Tyler Mitchell and Tyler, the Creator Talk Picnics, Dreaming, and Mariah Carey (2024)

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By Marley Marius

Tyler Mitchell and Tyler, the Creator Talk Picnics, Dreaming, and Mariah Carey (4)

Tyler Mitchell, Vastness, 2021.Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

A recent call between two Tylers—Mitchell, as in the virtuosic photographer, and Okonma, as in the rapper and designer Tyler, the Creator—represented a joyful meeting of the minds. Where Mitchell’s lush aesthetic vision has centered the likes of Beyoncé and Harry Styles in the modern pastoral, Tyler, the Creator has made a kind of artful absurdity his calling card; the striking videos from his latest album, Call Me If You Get Lost, offer perfect examples.

Ahead of his two solo exhibitions at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York this fall (“Dreaming in Real Time” at 513 West 20th Street and “I Can Make You Feel Good” at 524 West 24th Street, both on view September 9–October 30), Tyler Mitchell touched base with Tyler, the Creator about art, nature, and the lingering influence of their hometowns on their work. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

Tyler Mitchell: I wanted to do this conversation because you’re a fellow image-maker I really respect.

Tyler, the Creator: Thank you.

Mitchell: Do you want to talk about the videos you’ve been making over the years? Basically how you approach them, and what your thoughts are on photography and images right now?

TTC: Yeah. Some of my earliest memories of things I liked would be James and the Giant Peach, The Night Before Christmas, Toy Story—they all have this lively, saturated look to them. And I think now, as a grown-ass adult, you can see that in my work; [there’s] this certain shape to it that I think I could call mine at this point. And I’ve been inspired by a lot of different things, but man, being able to look at a photo and say, What is that? is something I’ve always been enamored with and tried to put in my own stuff. So whether it’s a video of me getting face surgery and just being a whole different race, or me eating the lips off of a girl on a regular-ass street, you look at it and it’s like, Oh, it’s alive. I think that’s just my base, even whether it’s Instagram photos that I post up. It has, like, a life to it.

Mitchell: Yeah, it just jumps off of whatever you’re showing it on. I grew up loving Toy Story, too, and James and the Giant Peach, so that’s funny that you say that. For this show I made a lot of images, but I made one of a family standing on the edge of this sand dune in Georgia, and there’s this big, elongated shirt that this boy is wearing, and two little brothers are holding the sleeves. And you don’t know what it is, but you just look at it and you’re like, Why is there this huge, playful moment of fashion connecting these people? I feel like your work does that, too. Like, when you see a gigantic boat floating through the mountains, you’re just like, what is that?

TTC: Yeah. I really, I really love…I was never into sci-fi. Like, I’ve never seen Star Wars. I’ve always loved reality, but sh*t that’s weird there. I love Surrealist art, like Mark Ryden, Dalí, Frida, René, because it’s rooted in reality, but it’s like, weird reality. And that’s kind of how the Tim Burtons were for me. So my base is just like saying, Oh, what if this happened? Because there are no rules. So when I’m on a boat, but it’s in grass, but I still dive in it like it’s water, like that’s mad real to me. That’s kind of where my brain goes when I look at stuff. And I’m hyped people f*ck with it, but sometimes you just know as an artist that that’s your sh*t. That’s what gets me off. That long-ass shirt that you have, that’s what gets you off. And every time we make something, we keep trying to get ourselves off equally or even more than the last time we got ourselves off with what we look at, or what we make, or how we sing, or anything like that. And I think that’s the best way for people to figure out their style. ’Cause then it just gets mad specific.

Mitchell: You just go deeper into what you really like, rather than trying to run around or skirt around the thing you like. You’re like, I like this weird thing. I like blowing up couches to be three times the size of what they should be.

TTC: Yes. I love it when someone’s like, “Yeah, I did this.” And you’re like, “Why?” And it’s like, “Because I like it.” I’m like, that is the best answer, because everything doesn’t need a superdeep, I-took-a-psychology-class answer. It’s just like, I like it. It looks great. I don’t know how to articulate why I like it, but yes.

Mitchell: Someone else who I really like who says that is Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t know if you like his movies, like Boogie Nights and things like that.

TTC: I f*cking hate There Will Be Blood.

Mitchell: That’s one of my favorite movies, so that’s maybe where we have different tastes. But when [Anderson] was making Inherent Vice, he was like, “I was just watching a bunch of hippie movies and I thought, I like that. I want to do that.” You know? And he just went for it and re-created it and did what he needed to do.

TTC: That’s why it’s sick. He’s like, “I like that. I want to make my version of it.” Like, dude, that’s all Call Me If You Get Lost was. Like, I want to listen to hard-ass rap, but like, I want to do it in my way. I want to flex about traveling and eating this and doing that, and that’s what it is. I love that he’s just straight up with that. Like, “I was watching these movies and then I was like, I’m going to make one. And that’s it. Like, fire.

Mitchell: That’s all it took. So I feel like my new project, “Dreaming in Real Time,” which I showed you, is kind of like my version of, I want to do a Southern project. Travel is super important to me, too. Having been through three years of traveling the world and doing fashion photography, I was like, I kind of want to return home and [do] a Southern project, or a Georgia project, but my own version of it.

TTC: I remember seeing [the pictures] and knowing that you went back to Georgia. It had an energy, just looking at the photos, it just had a…it was in the same world as the way you shoot. But I don’t know if it was more precise, or if you looked at it with a different lens—I mean figuratively—because you appreciate home differently now. Like, I’m from Hawthorne, California. That place is trash. I just wanted to leave. I’d just get on the bus and go wherever, because I just hated it. As I got older, I’m like, Oh, me growing up with these really wide streets and low buildings and being able to see the sun at the angles we see it and being by the beach is why I can’t be in East Coast cities for too long. Or like, [when people say] “Tyler, why do you always wear shorts?” Oh, because of where I grew up. You just notice things are so ingrained in you because of that environment. That’s why, on my passport on Call Me If You Get Lost, I put Hawthorne, California, because, man, people from that area don’t really get to explore the world like that. The way that I enjoy these places that I get to travel to is based on my formative years in this place. So when I saw the new photos you took, I was like, Oh, he’s probably at that point where he’s really starting to notice how much he loves where he grew up.

Tyler Mitchell, Riverside Scene, 2021.Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Mitchell: Exactly. And how much the nature and the parks there actually do influence what I make now, whether it’s shooting a Vogue cover or whatever else. I was like, Oh yeah, I need to go home and tap into that more. So I guess this is that. I remember you made up that fake place, Okaga. That’s not a real place, right?

TTC: No, it was just a place I made up. I got enamored with lakes at one point, because I didn’t go to my first lake until I was about 20. So I was like, I’m [going to] create just a fake place, and that’s where this happens; it’s only these cars, and these are the pets, and it’s a Stevie Wonder[–themed] holiday. sh*t like that, and I will put that narrative and that world into my music. But it’s not real. It’s just a culmination of places I really love.

Mitchell: Maybe my memory is failing me, but I remember you just started saying Okaga, California was a place in some of your videos. I was like, That’s wild. I sort of feel like if there is any connection to these photos or this show, it is that for you; Okaga is a mythic place that is based on a collection of memories. These photos are sort of a mythic version of Georgia for me. The people in them are not in a real space—I staged them, I set it up, but the moments are real all the same.

TTC: But it’s real. It’s based on, like…man, I’m able to really curate my life to a T. Whether it’s always having a specific blanket, or it’s, like, “Hey, where we going to eat lunch at?” “It’s this ill park 40 minutes away.” We could make everything real. Those photos, while they’re staged, they’re real. You took the photo. For one split second, that exists. That’s a culmination of a bunch of things that you put together. So it’s real; it’s just real in different places. I don’t know if that made any sense.

Mitchell: That makes perfect sense. Because I feel both of our visual worlds, on a subconscious level, enable other kids to do what’s depicted in those images. Do you know what I mean? Because we’re curating that life or having those blankets or going to that park. That’s a real thing that happens for young Black kids who are experiencing stuff for the first time.

TTC: Exactly. And it’s really just being selfishly into whatever you’re into. When I say that, it’s not a money thing. It’s not like, Oh Tyler, you got rich. Even when I was 17 years old, we were still curating in our life. It was like, Yo, all right, let’s go here. Let’s spend an hour on a bus to go here, just to be around this stuff, and only eat here. We figured it out. And I think you doing these images and just, like, showing these kids having a picnic at the park, like, bro, that speaks to me so crazy, because I’m still having picnics and I love it. And kids knowing that you could really do all this stuff you see in movies, not in your spare time, in your time, is real. I love it.

Mitchell: True. But you just said something, which is that it’s not about access, necessarily, or money. It’s about seeking adventure on whatever level you can seek it out, whether it is taking a bus or whatever. I like that. Hopefully it encourages that.

TTC: That’s [what] Call Me If You Get Lost is about. It’s: When you’re really out there in the world and you’re on your adventure, call me, because I’ma be out there doing my thing. And that’s when we link. That means we’re on the same wavelength; we got the same antennas. When I see your photos and your work, I’m like, Oh, he gets it. And again, I think you and I share the same idea of romance, of what that is. I remember watching Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” video—they’re on that tire swing and they just jump in the lake…

Mitchell: It feels so free.

TTC: That’s my idea of romance as a grown adult. And I think it’s not an aesthetic, but it’s a world of stuff that’s like that—like the picnics that we still find romantic. And not just on some “Oh, we going to date sh*t.” It’s just a beautiful, romantic thing that we love the idea of. I see it in your work. It’s in my work. I think that that’s super ill to push.

Tyler Mitchell, Fly Fly Fly, 2021.Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Mitchell: For sure. Going back to titles, I titled this show “Dreaming in Real Time.” This body of work, for me, is me thinking about the South in a sort of romantic way, but it’s in real time as well. I was basically here in New York unable to go to Atlanta for a long time, like a lot of people unable to go places, and I was really dreaming about that sh*t. There is an element of it that’s sort of dreamed up, that’s fake, that’s staged or whatever. But these adventures can sort of come together for people in real time. It’s sort of connected to the Call Me If You Get Lost point.

TTC: That’s, I think, what a lot of us do. I’m always dreaming in real time. I’m so based in reality, but it’s skewed in a literal and figurative light. During quarantine, I would ride my bike a lot through Hawthorne in the South Bay, where I’m from. It was like, Oh man, I love this place. I hate it, but it’s like, no, this place is sick. It’s so gross, but I want to just hug it so bad. And when you couldn’t go to Atlanta, I know you were probably fiending to get back to where there’s no sidewalks.

Mitchell: Right. I think when people think of Atlanta, they think a lot of things. They think of a certain sort of hyper-urban image, which isn’t wrong at all. There’s a lot of hyper-urban stuff in Atlanta. There’s a lot of rap in Atlanta. There’s a lot of everything in Atlanta, but people don’t often think about the amount of greenery. It’s the most green city in America.

TTC: When I went to Atlanta in 2017, I think for the Flower Boy tour, this is when I was taking my bike with me everywhere. Bro, we rode through Atlanta, and it’s one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve been in because of how green it is. Y’all have a park—is it Piedmont Park?

Mitchell: Yeah. Piedmont.

TTC: Yes. Like, L.A. parks are so bad, so to see a park that good in a city that’s a city blew my mind.

Mitchell: The only playground that [Isamu] Noguchi ever built is in Piedmont Park.

TTC: Yeah, bro, that thing is crazy. I was like, Who the f*ck built this?

Mitchell: I don’t know if this applies for you or if you have any thoughts on this, but one other thing this body of work deals with is people’s reclamation of landscape. In the history of landscape photographers, it’s been a lot of white folks in those types of pictures—I just hadn’t seen a lot of folks from Atlanta who looked like me. But I also, in a couple pictures, drew red lines through them, sort of referencing the history of the South and divisions that were made by people. Redlining was basically a systemic way to divide people and keep them from mobility, so I think about this idea of how people are mobile now, versus how Black people have been prevented from being mobile in the past. I guess, like, when I see you riding in a giant boat through a field with mountains, I think on some subconscious level—and you tell me if this is the wrong reading of it—but you’re, like, reclaiming the landscape. Like, you actually are thinking about exploring mobility in a way that I haven’t seen.

Tyler Mitchell, Connective Tissue, 2021.Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

TTC: Well, two things to that. I remember you showed me your new photos, and I was like, man, he’s doing this ill park, body of water, picnic thing that we don’t see much with our people. And with a lot of stuff I do, I think it’s just me putting myself in things I’ve always wanted to be in, but, one, I never was in, and, two, I’d never seen guys who look like us in. So even just being in that specific boat—like, that’s the boats that be at Lake Como. There ain’t no photos of no n-ggers in those at all. So I’m like, hell yeah, I’ma ride that motherf*cker through the mountain and I’ma have all my trunks. Man, I ain’t know what trunks was until I was, like, in my 20s. I was like, Oh, these things are sick, but I never would see people with them much except for old, rich white people. So I’m bringing all my trunks on the boat; we in the water; I’m pulling all my whips out. And even just playing the tuba and doing all that in the middle of nowhere, because I think that landscape is beautiful, because I grew up in the city—I think, to your point, it’s subconsciously reclaiming that world.

Mitchell: But above all else, like you were saying, it’s just doing what you like. That’s sort of the biggest part of it.

TTC: Love it. I hope I don’t lose service, but this is what I get to see...that’s the ocean. I love having that to look out the window at, because I just appreciate these beautiful, wide-open landscapes. Driving through the Northwest and the Midwest, that sh*t’s gorgeous. I’m so happy your art isn’t just focused on this or that or one thing. It’s wide open, but one of the things you do focus on is that idea of landscape, vast—

Mitchell: Openness.

TTC: Openness that n-ggas don’t see much. So I like that you’re doing it. Please keep it up.

Mitchell: Thanks, man. I wonder, have you ever wanted to do an exhibition?

TTC: I always thought about...like, I be painting pink Rolls-Royces and sh*t. [Laughs.]

Mitchell: That’s fun!

TTC: Yeah. I haven’t put anything I’ve painted out much. I always thought, Man, what would [the exhibition] be? Would I put paintings up? Would I put the photos I’ve taken over the years up? Will I just play my videos on the big screen? There’s so much that I think I could show. Like, Hey, y’all, this is what I’ve done for the last 10 years.

Mitchell: You should think about it.

TTC: Bro, my sketchbook is…if I had to save anything in my house if a fire happened, the top three things [are] my sketchbooks, my hard drive, and my N.E.R.D fan stuff I’ve collected since I was 12 years old. Like, bro, I draw everything, still to this day, in this notebook. I could definitely put them out one day.

Mitchell: Do a show. Do a show with them. I need to just draw more in general—I pick up a camera too much because I can’t draw.

TTC: Then write it down—like, write, look, listen. I write everything down—I still to this day write thoughts out. It’s important to do that. It helps me think; I think it’ll help you think. I think even, like, if you have a shot in your head, sketching it out...I like doing that. I advise you just start doing it as much as you can.

Mitchell: I’m going to take that advice. I feel like I’ve become too reliant on iPhone notes, and I’m like, no, I need to write this sh*t down.

TTC: No, write it down.

Mitchell: Write it down. Yeah.

Marley Marius is a features editor at Vogue, where she covers film, theater, and art (among other things). She has been at the magazine since 2017.

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