Turning the lens on Black culture and identity

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

American photographer Tyler Mitchell rocketed to fame in 2018 after becoming the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue. Just 23 when he created that history-making portrait of Beyoncé, Mitchell is one of the highlights of the 26th edition of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. For the month of May, his work by him – along with more than 140 exhibitions by Canadian and international lens-based artists – will be in museums, galleries and public spaces across Toronto.

With confidence and playfulness, Mitchell’s photos craft scenes capturing Black people in moments of leisure and joy, often in natural settings. His exhibition Cultural Turns is at three sites: Contact Gallery, along with 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-based photographer Jorian Charlton, whose work is installed high on the façade of a building across from the Contact Gallery. Inspired by family photo albums, Charlton’s vibrant portraits of Caribbean and African Canadians act as archives of intimate and underrepresented facets of Black culture and identity. Along with the billboard project, Charlton’s exhibition Out of Many is up at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and “fi di gyal dem” is presented online by Doris McCarthy Gallery.

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

What’s your earliest memory of taking a photograph?

Tyler Mitchell: When I was about 13 or 14, I was a teenage skateboarder so I sort of found a community of friends in the sport of skateboarding – and a big part of the sport is also capturing the sport. Filming skateboarding and taking pictures of kids doing tricks down stair sets and things like this. I remember my friend did a lot of that and I was intrigued by what he was doing and I asked if I could borrow his camera all the time … that’s my earliest memory of taking what I thought of as an artistic photograph.

Tyler Mitchell, Riverside Scene, 2021.Tyler Mitchell

Jorian Charlton: I went to a Catholic high school and I’d bring my camera on “casual day” to take pictures of my friends. … I definitely was not thinking about photography seriously; at that point it was just a hobby.

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

TM: Both are very valid modes of working; they’re kind of like paintbrushes. Some of my favorite images, I’ve made in studios. But I like outdoor settings just because I’m inspired by the pastoral south, where I grew up – maybe it ties into my start as a skateboarder as a teenager – but I was just always outside. Atlanta, Georgia, where I’m from, has generally nice weather and very green landscapes, so I think part of that memory is infused in my work.

JC: I think it came from fear. When I was in school, we had to do a lot of the assignments in the studio and I felt so behind, in terms of equipment and software. I had no knowledge of any of these things, so I preferred to be on location. I love natural light. But now I know more about lighting, and in the past three years I’ve become more comfortable with being in the studio and other indoor spaces.

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

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

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

JC: I feel like it’s fitting. … It’s nice to be taking up space. Artwork in institutions can be intimidating, but when it’s in the public, it’s more relatable to people … and people can feel like they can do something like this, too. 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 being represented is definitely encouraging.

Tyler, your work pushes back on the restriction of movement that the Black community has endured, and still does – but you bring attention to this in a joyful way. You’ve described your work as “Black utopian vision,” Is that concept your motivator when creating work, and how do you keep it top of mind?

TM: I’m grateful to have had a rare luxury of mobility throughout my life to travel, but also mobility within Atlanta – I grew up in the suburbs and went to a school in the city, and saw two sides of many things. In my experience there, I think mobility and aspiration, which is what you see in the photographs – whether you see a family commanding a landscape in a certain way or two men embracing in the landscape of California. … The cover of my book (I Can Make You Feel Good) is five young British Black boys holding one another in Walthamstow Marshes. Those are considerations in the photographs for sure. … I think good photographs always propose a future.

Jorian, with your work, I see you addressing oversurveillance of Black people by having your models look directly into the camera; they stare at the viewer instead of the other way around. Is that gaze intentional in your work?

JC: Yes, because I always want to feel like it’s a collaboration. Just because I’m photographing you, I’m 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 spoke about my work – and I thought, “Oh my god people are writing theses on my stuff, but I’m just a regular girl trying to do my thing.”

People refer to you both as “rising stars.” In my opinion, you have risen and are part of art history. How do you see yourself fitting into this pantheon?

TM: In one way, it’s amazing. I’m really proud that things have gone very well. I also think that history has been written and it is being made. By the same token, I’m still writing my story as a young artist, so I’m kind of compulsively prolific, I guess – I get excited by the idea of ​​leaving behind a trail of great stuff for people to get into and enjoy .

Tyler Mitchell, Connective Tissue, 2021.Tyler Mitchell

JC: It’s very crazy to 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 do see my work fitting into places like the AGO. I’ve eaten a long way. I started out taking pictures of my friends on “casual day” at Catholic school!

What or who do you want to see coming up behind you?

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

JC: I want to see more Black women photographers, which I feel like I am actually starting to see more of, because we’re out here.

Lastly, what about the other’s work resonates with each of you?

TM: It seems to be very rich in color and very focused on local community. I think any photographer that’s doing that, that seems to want to speak from within their own experience and be “truth-tellers” in a way, that’s interesting. I’m curious, as an American, to take a deeper dive into the work and understand what that looks like as a Canadian.

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

JC: I like that he does have that mix of more produced fashion work, but he also has images of the everyday, simple moments. That resonates with me because I’m taking photos of everyday people.

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