SPIKE LEE TEACHES independent filmmaking. Anna Wintour provides insights about leadership. Frank Gehry offers fundamentals about architecture and design. A fine art and fashion photographer, Tyler Mitchell provides instruction on how to tell stories through portrait photography.

Mitchell shot to fame in the creative world when he became the first Black photographer and youngest photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue, capturing Beyoncé for the September 2018 issue of the magazine.

Today, he is the latest expert to join MasterClass, a platform for learning and exploration powered by a stable of legends who have translated their sweeping experience, numerous years of work, and kernels of wisdom accumulated throughout their careers into digestible lessons presented in a series of video classes.

 


Photographer Tyler Mitchell. | Courtesy MasterClass

 

Mitchell’s images have a specific look and feel that open up the traditional confines of Black representation. His constructed scenes are recognized for their effortless beauty, profound sense of freedom and joy, and thoughtful commentary on race in America. “I’m mainly trying to create a self-contained utopia, a self-contained world,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“I’m mainly trying to create a self-contained utopia, a self-contained world.” — Tyler Mitchell

For his MasterClass, Mitchell discusses how he makes pictures and the elements that contribute to creating a good photograph. Speaking with authority, his presentations are conversational and accessible. He opens up about his methods, techniques, and equipment and uses transparency about his own work as an opportunity to highlight alternative options and encourage viewers to figure out what’s best for them. His tone throughout is encouraging, emphasizing that the only way to get better is to “keep taking pictures.”

MASTERCLASS ENLISTS LEADERS in their fields to share their skills and perspectives with paid subscribers. A wide range of subjects is covered, from acting and songwriting to bread baking, poker playing, and getting better sleep.

Each expert teaches a class comprised of multiple video lessons. The segments are effectively like one-on-one sessions with the likes of Serena Williams, Stephen Curry, Amy Tan, Walter Mosley, Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg, Alicia Keys, Timbaland, N.K. Jemisin, RuPaul, Questlove, Sheila E., Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alice Waters, Samuel L. Jackson, Misty Copeland, and Shonda Rhimes.

Mitchell’s class includes 11 lessons. Each one ranging from approximately 3 to 12 minutes. He reviews lighting, editing, art directing, choosing a camera that reflects your voice, finding an audience online, and building confidence as an artist, among other essentials.

The MasterClass library features more than 100 instructors. Kelly Wearstler gives a primer on interior design. Ron Finley provides guidance on gardening. Thomas Keller shows you how to cook. Gordon Ramsay does too, in a more compelling manner.

Recent additions to the platform include relatively young Black voices who are shaping contemporary culture—Issa Ray, Roxane Gay, and now Mitchell. At 26 years old, he is the second youngest contributor, behind Simone Biles, who is 24.

On the visual art front, Mitchell is joining Jeff Koons and fellow portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, a veteran of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. The prime magazine assignments that have gone to Leibovitz for decades are the same ones Mitchell and a new generation young Black photographers are landing, more and more often.

“As one of the best photographers in the world, Tyler is reshaping the lens through which we see culture today,” David Rogier, founder and CEO of MasterClass said in the announcement. “In his MasterClass, he not only shares his process but shows members that they are already equipped with everything they need to take meaningful pictures—an eye, a personal story and any camera.”

“Tyler is reshaping the lens through which we see culture today. In his MasterClass, he not only shares his process but shows members that they are already equipped with everything they need to take meaningful pictures—an eye, a personal story and any camera.”
— MasterClass Founder & CEO David Rogier


Tyler Mitchell in the studio with models during Lesson 8: Film Photography in the Studio. | Courtesy MasterClass

 

BROOKLYN-BASED MITCHELL grew up in Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. He was consumed with skateboarding until his friend got a camera and he became obsessesed with using it. Early on, his image-making concentrated on music and fashion and filming skateboarding videos with his friends.

In his first MasterClass video, Meet Your Instructor, Mitchell says he was always fascinated with the images he saw on Tumblr and Pinterest and browsing Complex and Dazed magazines online where he was drawn to the work of photographers Petra Collins, Ryan McGinley, and Larry Clark.

“For me, my work is in a certain sense about being inspired by those images and wanting to make images that reflect me in them and that reflect protagonists that look like me in them,” Mitchell said.

“It’s very important for me at least to think about portraying myself, right? Or Black folks, in the light that I portray them in, right? In kind of rich color fields and mainly using natural light. And those things kind of speak to—for me personally and instinctively and aesthetically—a vision of optimism for Black folks.”

“It’s very important for me to think about portraying myself or Black folks, in the light that I portray them in, kind of rich color fields and mainly using natural light. Those things kind of speak to—for me personally and instinctively and aesthetically—a vision of optimism for Black folks.”
— Tyler Mitchell

In 2017, Mitchell earned a BFA in film and television from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2017), where he studied with Deborah Willis. The next year he photographed Beyoncé for Vogue. He has since photographed then-Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris for the February 2021 cover of Vogue and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for the December 2020 cover of Vanity Fair. Mitchell regularly shoots for a selection of arts and culture publications and also photographs campaigns for a variety of brands and fashion labels.

In 2019, one of Mitchell’s portraits of Beyoncé was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. At the end of the year, he was named a 2020 fellow at the Gordon Parks Foundation.

The exhibition catalog “Tyler Mitchell: I Can Make You Feel Good” documents the photographer’s first solo show. The presentation opened in 2019 at Fotografiemuseum (FOAM) in Amsterdam and traveled to the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, where it was on view in 2020. In June, Mitchell’s work will be featured in “Feedback,” a group show organized by curator Helen Molesworth at The School, Jack Shainman Gallery’s exhibition space in Kinderhook, N.Y.

 


TYLER MITCHELL, “Untitled (Group Hula Hoop),” 2019. | © Tyler Mitchell, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

FOR MOST OF HIS MASTERCLASS LESSONS, Mitchell is seated talking directly to the camera. He appears to be speaking off the cuff, comfortable in his knowledge and experience. He discusses the advantages and differences to keep in mind when shooting with your phone, a digital camera, or using film.

In lessons about working with natural light indoors, digital editing, and film photography, Mitchell maximizes opportunities for learning by taking the viewer with him on two photo shoots. As he conducts the sessions, he talks about what he is doing: working with models, composing images, and manipulating natural light and studio light.

In Lesson 6, Mitchell sits at his computer for an editing session, explaining his process for organizing images and narrowing down his selections. Using Bridge, he goes one-by-one detailing why some images make the cut and others don’t. Then he demonstrates how he touches up images and the various tools available in Photoshop.

Throughout the class, Mitchell refers to specific images, displaying them on the screen to explain the backstory behind the subject, the setting, or its composition. He said “Untitled (Group Hula Hoop)” (2019), which captures kids on a sidewalk in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is one of his favorite images.

“It was shot from above and it was shot in this kind of grid-like manner where you see these kids all in kind of unison hula hooping and it was such a moment of freedom for all the kids in their expressions and their body postures,” Mitchell said.

In Lesson 3, which focuses on lighting and composition, Mitchell makes recommendations for lighting Black skin. “My idea in terms of lighting Black skin is that I’m trying to light it, or depict it, or render it, as accurately as it looks in real life… But in terms of how to do it, in general, if you’re a photographer you should bring your own ideas to it,” he said.

“A lot of photographers like to render it darker than it looks, brighter than it looks. I like to try to depict it as accurately as possible. There’s a whole range of dark skin tones and as long as you are aware that dark skin or black skin or brown skin is in the shadow region of the image, so as long as you, as a photographer, are aware of that and you are manipulating the shadow region of your image to look however you want, then you’re good.”

“My idea in terms of lighting Black skin is that I’m trying to light it, or depict it, or render it, as accurately as it looks in real life… There’s a whole range of dark skin tones and as long as you are aware that dark skin or black skin or brown skin is in the shadow region of the image… and you are manipulating the shadow region of your image to look however you want, then you’re good.” — Tyler Mitchell

Each lesson concludes with take aways, key themes that summarize the presentation that appear as text on the screen. Some are fairly obvious, others are particularly helpful, practical, and reassuring. A few of Mitchell’s take aways include: “You don’t need an expensive camera to take good photos”; “Perspective is more important than technique”; “Avoid taking photos outside between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun is directly overhead”; and “Simple props and commonplace locations can often express more than elaborate, expensive sets.”

Mitchell said he considers the MasterClass to be a part of his artistic practice. “To those of you watching, it’s always been important to me to share and to make accessible some of the information that I’ve learned along the way on my journey as an artist,” he said. “I hope that if you are watching this, you take some of those lessons and apply them to your own lives and journeys as artists.” CT

 

FIND MORE about Tyler Mitchell on his website

 


In his new MasterClass, Tyler Mitchell shares insights about how to tell stories through portrait photography. | Video by MasterClass

 

BOOKSHELF
“Tyler Mitchell: I Can Make You Feel Good” accompanies the artist’s first solo exhibition presented at FOAM in Amsterdam and the International Center of Photography in New York. A striking portrait by Tyler Mitchell covers “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion.” The volume showcases Mitchell’s work along with 14 other rising fashion photographers and accompanies a traveling exhibition organized by the Aperture Foundation. In 2015, Mitchell self-published “El Paquete,” documenting his experience in Cuba. The limited-edition of 200 copies is now out of print.

 

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