Two photographers turn their lenses on black culture and identity


Tyler Mitchell’s Cultural Turns installation at Metro Hall.Toni Hafkenscheid/CONTACT

American photographer Tyler Mitchell rose to fame in 2018 after becoming the first black photographer to grace the cover of American Vogue. Just 23 when he created this historic portrait of Beyoncé, Mitchell is one of the highlights of the 26th annual Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. For the month of May, his work – along with more than 140 exhibitions by Canadian and international artists based on the lens – will be presented in museums, galleries and public spaces in Toronto.

With confidence and playfulness, Mitchell’s photos create scenes capturing black people in moments of leisure and joy, often in natural settings. His exhibition Cultural Turns takes place on three sites: Contact Gallery, as well as two outdoor installations at Metro Hall and billboards positioned at the intersection of Dupont and Dovercourt streets.

Jorian Charlton, Georgia, 2020, installation.Toni Hafkenscheid/CONTACT

Another festival highlight is Toronto photographer Jorian Charlton, whose work is mounted high on the facade of a building across from the Contact Gallery. Inspired by family photo albums, Charlton’s vibrant portraits of the Caribbean and African-Canadians act as archives of intimate and underrepresented facets of black culture and identity. Alongside the billboard project, Charlton’s Out of Many exhibit is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and fi di gyal demis presented online by the Doris McCarthy Gallery.

Solana Cain, curator and photo editor at The Globe and Mail, spoke with Mitchell and Charlton about their practices.

What is your first memory of having taken a photo?

Tyler Mitchell: When I was around 13 or 14, I was a teenage skateboarder, so I kind of found a community of friends in the sport of skateboarding – and a lot of sport captures sport as well. Filming skateboarding and taking pictures of kids doing tricks on stairs and things like that. I remember my friend doing a lot of this and I was intrigued by what he was doing and asking if I could borrow his camera all the time…this is my earliest memory of taking what I considered artistic photography .

Tyler Mitchell, Riverside Scene, 2021.Tyler Mitchell

Jorian Charlton: I went to a Catholic high school and brought my camera on the “occasional days” to take pictures of my friends. … I definitely wasn’t seriously thinking about photography; at that time it was just a hobby.

A significant part of your work is created outside of photo studios. Why do you prefer more natural settings?

TM: Both are very valid ways of working; they are kind of like brushes. Some of my favorite images I’ve done in the studios. But I love outdoor environments simply because I’m inspired by the pastoral south, where I grew up – maybe it ties into my early days as a skateboarder as a teenager – but I was always outdoors. Atlanta, Georgia, where I’m from, usually has great weather and very green landscapes, so I think some of that memory is infused into my work.

JC: I think it came out of fear. When I was in school, we had to do a lot of homework in the studio and I felt so behind, in terms of equipment and software. I had no knowledge of these things, so I preferred to be there. I like natural light. But now I know more about lighting, and over the past three years I’ve become more comfortable with the studio and other interior spaces.

For the Contact Festival, you both have large public facilities in Toronto. How do you feel about seeing your work in this urban environment compared to pastoral settings?

TM: I think it’s great! I like the kind of juxtaposition, it’s almost infusing the city with a moment of calm, a moment of rest or escape, in a way. And the work itself kind of suggests a presence of Blackness in the city that I really appreciate.

Jorian Charlton, Untitled (Nyabel & Nevine), 2021.Jorian Charlton

JC: I feel like it’s appropriate. … It’s nice to take up space. Artwork in institutions can be intimidating, but when it’s in public it’s more relevant to people…and people can also feel like they can do something like that. When I was in school, I was in shambles; I didn’t think I could do photography, but I feel like the fact that there’s a lot more black art represented is really encouraging.

Tyler, your work pushes back against the restriction of movement that the black community has endured, and still does – but you bring attention to it in a joyous way. You have described your work as a “black utopian vision”. Is this concept your motivation when creating a job and how do you keep it in mind?

TM: I’m grateful to have had the rare luxury of mobility throughout my life to travel, but also mobility in Atlanta – I grew up in the suburbs and went to school in the city, and I have seen both sides of many things. From my experience there, I think of mobility and aspiration, what you see in photographs – whether you see a family commanding a landscape in a certain way or two men embracing in the landscape from California. … The cover of my book (I can make you feel good) are five young black British boys standing in the marshes of Walthamstow. These are considerations in the photographs for sure. … I think good photographs always offer a future.

Jorian, with your work, I see you approaching black surveillance by having your models look directly into the camera; they look at the viewer instead of the other way around. Is this gaze intentional in your work?

JC: Yes, because I always want to feel like it’s a collaboration. It is not because I photograph you that I am not above you. It’s funny, this woman just finished her master’s and she did her thesis on black Canadian identity and representation, and she talked about my work – and I was like, ‘Oh my god, people write theses about my stuff, but I’m just a regular girl trying to do my thing.

People call you both “rising stars”. In my opinion, you have grown up and become part of art history. How do you see your place in this pantheon?

TM: In a way, it’s amazing. I’m really proud that things went so well. I also think history has been written and is being made. In the same way, I’m still writing my story as a young artist, so I’m a bit compulsively prolific, I guess – I’m excited to leave behind a trail of good stuff for people to follow. dive in and enjoy.

Tyler Mitchell, Connective Tissue, 2021.Tyler Mitchell

JC: It’s very crazy for me. … Every time my former teacher says she’s so proud of me, I think about how I was going to drop out of the program. Now I see my work integrating into places like the AGO. I have come a long way. I started taking photos of my friends on a “casual day” at Catholic school!

What or who do you want to see happen behind you?

TM: More young people. It’s really good that we’re in a moment of celebrating youth rather than giving a really talented artist their flowers too late.

JC: I want to see more black female photographers, which I feel like I’m starting to see more and more, because we’re here.

Finally, how does the work of the other resonate in each of you?

TM: It seems to be very colorful and very focused on the local community. I think any photographer who does that, who seems to want to talk about their own experience and be “telling the truth” in some way, that’s interesting. I’m curious, as an American, to dive deeper into the work and understand what it’s like as a Canadian.

Tyler Mitchell, Untitled (Walthamstow Boys), 2018.Tyler Mitchell

JC: I love that it has this mix of more produced fashion work, but it also has images of simple, everyday moments. It resonates with me because I take pictures of ordinary people.

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