversation forward in photography, and so I’m happy about that.”
‘A world of Black beauty’
Back in 2018, Mitchell instantly became a household name in contemporary photography when, at age 23, he took portraits of Beyonce for Vogue and became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover in the magazine’s 126-year history. He has since photographed Harry Styles and Zendaya, among other zeitgeist-making celebrities, for the publication, but it was his cover portrait of Vice President Kamala Harris, released before she took office, that made waves on the internet for its unconventional styling.
Amanpour asked Mitchell how he responded to criticism that the image, shot for a February 2021 issue, was not “vice presidential” enough because Harris was wearing casual attire and Converse sneakers. (A second, digital-only cover, which Vogue released later, featured her in a more conventional blue pantsuit.)
“I’m very proud of those pictures and the experience I had with her, which was very joyful,” Mitchell said. “She chose what she wanted to wear and presented herself as she wanted to be presented. And so it was my job to really do what I do in my work, which is to present people in a very unguarded, honest way.”
It’s an approach he has applied to all facets of his practice, including his commissioned fashion work and his self-assigned fine art.
“My work in general is really about these in-between moments, the mundane, and actually celebrating those moments as being the most beautiful, rather than this conventional facade of glamour and beauty,” he said.
Mitchell said he considers his work to be part of a much bigger movement — a new canon of Black image-makers who are “correcting” long-held narratives about Black life. With “I Can Make You Feel Good,” he responded to images of violence or struggle seen widely in news media and popular culture by instead presenting photos that represented joy and beauty.
“To make images and create a world of Black beauty is an act of justice in that way,” he said. “I feel very lucky to be celebrated in the work I’m doing, (to be) supported and have a community around me…I think all of that is part of the work that hopefully is shifting the paradigm over time.”
“Chrysalis” is on view now at Gagosian through November 12.
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CNN’s Danai Kupemba, Emmet Lyons and Madalena Araujo contributed to this story.