For the first time in magazine’s 126-year history, an African American photographer will shoot its cover, and we have none other than Beyoncé to thank. At the singer’s behest, 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell has been hired to photograph her for the fashion publication’s esteemed September issue, traditionally its biggest and most anticipated volume of the year. (It was even the subject of a documentary film back in 2009.)
Beyoncé, a dedicated champion of black artists, reportedly agreed to grace the cover of if and only if she was given full creative control of her photo shoot, even to the point of writing the captions for the images herself. True to form, she has not agreed to be interviewed for the occasion.
The move represents a major departure from how things are usually done by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, a famously controlling figure who is said to run her magazine with an iron fist. Although Mitchell has shot for the likes of Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, and American Eagle—even doubling as a model for the latter—and counts celebrities such as Rose McGowan and Naomi Campbell among his (now-rapidly increasing) tens of thousands of Instagram followers, he is a surprise pick for , which tends to rely on a small handful of pre-approved, highly established cover photographers.
Beyoncé’s last cover for the glossy, in September 2015—also not accompanied by an interview—was the work of Mario Testino, an industry veteran and Wintour favorite. (Testino was accused of sexual misconduct in January and has not worked with the magazine since.)
“The reason a 23-year-old black photographer is photographing Beyoncé for the cover of is because Beyoncé used her power and influence to get him that assignment,” an anonymous source told HuffPost. (The article also cites four sources claiming this will be Wintour’s final September issue.)
A 2017 graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Mitchell grew up in Atlanta and took up photography as a teenager, documenting the local skateboarding scene and fashion and youth culture. He cites William Eggleston, Viviane Sassen, and Clayton Patterson as influences in his work.
“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell told the in a December profile. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”
In 2015, Mitchell self-published a book, , based on a six-week trip to Cuba. Named after Cuba’s bootleg internet—weekly downloads of Western music, movies, and television shows—the book featured Mitchell’s photos of Cuban teens skating as well as local architecture.
That same year, he spoke with Complex about the challenges of shooting high-profile celebrities. “Hopefully, I just push forward in the direction of forging real relationships between innovative image-makers and influential figures to create collaborative content,” he said. “Being in the music world and shooting famous people is really some shit I just don’t want to do…I can’t comprehend the desire to shoot someone without a real-life connection.”
It seems likely Beyoncé is of a similar mindset. The singer has previously worked closely with photographer Awol Erizku, who shot the singer and her husband Jay-Z at the Louvre museum during a 2014 trip to Paris—a precursor to their new “Apeshit” music video—as well as for her 2017 pregnancy announcement.
Mitchell’s work is currently included in “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now” at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16). These vibrantly colored portraits of young black men, inspired in part by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, are Mitchell’s response to his own struggles growing up to process his African American identity.
“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”
Last spring, Mitchell photographed the cover of Teen Vogue, featuring gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin. He has also shot celebrities including Spike Lee and Jaden Smith and filmed music videos, although he’s hesitant to draw a distinction between his art practice and work for commercial clients.
“I look at all these outlets of expression as ways I fill my artistic void,” Mitchell told Crack. “I look at them as all the same.”
“I don’t look at what I do as fashion photography,” he added, speaking to Lomography. “It’s probably how I’ve been branded and named, and I’m okay with that because it allows me to work with interesting people, publications, and clothes, all of which ultimately push an idea through photography.”
In other words, keep your eyes on your local newsstand this fall.