Phoebe: Let’s get started. Tyler Mitchell.
I just got so nervous.
Phoebe: It’s kind of nerve-wracking…I don’t know, do you find it - you must’ve been interviewed quite a lot recently?
Tyler: Yeah, I went on NPR. Did you ever hear that?
Tyler: Oh, you should listen to that.
Phoebe: I would like to. Who interviewed you?
Tyler: It was quick, though. It was on All Things Considered.
Phoebe: [Gasps]. Wow, that’s iconic.
Tyler: Yeah! I forgot who interviewed me, though. It wasn’t Ira Glass, that’s all I know.
Tyler: It was a nice lady in Washington DC.
Phoebe: What did she ask you about?
Tyler: She asked me about…Um. My work.
Phoebe: Don’t To do that! [Laughs]
Tyler: OK. sorry.
Phoebe: It’s ok, sorry. She asked you about your work.
Tyler: She asked me about my work. The historical Vogue cover. She asked me about um, basically my backstory - what things I was referencing in the Vogue shoot and what things I’m getting at in my work.
Phoebe: So she stole my interview then [laughs]. But it’s fine because I’m going to ask you about other things as well. Um, we were just chatting obviously and I was saying that kind of the concept of this interview series is specifically that - learning more about the references that go into the work of people whose careers I really respect and admire. Of course, you are one of them. And particularly the role that education has played in your life, and what that means for you. So not necessarily education in the traditional, formal sense - although, that too - but how at the tender age of….?
Phoebe. 23! [Makes sound] You are obviously…things are going well!
Tyler. Yeah. Not badly.
Phoebe: Not bad! So, yeah. Let’s go back a little bit. I don’t know how much…again, you’ve spoken about your backstory? And your past, as it were. One of the things that struck me when we first met was just like you are so verbally articulate, you have so much clarity in the way that you approach your work. I would imagine that really extends to the way you work on a practical level. I’m just really intrigued, so thank you for letting me interrogate you.
Tyler: No, I like it. It’s good because we’ve had good conversations about it already.
Phoebe: We’ve had some good convos! So you’re from Atlanta. Tell me a little bit about what school was like for you, what kind of student you were, and how you felt about school.
Tyler. School in Atlanta in the south was pretty straightforward, strangely. I really liked Atlanta because it was very much a suburban city. I grew up north of the city in Marietta and I commuted to Buckhead for most of my school - Buckhead is a pretty affluent, mainly white community in Central-North Atlanta. My mom put me in a pretty school there called Westminster. It was a Christian private school, non-denominational, and I pretty much knew I had to get out of there. I didn’t hate school but I knew I was headed for New York or somewhere there was a big art capital pretty quickly.
Before I hit 13 I was just going along with your normal three-seasons sports and math, social studies, history. When I hit 13 I had skateboarding as an alternative to basketball and the things you’re told you should play as a kid. Skateboarding led to…unlocked a whole new universe of creativity for me. It was a whole new series of friends. I guess before that you could say, you had just been exposed to vanilla ice-cream and suddenly you were like, “Wait, there are all these other flavors out there?!”
Skateboarding introduced me to all these different neighborhoods of Atlanta because then you get interested in skateboarding all these different spots and going with your friends to different spots. So we’d go skate Decatur, East Atlanta, Fourth Ward, and all these areas that at that time were rougher, different, undeveloped areas - now they’re quite developed - but at that time it was like we were skating on uncharted plots of land. That was really fun, and that was where I started getting into filmmaking and photography.
Phoebe: Because you were filming your little skate tricks? [Laughs].
Tyler: Exactly. We had a YouTube channel and we would upload little montages.
Phoebe: You had a skate crew?
Tyler: Yeah, we had a crew.
Phoebe: What was it called?
Tyler: We didn’t have a name.
Phoebe: It was not branded. You did not have a Supreme sponsorship! You probably would now…
Tyler: Oh wow, yeah. Maybe if I stuck with it. No, my friend had a channel called MrPanda305 - you can probably go find it. It was our version of Spike Jonze videos.
Phoebe: But you didn’t know who Spike Jonze was?
Tyler: No, we did. He was making skate videos.
Phoebe. That’s so interesting… Skateboarding was the conduit for you to learn about filmmaking?
Tyler: Yeah, it’s a great segue. I always forget that it’s a given for people. For me, it’s like: 2 and 2 go hand-in-hand. I wouldn’t be a photographer without skateboarding and I wouldn’t be a skateboarder without photography and image-making. The imagery of skateboarding, and the filmmaking of it. and the creative aspect of it are almost like hand-in-hand.
Phoebe: Wow. Even now, in your mind.
Tyler: Even more so now. People are getting so much more inventive. You see clips online of skaters and full-length videos on the most pop cultural level from like, Bill Strobeck and those Supreme kids. On the more niche level, it used to be Dime but now they’re quite big. These little crews who would just emerge in Toronto, Montreal, New York, LA, San Francisco, Atlanta.
Phoebe: Yeah and what’s particularly fascinating about that is that in the last 12-18 months, skate culture, skateboarding aesthetic has permeated luxury and it now one of the leading subcultures shaping the aesthetic of luxury goods. How do you feel about that?
Tyler: For me, it felt obvious. I came from skateboarding from such an early point in life that I felt that was luxury. I almost knew skateboarding more than I knew luxury. Once I saw it going that way, I was like: Great. It seems like more people are finding out about it and finding it valuable. There are some people who think it’s becoming more commodified - well that’s true, too. It’s moving into malls as much as it’s moving into luxury. I liked that because it was more people finding out about this thing that I thought was quite niche and that I was doing on YouTube in a small sector. Seeing it go that way… I’ve almost gone that same path - I’ve gone into luxury. I’m now fully a fashion photographer. That’s only over ten years. From the minute I picked up a skateboard - I’m 23 years old now, and I’m fully a fashion photographer. So if skateboarding’s pathway shows anything, I feel like my pathway is reflected in the same way.
Phoebe: You feel like you’ve grown in a correlated trajectory with it?
Tyler: Totally, yeah.
Phoebe: That’s such an interesting analogy and parallel path. Because you were 13 not that long ago, really [laughs] in terms of the history of skateboarding. It’s really in those last ten years that it’s moved from being this very niche to subculture to having this mainstream appeal, accessibility, and commercial relevance. It’s a very, very lucrative aesthetic now, not least for Supreme, who’ve done alright off it.
So you picked up a skateboard when you were 13, but when did you pick up a camera?
Tyler: I picked up a camera when I was about 14/15. You know those first years are about you trying it in your garage?
Phoebe: I mean, I don’t know personally [laughs] but I can imagine.
Tyler: Right well I guess those first years are you being like, I guess I suck at this, but I need to get better. And you’re totally alone in your garage trying tricks. I guess when I was 14 or 15 I had built up the confidence to meet people that we’re skateboarding. I would go to parks, I would make more regular friends. My friend Mike bought this really nice DSLR with his parents’ money and I was like - I’m just gonna use that all day. I would use my friend Mike’s DLSR - it was a Canon 7D. So it was a really special moment of skateboarding in 2008 or ’09, so ten years ago. It was also that moment of the democratization of hi-def video for people. If you had $700 you could go buy a camera and upload a video to YouTube in 1080p quality and be like This is mindblowing, the image quality of this is so nice, I can edit it myself with Final Cut. All of that was happening right then. We were so obsessed with filming and we had access to a nice image, so I was so obsessed with nice images.
Phoebe: Outside of the aesthetic culture of skateboarding, where were you finding ‘nice images’? Were you looking for them in magazines?
Tyler: No. It took a while to go looking for them. Later, when I was in high school, I was always watching this show - it was still through skateboarding - called The Barracks - it’s kind of like a YouTube in itself. It was set in an exclusive skate park in LA that would only invite professionals and friends and family. I always thought I was going to move to LA and go to The Barracks and film for this show - I literally thought that was going to my career path. So I was so obsessed with this website that was always filming these cool clips in this exclusive skatepark.
It was then that I saw Odd Future on one of the episodes and I was like, Who are these people? From there I got into Tumblr, and got into looking at imagery online. It was really through Odd Future, and looking at imagery online, that I started to find people like Ryan McGinley and Larry Clark - people that are considered art photographers. So yeah - it was always through a lens of skateboarding, that transition. I was never looking at an i-D magazine or an issue of Vogue.
Phoebe: Well I guess that wasn’t what was around you in the suburbs of Atlanta… You’ve said that your family aren’t in the arts.
Tyler: No, not aesthetically inclined at all, still. Which is great!
Phoebe: So it was not like you were growing up surrounded by piles of art books and photography magazines.
Tyler: No, I wish. But I do think my earliest memory of seeing what I thought to be ‘artistic pictures’ was on Facebook.
Phoebe: Wow. [Laughs].
Tyler: Yeah I remember this kid in school named Nick Oxford was taking all these artsy pictures. I remember registering them as artistic pictures because they had some kind of filter - the kind of thing we’re now normalized to. I just messaged him - he was this kid who went to this neighboring private school that I didn’t really know, but through Facebook I knew him. I was like “How did you do that?” And he told me edited it in this program called LightRoom. And so those are some early memories of when I came across ‘art images’.
Phoebe: And also through Tumblr.
Tyler: Also through Tumblr. Ryan McGinley, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin. All that kind of really beautiful stuff that’s perfect for Tumblr. Youth culture-focused.
Phoebe: I don’t feel like I had a massive Tumblr moment. How would you say you used that platform to travel along your path and immerse yourself more in the world of image making? How was it useful to you beyond finding pictures by Ryan McGinley?
Tyler: In finding those pictures I guess I started wanting to imitate them. You find something that you’re aesthetically drawn towards. When I was registering those pictures as images that I liked, that were soothing aesthetically, they also had a certain subject matter that I was interested in by being around, too - by skateboarding, by being around young people from different cultures. I guess it was imitation, pure and simple. Like when a musician hears a song and wants to make something similar. At that infant stage, it was imitation. I would get known by uploading very stylized - I would always color correct these skate videos in these extreme ways. I was always known for uploading very stylized extreme pictures I would take of the skateboarders. The sky would be yellow - I took it way too far! It was almost like a kid with a crayon for the first time. But you’re just experimenting. That was one of the first memories.
Phoebe: How did you transfer that skill out of taking pictures of your friends skateboarding?
Tyler: Then I got into music, I guess. Music was always around, too - there was skating and then there was music nearby. One of my friends Santangelo was making rap songs and I was hanging out with him while he was making rap songs…I guess I just suggested one day that we should make a music video. Again, that Odd Future influence - when I’m watching their videos and trying to do that, one some level. So I was like, we should do a video, and I came over and we made this horrible video in his bedroom. It was then that it became DIY music video-directing- I inserted myself into that world and decided: I’m going to be a music video director.
Phoebe: Are there music videos from that time in your life that had the equivalent effect of seeing those Nan Goldin photos?
Tyler: As corny as it is… Again, some people love having these very extreme, niche references, but when you’re a kid your field of vision is still so narrow and I just loved everything Tyler, The Creator was doing. I remember exactly where I was when the I Fucking Hate You video came out with Pharrell. The candy colors… Looking back it now I’m like, that video was messed up! He was chasing down this girl in this dollhouse, it had some themes of abuse in there and all these other horrible things in there. If you watch it back, it’s really messed up.
Phoebe: That goes for a lot of cultural references from ten years ago. There’s so much stuff we look at now and think, Hmm, that was a bit problematic.
Tyler: That was dicey! Yeah. But that video for me - at least, aesthetically - he had molded his face into a cartoon character, and the colors were very vibrant and rich and almost cartoon-y themselves. He was in a miniature set of a dollhouse with this girl who kind of looked like a Barbie, and he was talking about hating someone, and that being very close to love. All of it had this plastic but colorful, fun feeling for me. That was it. I was like, This is insane. I feel like colors can actually help tell a story now. I understood that.
Phoebe: Talk to me a bit about that. I saw up there that you have Josef Albers Interaction of Color.
Tyler: I love that book.
Phoebe. Colour to me is such a defining of your work. When I think about your work…I came into today with a pink coat on and before I left my house, I thought: Tyler is going to notice the colour of this coat.
Tyler: I love that coat!
Phoebe: I knew you were going to notice. I know now, not even having known you for that long, when I think about you, you’re always wearing very beautiful colours.
Phoebe: How do you think that developed? I think a love and appreciation for colour is a very intrinsic, inherent thing.
Tyler: You love colour, too.
Phoebe: I do love colours.
Tyler: You have a really good green all over your Instagram.
Phoebe: Yeah you’ve commented on my Instagram before. I think I’ve really embraced colour in the last year ago…. [cut this]. But tell me a bit about what you were saying before about how colour can be used to tell a story. How do you incorporate that into the way you work?
Tyler: I always say that I’m trying to tell stories about either myself or about culture, through colour, in a way. I, in terms of making pictures, allow it to highlight certain things that can do the speaking for me. It’s also like drawing with crayons, there’s a child-like sensibility about it that I really like. There’s an inherent focus on youth culture for me that’s tied to color. Colors always feel useful when you use them in the way that I use them. It’s Both a vibe thing and a way to highlight certain props that I use. I’ll use very idyllic, pastoral backdrops in my work. Or i’ll photograph people in gardens with certain flowers that I’m really drawn to. Or waterguns, or resin chains that are yellow and these waterguns are pink and green and blue. So the hues always accentuate something for me. It’s just like using a highlighter in a notebook. That for me is one of the key tools in the toolbox for making a picture that I like.
Phoebe: Obviously the Beyonce Vogue cover that you shot, which came out last year, and obviously has been a pretty major thing for you and your career for obvious reasons. Did colour inform how you thought about that cover?
Tyler: Yeah! On one of the covers she’s wearing the colors of the Jamaican flag, if you remember that Alexander McQueen dress. She’s under the laundry line wearing a black, red, green, and yellow dress. Those are…that has cultural resonance for me. That was no accident. And then there are allusions to…in a lot of the photos she was against a pink and pastoral background in a custom Grace Wales-Bonner beige and white suit. That has a refined elegance to it, but also an allusion to the fake with there being an unnatural background behind her while she’s outdoors. You know the picture I’m talking about?
Phoebe: No, I don’t. Bring it up.
[Brings it up.]
Tyler: So there’s that one, and so those kind of allude to Rasta colors, pretty obviously. And then there’s this one, where she’s in front of this pink and cyan and beige tonal fake backdrop. For me, a lot of the construction of the pictures was about her relationship to cultural relationships that are not bound to any time or place, but more to a feeling. For this, it was about looking at Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé and even old-school photo backdrops. A lot of black communities in America would hang a very fake-feeling backdrop in the studio and it would feel so hokey to a lot of people but to me there's a beauty in it. For me, it was a lot of those references.
Phoebe: She's a master of speaking through codified images because she doesn't really give much press, or speak much publicly, but she's definitely thinking about what she's saying with what she produces. So to rewind a little bit... So you were at school, you weren't a big fan of school, you certainly weren't studying photography in school. Have you ever had any formal photography training?
Tyler: I did take...It got to a point where I was so interested in it that I took one AP photography course in high school. But then I went to film school at NYU. So I got my degree in film and television at NYU.
Phoebe: How did you find that? Tell me a bit about why you decided to go to NYC and what that was like as a learning process for you.
Tyler: Well by the time I got so serious about filmmaking, by the senior year of high school, because again I started when I was 13 which was maybe seventh grade. So after five years had transpired and I still had a love for the camera and for making videos, it was basically narrowed down to, OK so Tyler's going to film school and that's that. So I was just applying to film schools, any film schools, whether that was California, or North Carolina, or Florida State and NY Just so happened to be one of them. It was also happenstance. NYU just happened to be my dream school. Spike Lee went there, so many heroes went there. So I guess when it came time to go...are you asking what the experience of the programme was?
Phoebe: Yeah. How was it? How was it studying film at NYU?
Tyler: It was, to be - 'cause I'd rather be honest with you - not great.
Phoebe: How so?
Tyler: Just speaking about the programme itself, there's something about American critique for me that's a little too soft. Like, maybe it's my fire sign energy jumping out! But I found a lot of the critiques in NYU very unhelpful. I don't they pushed students to make better, more thought-provoking work. I thought was a devil-may-care attitude in terms of being like, everyone is too busy, everyone is in New York City, we all have a 1000 things going on so make it out the best you can, kind of thing. Which, luckily, I kind of did for myself. I was just so ambitious that I think I just wanted more from the school. Whether that was a failed thing or not, it was just my preference, my taste. School doesn't always do the trick for everyone, I don't think anyone has a fairytale dream experience with school. It's always friction in some way, and sometimes the friction can be good. Me feeling like OK, I'm not getting these critiques and I'm not getting the film education I want out of school forced me to look other places so I Would go on the internet and I would form and meet who I liked on Twitter.
Phoebe. Twitter, that was your chosen...'cause I was gonna say - very much that's why I wanted to this podcast series, because this concept of a missing education, particularly for people who work in creative fields, and this impetus you have to fill the gaps - it's very rare that you're going to have an education that totally satiates you. I'm interested in how people fill those gaps. I didn't expect you to say Twitter, though - what was going on on Twitter?
Tyler: Twitter was where the rappers were. And all the musicians. You have to remember I was interested in music videos.
Phoebe: At this point you were still primarily...
Tyler: ...a film student.
Phoebe: And wanting to make music videos?
Tyler: Yeah, yeah. I forget that people don't remember that.
Phoebe: Well, I mean, like you say, I think of you now as a fashion photographer.
Tyler: Which is crazy.
Phoebe: Do you see yourself as music video director?!
Tyler: No, I mean clearly not anymore. Actually I'm working on a music video now, so clearly it's a part of my process and I hop between these different pies and I keep my hands in all of them. To say I'm not a music video director would be not true. To say I am one is not the only truth. But back then, that was what I was primarily interested in. I was stalking the work of directors who are huge now, like Hiro Murai, who directed the This is America video, those were all the people I was sending manic emails to, to work for. Or to direct music videos for artists. So it was a lot of bold hit-ups on Twitter. It was a lot of reaching out to indie artists - that's how I met Kelsey Lu - that's how I met a lot of the people who are prevalent now in young music. Like Kevin Abstract and Brockhampton. I think it was five years ago that I messaged Kevin Abstract? I Just thought he was a genius. So when you're just looking out for good stuff and you're just sitting around wanting inspiration, you find it. That was how I connected with a lot of the artists I'm affiliated with now.
Phoebe: What kind of work were you producing at the time, either through your degree or personally?
Tyler: Hmm. That's a great question.
Phoebe; Thank you!
Tyler: I was producing a lot of - again, the music video works were my passion. The first year I got to school - it was either the first or second - I kickstarted a music video with Kevin Abstract. That was one of the first works I produced. But then, more personally in video works, I was doing a lot of class projects that were driven by the more autobiographical side of my video-making, which was explorations of self, explorations of blackness. Cultural references. Kind of more towards what I'm doing now with photography. So there was the music side, because I always had an interest in these short, experimental visuals with musicians and how I could tell a story there, and then there was this little project that was like a mini-autobiography as a video. Then I went on to make this film that's still online now called 'Wish This Was Real' - have you ever seen it?
Phoebe: I haven't, I'll have to go home and watch it.
Tyler: Yeah, um. It's called 'Wish This Was Real'. It was a simple studio video that I made in my Experimental Film Class that explored all the things I Wished and hoped for black men - certain freedoms - through only symbolism and very direct minimal imagery in a studio. Again, I would set up these candy-colored backdrops and then I would have a scene where, for example, these two boys were playing with remote toy yellow Lamborghinis. Or where, there were four boys all playing with toy waterguns. A lot of it like, subconscious. Also around the time of things like Philando Castile and Mike Brown erupting on the Internet in 2016 so it was subtly my own little response to that using my stylized thing I was growing at the time. And also a way of expressing certainly autobiographical desires again about black men.
Phoebe: Interesting. And you mentioned before we started recording, a mentor that you had. I'm interested in the role any specific teachers or mentors have played in your life. I know you are really close with your parents but it doesn't sound like they've been very involved in your career because it's not relevant to what they do or their... Who are the people you think - maybe the respect you were just talking about - or any, have really nurtured you or shaped your thinking?
Tyler: Aside from all the inspirations I get on the on the internet which is what we talked about, the main person would be my mentor Deborah Willis. IN terms of opening up the doors and exposing me to a world of black portraiture - specifically African-American portraiture and the history of that.
Phoebe: I suppose that was what I was getting at. What you were saying about your work progressing to point where you were exploring these big themes of your personal life, and also American life, and African-American life specifically - how that was being cultivated in your mind?
Tyler: It was through Deb, mainly. I was sneaking onto the photo floor, scanning film. It's funny how the transition goes, if I could tell you a little story. Because the transition again comes from music and skating. I'm always trying to bridge these worlds because my interest in music directly led to my interest in film and photography which directly led to my interest in culture and this cultural moment we've arrived at. If you chart it backwards, there was this British photographer called [Imran] Ciesay who had merch brand and had a photography Instagram brand called Places Plus Faces...
Phoebe: Rings a bell.
Tyler: Yeah. He would be backstage and he would photograph these rappers in very intimate settings. It was a new thing for the Internet to see. It was very direct and simple. It was the fact that he photographed rappers and artists backstage - but in this intimate way. Nobody had really seen it before. He was catching rappers in these off moments and in green rooms and on the tour bus. It was a modern day version of Annie Liebovitz's '80s rock n' roll pictures. I was really intrigued by him and I my series of bold internet hit-ups told him if
Phoebe: This is our key takeaway: the bold internet hit-up can very much take off.
Tyler: Absolutely! So I told him - if you're ever in New York and want a place to stay you can always stay here, and if you're on tour with someone blah blah blah. So he took me up on that opportunity and he stayed with me and he very quickly showed me what shooting on film was like. So that was where I learned about shooting on analogue film.
Phoebe: Because previous to that you'd still been on your -
Tyler: Still been on my videos, and digital, not knowing what film really was. Even then I was just imitating him - I would buy a point-and-shoot on eBay, exactly the one he had, and I would just write down the model number and then I would go buy it. And then I would start processing film at a lab nearby. So one thing led to another and by the time I was consistently shooting analogue film I had found out that the photography floor, which was right below the film floor at the NYU building, had a scanner. So I was always sneaking onto the floor, scanning all this film, and that's when Deborah Willis came across me and was like 'You should take a class if you're so interested in sneaking onto the floor so much.
Phoebe: She was a professor?
Tyler: Deborah Willis is the head of the photography department at NYU.
Phoebe: Forgive my ignorance.
Tyler: So she saw me milling about the hallway was like, 'You should take a class here. What are you interested in learning about?'
Phoebe: Oh right of course, because prior to that you'd just been in the Film...
Tyler: A film student, yeah. So you can enroll in photography classes if there's room in your schedule and if you're ahead on credits. So I decided to do it. There were two classes I took with her - one called 'Black Body and The Lens' which was talking about posing the black body in photography, the history of how black folks have been imaged throughout time. There was another one called 'Black Visual Culture'. Those two courses opened the door completely, to my interest in cultural work.
Phoebe: So you found that side of your education at NYU a lot more stimulating than what you were getting no the film side.
Phoebe: Were there any specific texts or photographers or images you discovered at that time that you think really were formative for you?
Tyler: Yeah, Frederick Douglas, I didn't know at the time and I think most people don't know what the most photographed man of the 20th Century.
Phoebe: Absolutely did not know that. You learn something new everyday.
Tyler: He was the person I wrote my final essay about in the course. He would basically go to photo studios up and down the east coast as a free man at that time, getting his photograph taken by unnamed studio photographers. Unnamed pop-up photo studios, all up and down the east coast of America. At that time it was very early in photography history and we would get these daguerreotypes done which were like metal negatives a photographer would develop overnight for you and then hand you this little print. He would put them in these metal cards - they almost look like cigarette holders - and he would give them to people. He was like the earliest popular boy on Instagram.
Phoebe: He was a little influencer!
Tyler: He was an influencer! Because he would find it so important not only to write his autobiography, which is what he's known for, but also to hand out images of himself because he realized at that time, 'My face and my portrait, and presenting myself as a dignified black man is important to history.' So he would just hand people business cards of himself. I realised there was a power there, in just taking photographs of yourself and handing them to people.
Phoebe: But you don't do that.
Tyler: No I don't do that, no because I'm too shy.
Phoebe: And we were just saying that you've become a little bit conflicted by the fact that now as your profile has become pretty big, you are called on to be in front of the camera more than you'd like.
Tyler: Yeah I get nervous about it.
Phoebe: I mean, it's not natural, if you're used to holding the camera. I don't really trust photographers who want to be in front of the camera all of the time.
Tyler: It doesn't make sense to me.
Phoebe: To me it doesn't, either. So, I mean I could talk to you about everything for hours... [cut] So once you graduated - when that was really not that long ago. When did you graduate?
Phoebe: [Laughs] Sorry I've just gotta laugh because that is insane. OK so what happened in the six minutes between then and now? A lot, clearly.
Tyler: A lot, yeah. But it wasn't like the day you graduate is the day you hit the race running because again, I'd been in New York for four years before running a lot of the races. At that point I'd been sharing working publicly for almost six years.
Phoebe: What was your primary platform?
Tyler: First YouTube, then Twitter and instagram. I was very much an early adopter of all three. At that point it was normalized for me to be sharing work and that became for so many photographers, and brands, and magazines, and so many art directors, their primary portfolio - it has become quite ubiquitous. At that point, in 2017, it was starting to become the way that people got hired for jobs.
Phoebe: I think a weird thing about the time we're living in now, I mean I think about this a lot as someone who doesn't peddle imagery - I try to peddle words, but it's very hard sometimes when Instagram is a primary portfolio too for every industry to find a way to communicate that. Anyway this isn't about me and my career struggles. So that was very effective for you at the time?
Tyler: Super. Just being on it and being active, and not in a way that was contrived either. Not really trying anything, not really pulling any tricks. There's no thing I could point to - it was just organic connecting with people the way you do in the real world. But it was just online. So I was sharing work, I was connecting with people, and a lot of it led to certain commissioned works, the earliest of which were for music magazines like The FADER, but always having a fixation and fascination with fashion magazines like DAZED at this point. When I was graduating in 2017, I had been been featured in the DAZED 100 in 2016 and I was quite involved with a writer there called Ashleigh Kane who basically became the earliest European proponent of my work. She interviewed me about my Cuba pictures, which I made halfway through school in 2015. So by the time I graduated school, there were certain things out there on the Internet that set me up to be a "professional photographer" [Makes air quotation marks]. That's what it was.
Phoebe: I don't want to go too heavy on the Beyonce Vogue cover even though it was incredible because I know you've done a lot since and you don't want your entire career to be defined by that moment, but it was a really remarkable thing. Are you the only African-American photographer who has ever shot the cover? Is that cover?
Tyler: I was the first.
Phoebe: That was only last year.
Tyler: First I'd like to say, I'm super proud of the Vogue cover.
Phoebe: You should be.
Tyler: That was a big moment, and it's just part of the line of the work that I'm doing. So that's the exciting part. What it did was it opened up the conversation and blew the top off that overflowing pot. It had been 126 years with no black photographer having shot the Vogue cover. Gordon Parks, in the 20th Century, was shooting insides. But never the cover. SO there was that, alone - the fact that Vogue had been running for 126 years and hadn't hired a black photographer [to shoot the cover]. But at this point there have been other black photographers - there was Nadine Ijewere who shot the cover of British Vogue. But it really popped the top off that conversation and it was a great moment.
Phoebe: Absolutely. So, you've got an exhibition coming up. Can you tell me about it?
Tyler: I'm nervous about it.
Phoebe: It's your first solo exhibition?
Phoebe: And it's in Amsterdam.
Phoebe: What's the gallery?
Tyler: It's FOAM Museum. They're a really respected photography museum that I've known about for quite some time now. They are essentially give me their upstairs gallery spaces. It's in a canal house and they're giving me the upstairs one to do with what I will.
Phoebe: What are you going to do with it?
Tyler: That's a great question.
Phoebe: [Laughs]. You know! You know what you're doing with it.
Tyler: Yeah but still. The space has three rooms and a hallway. So I'm cutting the space in half - half of it is going to be two new video works I've been making that extend the vocabulary and world of things like 'Wish This Was Real' - little short, experimental films that extend this idea of visualizing the black body as something that is free and expressive. The other half is going to be photography, a kind of greatest hits. Either things that I've been commissioned to photograph or personal works that people may not have seen. It's quite a mixed bag. It's a bit like a survey exhibition but the new things are the videos. I'm looking at it as my universe that people get to visit over a period of two months.
Being someone that has just shared work online, it feels like a great opportunity for me - not as some conceited entry into the art world - but as a way to make what I'm doing physical, and kind of activate it that. People are asking, is it a retrospective? Is it this? Is it that? What do you call it? I just look at it as...
Phoebe: Tyler IRL?
Tyler: Yeah, as a universe in four rooms, in Amsterdam, for two months. It's exciting to talk about it and promote it and all that fun stuff.
Phoebe: What day does it open? [cut part on date]
Phoebe: Listening to you talk about the way you've used the internet to develop your interests and your skills - I'm sure, like anyone, the Internet has caused you moments of strife and anguish - but you seem to have a far less neurotic relationship with it than people I know my age, who are a few years older than you and really are quite tortured about their relationship with it. How do you use the internet now? You had a Tumblr era, a YouTube era, you were an early adopter on Instagram, you used Twitter... One thing I asked you about before we started recording was that to me, it seems challenging to retain a clarity of vision in this world that is saturated by imagery, especially if you are also producing imagery. How would you describe the way that you interact with the internet now, as it pertains to your work?
Tyler: I kind of want to tell a little story, to give an anecdote. Two years ago I was being photographed for an American Eagle campaign.
Phoebe: [Laughs] OK.
Tyler: Which sounds very strange but was actually amazing. My friend worked at a casting agency and was like, would you love to be in an American Eagle campaign? And as a sophomore at NYC, I was like: This is money is going straight to tuition. So I said yes, and I was shot by an amazing photographer called Cass Bird, who you might know. She's quite a seasoned, amazing fashion photographer known for really intimate, expressive, fun portraiture. And she's photographing me, and I'm bringing out my phone every five minutes, like: 'Did you see this shoot? Did you see this shoot?' And she was like: "No, I don't look at any of that stuff. I try to turn my phone off and it's hard for me to look at stuff because when I let the floodgates open and when I look at images on the Internet, it changes my work and it changes who I am."
That was the first time it had ever dawned on me that people approach this thing [the Internet] in a different way that I do. I used it such a lexicon. I wake up in the morning and try to look at thousands of images, everyday.
Phoebe: Oh my god, that sounds so stressful! But it also makes complete sense to me. It's just a matter of a few years really, but most people of my age find the internet totally stressful but you don't have that relationship with it.
Tyler: No, you've got to embrace it. Even when I was with her I was like: 'I'm trying to be like this' and I was pointing towards it and saying that I want to do that. I think that's something new for the photography world. Especially before the internet, no photographers were looking around at other photographers like: I want to be like you. And it's not a copying thing, it's a flattering thing. It's like the way musicians admire each other and want to work together. Photographers didn't do that before the internet. Now there's this thing happening where there's much more immediate dialogue. I like to engage with that and not shy away from it. In terms of looking at images and absorbing them into what I do, there's no direct... Definitely the universe that has erupted has been unique to me, because I keep close what makes me, me. But I also keep my influences close to my heart, because I think it's important to be in dialogue with those things.
I don't know if this is answering your question anymore but I feel super passionately that in this photography-art-film orbit, people don't say enough... We look at thousands of things but nobody says: This is cool, and I like what this has got going on, and I want to be like this. Or, I want to be better than this! It's seen as pompous to say, but I think it's great to say. When musicians are like: I want to be the greatest musician in the world, I love that. Whether it happens or not is up to them, but to say that is pretty bold. Now I'm interested in it and I"m going to watch what's going to happen.
Phoebe: Yeah, I think that hip-hop influenced braggadocio, there's something to it. There's a reason why so many people connect with hip hop - there's something about that pride and swagger and energy which is so intoxicating.
Tyler: Yeah, and the American dream, too. The idea that you can just do it from the middle of nowhere and rise straight to the top.
Phoebe: I mean, look at you! [laughs] You're doing it.
OK, so... just to round out. Where are you at now? Tell me some things things that are really speaking to you right now, visually, intellectually. Any books or films or photographers or artists who are really doing it for you at the moment?
Tyler: Grace Wales Bonner has been for a long time, quite an inspiration. She's a British fashion designer who makes work that is very informed by a research process where she looks at African aesthetics across geography and time. Her design process is really unique in that it's so invested in research. I really respect her for that. A lot of the cultural symbolism, the embroidery, the jewelry, that she uses to adorn her clothing comes from that research background. I really love that process and that idea.
To me, she's an inspiration in herself in that she synthetises things and turns them back out as a designer on a regular fashion calendar. She produces and presents two collections a year.
Phoebe: Would you say that the equivalent of the history and the worlds that she's consulting for her work is what you were speaking on before - the history of black portraiture throughout the ages - would you say that's your primary - I don't want to put words in your mouth.
Phoebe: Maybe or, the underbelly of everything you're trying to say and do derives from your work in that area?
Tyler: Yeah, 100%. I'm fixated and focused on that. Obviously I'm interested in things that look cool and feel cool. It's not all doom and gloom and trauma and exhaustion but for me, the underpinning of a lot of it is looking at the history of black portraiture and trying to create my own, new version of that, and extend that, because I very much feel tied to a lineage of photographers that came before me. Gordon Parks, Kwame Braithwiate, Carrie Mae Weems, the list goes on. Dawoud Bey, Deborah Willis, Hank Willis Thomas. A lot of these photographers who came before me, who opened up the doors for me to do what I'm doing now in such a quick timeline. I feel very tied to that lineage of photographers and image makers.
Phoebe: And how, just to round it, just because I think that's a really beautiful place to end and says so much about why your work has so much impact beyond being really visually beautiful is that you can feel that, you can sense it. Obviously you as an individual are a very amazing emblem of that lineage. Where do you want to take that? What do you want the next development in that lineage to be through your work?
Tyler: That's a great question, too. The main thing that drives me are those things. As long as I can extend that vision and that voice, y'know. Some of it is focused on a pure inspirational and aspiration level. A lot of the kids that interact with me on a daily basis are so wildly inspired by what I'm doing that that's enough to keep me going. And then on another level, it's the interest in pushing the image as far I can. Making new images, new combinations, new symbols. That's what informs what I'm going to produce next, without speaking about it too literally. Yeah.
Phoebe: Just trying to find innovative ways to push...
Tyler: Yeah. And to portray black folks.
Phoebe: I think it's such an amazing rich time for black artists, specifically in the US. Considering what a dark time we're in politically, culturally, socially, on lots of levels. Dark times often breed beautiful art. I for one feel that it's really an amazing time for black artists in America...music imagery...there's so much amazing work being produced right now and you're obviously part of that.
Tyler: Yeah it feels special, it definitely feels new for me. But it's also a beautiful thing like you're saying where hopefully it's the kind of thing that can affect change. Or just help someone's day. That would be great. I’m not asking for much more than that.
Phoebe: And I think it's absolutely doing both.
Tyler: I think that's cool.
Phoebe: I think it's pretty cool, too.