A Black youth lays bare-chested in a area of wildflowers. Three others play double Dutch, framed from under, the blues of their denims and tees fuzzing into the sky overhead. A girl sits on a placid seaside, the sand-caked pores and skin between her scoop-back swimsuit beating within the solar.
This world that Tyler Mitchell conjures in his debut images monograph, “I Can Make You Feel Good,” is a good-looking fantasy of everlasting sunshine and lithe our bodies, suffused in intense, saturated shade. It surveys a physique of work created from 2016 to 2019, some of which have been exhibited earlier this yr in Mr. Mitchell’s first U.S. solo present of the identical title on the International Center of Photography in New York and earlier on the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam. It is a world populated completely by Black youth in a state of perpetual summertime. Mr. Mitchell’s topics swim, or fly kites, or have interaction, for causes which are unimportant, in synchronized hula-hooping. They are all lovely and fantastically lit and unbothered. Mr. Mitchell has photographed campaigns for vogue manufacturers like Marc Jacobs and JW Anderson, and so some of his topics inhabit the world of luxurious commerce. That doesn’t trouble them both.
Certainly Black Americans have specified by the park and let the sunshine wash over them earlier than. Mr. Mitchell’s proposition shouldn’t be that these mundane pursuits are significantly radical in themselves, however that picturing them is radical exactly as a result of the expertise of Blackness within the United States has for thus lengthy — eternally, actually — been keyed to the implicit menace of violence, which has made the prevailing picture of Black folks within the well-liked creativeness one of battle. In artwork historic phrases, leisure time was rendered because the purview of the white gentry. The photos in “I Can Make You Feel Good” meet the calls for of the second, each its personal “Le Déjeuner Sur l’herbe,” its ranges optimized for our Instagram-primed consciousness.
“My focus to some degree is autobiographical, thinking about certain desires and freedoms I wished for myself growing up in Georgia, in nature and the landscape of the South in general, places that can be, on the outside, inviting, but have a complex history where folk that look like me feel rejected,” Mr. Mitchell mentioned. His observe features as a form of corrective. Nearly each picture in “I Can Make You Feel Good” is ready outdoor, a gambit of visibility and a declaration of fearlessness.
Mr. Mitchell, who’s 25 and rangy, grew up in Marietta, a largely white, conservative, center class suburb of Atlanta. (His highschool classmates voted for John McCain in a 2008 mock election.) He grew to become fascinated about photos as a teen, across the time he started skateboarding, a pursuit that’s as predicated on neighborhood as it’s obsessive about self-documentation.
“It was pretty radical because that was just not a normal thing at all for kids like me in my area of Georgia,” he mentioned. He pored over the roughly-shot skate movies made by hobbyists and uploaded on-line, in addition to extra filmic variations by administrators like Spike Jonze, ultimately cultivating a following for his personal interpretations that he posted to Tumblr.
That curiosity carried him to New York University, the place he studied movie and tv with designs on cinematography, earlier than an teacher recognized vogue images’s verve in Mr. Mitchell’s informal point-and-shoot photos of buddies.
“I was a bit taken aback by that,” Mr. Mitchell mentioned. “I didn’t know necessarily the first thing about what it means to shoot for Gucci or Prada. I styled people out of my closet. I was like, ‘this is a nice colored sweatshirt, wear this.’”
As he grew to become extra fascinated about concepts about id, each his personal and as a operate of Blackness, he thought the style picture might be slyly harnessed, “an interesting way to speak about my community, through dress,” he mentioned.
Mr. Mitchell started selecting up commissions whereas nonetheless in class, eschewing conventional channels comparable to hiring an agent or touchdown an apprenticeship with an established photographer. Instead, he did what most individuals of his era are preternaturally adept at, which is parlaying connections made by way of social media. His early jobs have been of rising music world figures shot for unbiased magazines: Kevin Abstract of Brockhampton for The Fader in 2016, and the rapper Lil Uzi Vert for that magazine’s cover the following year. He became known for making tender portraits that teased out their subject’s inner lives, placing him among a cohort of emerging photographers like Nadine Ijewere, Dana Scruggs, and Campbell Addy who focus on nuanced expressions of Black life.
In 2018, a year out of N.Y.U., Mr. Mitchell photographed Beyoncé Knowles for the cover of Vogue, one of the youngest, and the first-ever Black photographer to do so, which says more about Vogue than it does about Mr. Mitchell. The near-blinding wattage of the assignment and its historical context, combined with the planetary gravitational pull of Beyoncé’s celebrity, hurled Mr. Mitchell into the symbiotic consciousness of the art and fashion worlds.
Mr. Mitchell cites Ryan McGinley and Larry Clark as early influences, and there are elements in his work of those photographers’ preoccupation with nihilistic youth, unmoored and often in varying states of undress. But the pictures in “I Can Make You Feel Good” are more informed by what those artists’ images lack, namely, Black people.
Mr. Mitchell’s sitters, in their multiplicity of leisure and sumptuous knits, suggest a kind of photographic negative of Dana Lixenberg’s monumental “Imperial Courts” series, humanistic black-and-white portraits of the residents of a Watts housing project rived by cycles of poverty and violence, made from 1993 to 2015 in the shadow of the Rodney King riots. Mr. Mitchell’s world — self-assured, calm — suggests an alternate timeline for Black American life, one not waylaid by the constant grinding of racism and recrimination.
Fashion photography, a discipline defined by artifice, is perhaps not the most immediate venue for politics. But inasmuch as Mr. Mitchell’s images conjure fantasy, they’re an update of fashion imagery’s prevailing one, based on an idiom of thin white bodies. His use of a fashion vernacular becomes a kind of Trojan horse. As he puts it, “Black beauty is an act of justice.” In 2017, he was approached to shoot a campaign for Marc Jacobs. Recalling the debacle of Mr. Jacobs’s use of rainbow dreadlocks wigs on white models the previous season, Mr. Mitchell reoriented the commission as cultural reclamation, casting Black nonprofessional models to wear Mr. Jacobs’s collection of tracksuits, high-rise bucket hats, and oversized gold jewelry, signifiers gleaned from ’80s-era hip-hop.
“Honestly it’s less about the look than what the look means when a protagonist that looks like this takes it on,” Mr. Mitchell said. “It becomes about how we present ourselves culturally. The clothes kind of become this other thing.”
In the Vogue shoot, Mr. Mitchell photographed Beyoncé as regent, perched on a throne in rococo crowns of spilling flowers, tropes of Renaissance portraiture and white European aristocracy. It’s a now-familiar subversion seen in Kehinde Wiley’s paintings, and, to a varying degree, the 1980s street portraiture of Jamel Shabazz, who assembled Black and brown youth into elaborate tableaux as a counterbalance to degrading and superficial media portrayals. (Mr. Shabazz was, in turn, inspired by James Van Der Zee, who captured the private dignity of the Harlem Renaissance Black community.) The images in “I Can Make You Feel Good” speak in a fashion vernacular, but their thrust is the same.
Still, Mr. Mitchell refers to his practice as a “Black utopic vision,” a concession to their own paradoxical quality. “I don’t think there will be a place or a time when things are perfect, but I do have to make these images and have this conversation and hope,” he said. “That’s what my life’s work is about: presenting these images in which the young Black men and women around me look dignified, are presented as a community, and also ask the tough questions in terms of: what are the things we’ve been historically denied?”
As a book, “I Can Make You Feel Good,” can be inscrutable. Printed in full bleed and without identifying titles, it eludes easy delineation between Mr. Mitchell’s commercial and fine art photography. The lack of white space is both an aesthetic choice — plunging the viewer inside Mitchell’s totalizing field of vision — and also a psychic state. The project’s universe is one where Black life is centered and no outside perspective encroaches, though that’s different from being hermetically sealed. The perniciousness of racism seeps in subtle ways.
The book’s cover image is taken from Mr. Mitchell’s series “Boys of Walthamstow”: young Black men stand bare-chested in a field, their heads bowed. There’s an element of fraternity, but one of the youths’ heavy chain necklace places the image within the continuum of Black American subjugation, from slavery to sharecropping to the prison labor of the chain gang. The images of young people lazing on picnic blankets and eating dripping ice cream cones are haunted by inherited traumas: a young man in a hoodie, face down on the floor with his hands locked behind his back, and another aiming a plastic squirt gun, echo the killings of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, splintering Mr. Mitchell’s Eden.
The title, “I Can Make You Feel Good,” sounds like a cure or a come-on, but really its meaning is less obtuse. “I literally heard it in the Atlanta airport, man,” Mr. Mitchell said of the 1982 Shalamar song. “I was with my mom traveling to Amsterdam, thinking about the FOAM [Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam] show, not sure if I was going to take it, like, ‘nah, I’m not a fine art photographer, why would a museum be offering me a show?’ And I’m sitting there and I’m like, damn, this song is good. And the words kept ringing in my head and I was like: that’s the name of the show. That’s the declaration.”
The museum was interested in a more veiled or academic title, worried that the vaguely sexual entreaty of an ’80s R&B group was too direct. “I was like, no, ” Mr. Mitchell said. “That’s exactly what this time should be about: being as direct as possible.”