Having already achieved a series of firsts, the 28-year-old photographer is thrilled to be a part of NGV Triennial.

By Sarah-Jane Collins

Tyler Mitchell’s portraits of Beyoncé, left, and Kamala Harris for American Vogue.

Tyler Mitchell’s portraits of Beyoncé, left, and Kamala Harris for American Vogue.

Tyler Mitchell was just 23 when he became the first black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue. His subject was Beyoncé, and his dreamy, delicately hued portraits spoke of a precocious visual talent. In the five years since, he has exhibited around the world, become an Instagram darling, with more than 500,00 followers, and shot what would become the most controversial vice-presidential portrait in living memory.

When Mitchell’s portrait of Kamala Harris dressed in sneakers and casual clothing was chosen for the cover of Vogue for February 2021, the social media backlash was swift. Critics questioned why his alternative image – in which Harris looked more, well, vice-presidential – hadn’t been used instead. Bowing to the outrage over the perceived lack of respect shown to the first woman – and the first black American – to reach such high office, the magazine later issued a limited edition using the more formal shot.

The controversy did little to dent the New York-based photographer’s reputation as a rising star of the medium and this month, three of his works can be seen in the NGV’s Triennial exhibition.

The first, Picnic, depicts a family gathering: young men throw a football, and a child is lifted on shoulders. There are wicker baskets and a thermos, and in the background, a darkened wood that perhaps hints at the fragility of a moment so peaceful and pure.

Tyler Mitchell, Picnic. 2021 (detail).

Tyler Mitchell, Picnic. 2021 (detail).Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

In the other works, his figures are arranged across a sandy expanse in idealised depictions of black American leisure. In Albany, Georgia, a football flies through the air, a father in dress shirt and tails twirls a child, and a young boy rides a toy truck. Vastness focuses on a teenage boy who stands patiently as his younger siblings stretch his wildly elongated sleeves out beside him; nearby, a dog sits listening to a violinist.

These carefully staged set-ups are evidence of Mitchell’s desire to establish a new visual narrative for black Americans.


“I think that I am part of a longer lineage of black artists who have considered how they respond to the Western historical art canon, but also it’s 2023, and it’s a new day and I think beyond just responding to that canon, we’re trying to use the limited language of pictures to try and imagine what personal and unencumbered freedom looks like for young black men and women today,” he tells me when we chat in New York in the lead-up to the Triennial.

In one of his favourite works, A Glint of Possibility, a teenage boy hangs over a river suspended on a tyre swing, studying his own reflection. The moment is pensive and peaceful at once, and relatable to anyone who’s ever been a child on a tyre swing on a hot summer day. Something about it speaks to the turmoil and tension inherent in the experience of black American teenage boys, about the ways their lives can be complicated by the world we all inhabit. How even when doing unremarkable things – walking home, playing in the park, talking to their crush – their lives can be destroyed or irrevocably altered.

Mitchell understands the significance of these contrasts. His work exists in the tension between what is possible and how things are. He describes it as: “A consideration of joy, perseverance and self-determination against the backdrop of history.”

Tyler Mitchell: “I’ve never been to Australia so it’s very exciting to sort of have a global or new conversation on a new continent with my work.″⁣

Tyler Mitchell: “I’ve never been to Australia so it’s very exciting to sort of have a global or new conversation on a new continent with my work.″⁣Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The theme of the Triennial is “Magic, Matter, Memory”, making Mitchell’s pieces a logical inclusion.

“A lot of my work meditates on being between a heightened reality, or potentially even a magical reality and an actual reality,” he says.


“I’m creating what I call lightly staged moments. And so that means I’m setting up scenarios where these families are enjoying real moments of leisure in outdoor spaces, usually open pastures and fields, and those moments are meant to stand in for a meditation on what it means to enjoy leisurely outdoor nature as a black person.”

Tyler Mitchell, Vastness, 2021.

Tyler Mitchell, Vastness, 2021.Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

In the listless anxious days of the pandemic, as the Black Lives Matter movement rose in the summer of 2020, and the conversation of what black life looked like was being routinely debated in the press, black artists and activists looked to reframe that conversation, and force new perspectives of peace, luxury, and safety into the picture.

Instead of seeking to record things as they are, Mitchell’s work asks us to imagine new realities. He says he wants to challenge “visual regimes”: assumptions about certain people or cultures that are reinforced over and over again.

“I think that [photojournalism] is a well from which we all culturally – consciously or unconsciously – construct ideas of how people live around the world,” he says. “My work is really about responding to, and questioning, and challenging those ideas.”

Tyler Mitchell Albany, Georgia, 2021 (detail).

Tyler Mitchell Albany, Georgia, 2021 (detail).Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

As a 20-year-old film student at New York University, Mitchell became enamoured with still photography after he signed up to do a documentary photography course in Havana, Cuba. Frustrated by the amount of time and money required to make films, he was drawn to the accessibility of still photography.


“I was impatient when I got started and just wanted to make visual things now, and I didn’t want to wait for permission, or didn’t want to wait on equipment, or didn’t want to lug large amounts of equipment up flights of stairs. I just wanted to make something that I felt compelled by, immediately,” he says.

His career has only blossomed in the years since he took that trip, and while some artists might feel trepidation at the attainment of so much success from such an early age, Mitchell is clear-eyed.

“The idea of the road ahead only excites me,” he says. “The idea that there will be very quiet, sleepy periods, and frenetic periods, or hyperactive periods … It’s always refreshing as a young person to see how the career of a much older, more senior artist has really gone.

“That senior artist that we know and love today had decades where they were out of style, out of fashion, people thought their work was done, their best work was behind them, and yet, often had resurgences.

“I think when we’re thinking about crafting a career … we’re really talking about allowing space for bad and good, allowing space for artists to make and work through complicated and sometimes not-so-favourable ideas. And I try to give myself that same space. It’s only about giving yourself grace and space and thinking one day at a time.”

Asked if there’s a dream project, or a dream collaborator for him, Mitchell says there are too many. But with one monograph (2020’s I Can Make You Feel Good) under his belt, he’s hungry to make more.


“I don’t find myself returning to an Instagram post that might have moved me four or five years ago, but I find myself returning to books from five, or even 40, or 50 years ago … Books are where my excitement is right now.”

In the meantime, Mitchell is excited to be part of the Triennial.

“I’ve never been to Australia, so it’s very exciting to sort of have a global or new conversation on a new continent with my work,” he says. “Who wouldn’t be excited to be billed next to Tracey Emin?”

The NGV Triennial runs from December 3, to April 7, 2024.

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