Tyler Mitchell & Ferdinando Verderi

Interview by Thomas Lenthal

‘I came into this industry post-iPhone and almost post-Instagram, so for me the democratization of image-making and its contradictions – the challenges to authorship, to value, to prestige and to authenticity – all inform my work.’

Of the two unprecedented challenges for image-makers in the last decade, one could be seen coming: the explosion of visual content in a world where every­one possesses a high-quality camera on their phone, the tools to edit images, and the platforms to publish them, instantly, to a global audience. The other was as unexpected as it was far-reaching: a mass reappraisal of what images (and image-makers) represent, and the arrival of identity politics in the realm of fashion. That the industry has thrived in this era of change, producing some of its most exciting and provocative work to date, is testament to the individuals who met this moment.

At the forefront of contemporary fashion image-making, American photographer Tyler Mitchell and Italian art director Ferdinando ‘Ferdi’ Verderi share an uncanny ability to navigate this new landscape, deftly balancing brand communications with an innate sensitivity for the issues of the day. Now near ubiquitous, Mitchell was just 23 when in 2018 he stepped into the spotlight to shoot Beyoncé for the cover of American Vogue’s September issue, making him the first Black photographer to produce the iconic magazine’s lead story. Originally a filmmaker, his eye for narrative and a rich colour palette draws out a deep sense of character from his subjects, including models, friends and celebrities from Harry Styles to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What has become a signature feeling of tenderness is equally evident in the commerical campaigns he’s shot for the likes of Loewe, Gucci, Moncler, Ferragamo, JW Anderson and Marc Jacobs, as well as in his 2022 Gagosian show Chrysalis, and his aptly titled, bestselling 2020 monograph I Can Make You Feel Good. Meanwhile, as creative director of Italian Vogue since 2019, Verderi has made waves fusing social awareness with concept-driven art direction: an entirely illustrated issue of the magazine as an ecological statement; a blank cover to mark the darkest days of the pandemic; and a youth issue featuring drawings by children under nine. Backed by intense, philosophical considerations, Verderi’s work almost magically maintains a lightness of touch sought after by brands including Prada, Versace and Adidas Originals.

Both Mitchell and Verderi have a longstanding attachment to New York, the city each calls home, yet both were on the road, travelling for work, when they spoke to System about algorithms, the new geography of fashion, and the enduring appeal of the in-person experience.

Paris and London,
24 April 2023

Thomas Lenthal: How do you feel about creating fashion imagery in an era defined by Instagram and the democratization of image-making?
Ferdinando Verderi: When I first met Tyler, in about 2015, we were arriving in fashion after this revolution had taken place. I came into this industry post-iPhone and maybe even post-Instagram and, for me, the energy brought by the democratization of image-making and its contradictions, such as the challenges to authorship or value or prestige or authenticity, is very interesting, and I think informs my work. It is hard to be nostalgic, because neither of us was around before, but we hear a lot of interesting stories about how things were different. In fact, Tyler’s generation now often tries to bring back shooting on film and, in a way, the processes of pre-Instagram.
Tyler Mitchell: We met some years ago when I was starting out, just doing some small magazine projects. I was a film student making little music videos with artists, some known, others not. I didn’t have artists in my family; I hadn’t had any exposure to art in a fine-art context or a creative-fashion context. I am of a Tumblr generation of artists. Instagram has now transformed into a sort of Tumblr, but Tumblr then was a swathe of images that came to you in a decontextualized way, and I remember finding this shoot that Harley Weir did of Young Thug, a rapper from Atlanta, where I’m from. I really think that was the springboard for me to understand what types of images resonate.

‘I don’t think I’m better than the average iPhone photographer, but I guess what creates distinction for me is narrative; that is what matters the most.’

Tyler Mitchell

This incredible source of images is what informs you visually, but when everyone has become a photographer through an iPhone, how do you personally look to stand out? What creates the distinction between you as a professional photographer and anyone with an iPhone?
Tyler: ‘Distinction’ is an important word. It is weird; I don’t think I am better than the average iPhone photographer, but I guess what creates distinction for me is really narrative. That is what matters the most. That’s why Ferdi is so great, because he has a distinct sense for ideas and concepts and how they will stand out and distinguish themselves from the rest of what is going on visually. I have chosen to focus on specific forms of casting in my art and fashion work. I talk about where it is I come from and how that informs the work I make: Atlanta, Georgia, and being a young Black image-maker in this contemporary world and what that really means.
Ferdinando: A story just came to mind. When Tyler came to my office, I was seeing a lot of young photographers, and he came in and had this project for Marc Jacobs. What really impressed me was that he had created this need for his images; he had invented a context in which his images made perfect sense. I don’t remember the exact mechanics, but I was really impressed by how he distinguished himself from the sea of photography out there by creating a context for himself, a sort of commercial context that wasn’t even requested, but which sort of legitimized the effort. I found that incredibly smart. Somehow, even with two images that look the same, I believe the intention behind them can be felt, whether through the context or through the energy that the image-makers place into it. You wanted to have a conversation on a commercial level, at a place that was at that time, and maybe still is, somewhere where images are taken seriously. That was very distinctive.
Tyler: Yes, I remember that project because fashion was so foreign to me; I was boldly naive, in a way. The collection that Marc made was an homage to eighties and nineties New York City and the clothes were essentially rap clothes. It was a womenswear collection, but I was interested in casting my own community and putting men in the clothes. I didn’t even realize that that was some sort of transgression, but when I started proposing to stylists that we shoot men in women’s clothes, that was a real problem for some people! I was really invested in, like, why is that an issue? I am attracted to feminine things as much as I am to masculine things. For me, it wasn’t even a conversation about gender; it was just how these clothes spoke to me. I was thinking about Jamel Shabazz images, and the way New York looked in the eighties and nineties, and I was basically finding kids in my neighbourhood, Flatbush in Brooklyn. It was atypical, as well, because I somehow convinced them to cut me loose with a bag of clothes and not give me any direction.

What do you think fashion clients want from imagery today? Do they even know what they’re looking for? What role does photography now play in the world of a brand?
Ferdinando: Personally, I try to shift the conversation away from images and towards meaning, because I think images are the expression of something. It is very hard to discuss images with words; it is almost unfair to images to discuss them with words. If you ask me what a client is looking for, what the industry is looking for, it is something greater than any image can be. That ‘something’ needs to transcend an image, to liberate the image from the weight of being the solution. I think of the image as the expression of something greater than itself.

‘I try to shift the conversation away from images and towards meaning, because the industry is looking for something greater than any image can be.’

Ferdinando Verderi

Do you articulate that for your client? Seldom does a client come up with a clear notion of what they are about. In my experience, it can feel like clients sometimes do not really understand what it is they are trying to say.
Ferdinando: I think they know in their own words and in their own perspective, as much as I know from my own perspective what I am about. It always helps to have a completely different perspective on ourselves. Identity is not an objective, or a finite, or a timeless issue. There is always in my mind a conversation between myself, the people creating the ‘now’ of a brand, and this silent conversation partner: the people who made the history of that brand, decades or a hundred years ago. The energy that the initiative had at the beginning is always a silent partner in this triangulation – that founding energy. I think it is the responsibility of someone who does what we do to recontextualize that everyday. Every project has its own mix of present and past – and for me, that past is always present.

What is your experience of client conversations, Tyler? What are you interested in when trying to understand the client’s expectations? Are they often unclear?
Tyler: [Laughs] I’m laughing because I think Ferdi is much more knowledgeable about the inner workings of these conversations than I am. As a photographer, you know, in the last half decade we have really emerged into a fashion scene after this image-making revolution, and we are of that moment. There’s been a different kind of hunger for images, not just in terms of volume, but quality, and in terms of storytelling and authorship. My experience with fashion clients has been so wonderful, and I’m not saying that in a trite way; I really mean it. What people seem to look for in me is closely tied to a narrative that interests me; they are interested in the characters and the context that I seem to create, whether in my personal work or commercial projects, and they seem to want to lean into that in some way or another. I’m not saying they all want the same thing, because brands are individually different and as an artist I’m sometimes speaking many different languages in my work. But my work with clients in the fashion world is interrelated with my interests, not divorced from them. The images I’m being asked to create usually feed me as a human, if that makes sense. I’m usually connecting with casting I like or photographing someone who inspires and engages me; maybe the hair is really speaking to me and where I came from or the styling is something I love. I have really had the fortunate experience of having clients approach me with what I do in mind.
Ferdinando: Going back to the previous question about the ubiquity of images, that’s something that arguably leads to seeing a lot of images that look the same, which makes who took them even more important. The story of the author becomes part of the image itself; that authenticity of why someone took it is part of making the image, of assessing the quality of an image. This, I think, is one of the ways that today images mean more than how they look – there is a story behind them. That has always been the case, but photography used to be almost like an elite skill, in the sense that you had to train and understand the medium to have a point of view. You always knew who took a photograph because its style had been developed by an individual, and it was arguably wrong to emulate it. When it was, people would notice. So you had these masters of style who had their own language, but today, when an image is important it gets suddenly multiplied by the community out there – and there is nothing wrong with that.
Tyler: That really makes me think about the potential future importance of abandoning the use of style as a crutch, which is why I continue to embrace narrative. It doesn’t bother me so much if an artist has 20 different styles, as long as that language and context weave together to make sense.
Ferdinando: More than just working together, Tyler and I have actually been speaking a lot about things. There was this one experiment we did together that was geared towards something we had been speaking about for a while; this idea of developing Tyler’s photography in a non-linear narrative. In order to develop an experiment like that, you need a lot of space and a complete lack of pressure. During the summer of 2021, we did the digital issue of Italian Vogue where I asked Tyler to do a non-linear visual essay about what was happening in the world, which was very heavy stuff. I then asked our friend [playwright] Jeremy O. Harris to write a non-linear text that would do the same thing, but I didn’t allow them to look at the other’s work, so that the two essays would clash in the magazine and I would lay them out in ways that were almost like a cacophony. The idea was that there was something important going on in the world, we needed Tyler’s voice on it, and Tyler’s most distinctive and meaningful voice would emerge from something that wasn’t under pressure to feel like a linear story. We are both interested in that sort of freedom.
Tyler: Exactly. I remember our conversations during that summer, and it was wonderful because there is a lot of pressure on photographers to do one kind of thing, and it was amazing to be given that space. That is one of my favourite stories, I think. When an artist can work in that way and doesn’t feel restrained and tied down, it just gets more interesting.

‘The ubiquity of images leads to a lot of them looking the same, which makes who took them even more important. The author is part of the image.’

Ferdinando Verderi

Talking of Vogue, you’ve both worked with and had significant moments of success associated with the Vogue brand. What does it represent today as a vehicle for fashion imagery, and how has it evolved over the past decade?
Tyler: It has really been – and continues to be – such an educational and amazing ride making work with Vogue. It’s an institution to be interpreted – the brand name will always be there – and it is wonderful what not only Anna, but the whole lineage of editors has built. Each editor, creative director, like Ferdi, or photographer who comes into the institution’s history has something to add, remix, and play with, so I feel like my role in that history was to inject something new and fresh. I feel like I did that and in collaboration with Ferdi, we did it in an especially radical way.
Ferdinando: Yes, the beauty of Vogue is really its function, which is also what people sometimes have a hard time accepting. Vogue is trying to be this relentless defender of the influence of fashion as an industry, and I think that comes with certain things. My Vogue experience has been incredibly positive, which has a lot to do with the DNA of the Vogue brand, with its calling to be the face of the industry to the world. All my work there has been trying to bring to life that conversation, and obviously Italian Vogue within the Vogue family has its own DNA.
Tyler: I’ve got to say, Ferdi is speaking too little of himself, because we have to put it into context. I mean, he came in there and shook shit up! Just the sheer scale of projects that Ferdi was doing… That is what I mean about Vogue being this amazing institution to interpret and remix and play with. He was doing things like play with the idea of what an Italian Vogue cover could even be, whether it was making the cover entirely blank or entirely maximal, or 100 covers or one distinctive cover – just playing with the format. He is absolutely part of this conversation, too. I think it’s fun when you get to shake up an institution as an artist.
Ferdinando: Yes, definitely. There was a great tension between the Vogue brand and what we were doing, but it is part of Vogue’s calling to speak to the world, to try to connect. Those two Covid years were very important. There was massive energy around inclusivity going on around the world that I felt offered Vogue amazing responsibility to try to make a difference. We talk about images, we talk about words, but I also like to talk about actions – and what I feel I was trying to do with Vogue were actions. ‘Action’ implies some risk taking, and I think people really respond to courage. Doing a blank cover is not only an aesthetic idea or a minimal idea, but it is also an action. It is about challenging the whole idea of the image, or words, in our communication. I genuinely thought those ideas were an expression of the values of the Vogue brand, which is why I felt comfortable pushing it so far.

Ferdi, as an Italian who has been based, and continues to work, in New York, do you sense a natural distinction between European and American fashion-imagery sensibilities?
Ferdinando: I think this discrepancy has really been resolved. This system of in-person communication that was making each city its own world, those differences have gone, especially in the half decade since Tyler and I started working. The internet has redefined the geography of image-making, and actual physical proximity to things doesn’t really matter. However, there is a real energy in New York that I respect and it’s that energy that brought me and Tyler together, in the way that New York really encourages newness. That energy is really hard to emulate. I don’t think it translates into image-making, but I think it translates into an attitude of accepting new things. Arguably, in a different decade, London had even more of that. Tyler, what do you think? As a New Yorker?
Tyler: This is now my tenth year in New York, and I have some clear loyalty; I’ve travelled the world, but New York still feels like the place where my heart is, creatively. It’s where I am most rooted; it is the place where my eyes opened up. I went to university at NYU, and I was only studying film but my whole transformation into becoming a photographer happened there. Once that happened, I felt more comfortable making work in Europe and other parts of the globe, but there is nothing quite like the recipe that New York has. You know, like being able to bop to a bookstore and chat with my girl Miwa [Susuda] at Dashwood Books, and then run into so-and-so on the street and have a conversation about something you may or may not end up doing together collaboratively. You know, these serendipitous things happen in New York. Now, in terms of the geography of image-making in a wider sense, it is weird because when you look at my work geographically, it is not New York City at all. It is quite rural; it is very natural and nature oriented. Why is that, if New York City is my creative inspiration? As a young photographer, I’m actually interested in making work that’s not so caught up in the rat race of contemporary society, this obsession with technology and being in a metropolis. I’m interested more in making pictures of humans in connection and community, and connectivity with nature and with each other.
Ferdinando: This is an anecdote that I think is very New York. Jimmy Moffat, Steven Meisel’s agent, said to me, ‘I am pairing mentors and new photographers, and I would love to pair you with Tyler Mitchell. Would you be his mentor?’ And I said, ‘Of course.’ Then I met Tyler, and a few days later he called me and said, ‘I have to tell you as a mentor something very confidential: I have been asked to shoot the American Vogue cover!’ That whole moment in Tyler’s career – being considered both as emerging and already at this beacon of the establishment – is emblematic of New York’s way of perceiving things.

What are the metrics of success when you create fashion imagery for brands today? Indeed, do you find that the reliance on digital stats is affecting brand equity and creative impulses?
Ferdinando: Some of the characteristics that the algorithms do not reward are certainly what, at some point before, would have made us stop and look at something, but on the other hand, each context has its own rules and its own beauty. When we are operating with these algorithms, it is an interesting challenge to involve your creativity to perform to these metrics. Often things can be made better by these metrics. The problem starts when you forget the context and think of the metrics as rules for creativity as a whole. That is a big dilemma for everyone, because some of the things that we naturally love are outliers that don’t fit to a standard. But every time there is a rule, there is room for new disobedience, and that creates new energy.
Do you get feedback from your clients?
Ferdinando: Yes, of course, but I think that there has always been a type of feedback. Before it was probably word-of-mouth feedback, and now it comes with measurements, but I don’t think it is anything new. I think it just evolved; the metrics evolved.

‘When operating with algorithms, it’s an interesting challenge to use your creativity to perform to these metrics. Things can often be made better by them.’

Ferdinando Verderi

This technology to measure success is available, but fashion clients, specifically the types of clients that you guys work with, don’t seem to be using it. It is almost like things haven’t really evolved and it is still all about word of mouth.
Ferdinando: The awareness of these metrics reframes the conversation. Everyone we talk to is very progressive; everyone embraces the reality of the world we live in. I am really proud of our response to this sort of 360 engagement in ideas, like the fact that someone could take a picture of a flower and send it to their friends and that picture will be more important to them than a picture shot for a magazine of the same thing. I am really fascinated by what makes this engagement thrive, and finding ways to use it that are still a pure expression of the brand. I am not nostalgic for a time in which there were fewer rules.

In fashion, the notion of celebrity has evolved over the past decade, from a slightly peripheral, sometimes uncool side dish to becoming arguably the core component in presenting the fashion dream. What are your thoughts on this, and how do you approach celebrity as an ingredient in your image-making?
Tyler: I don’t know if I am the right person to be answering this because my career and experience is so inextricably tied up with celebrity and Instagramming and algorithms – the three are just a part of how I came to consume and make images. For me, the only thing that I try to be led by when I’m making art is my interest in being in the proximity of people who inspire me. These ‘celebrities’ could be people who are quietly or loudly impacting the culture. They could be the tippy-top of the top – the Beyoncés and Rihannas – down to the artists having a gallery show in my neighbourhood in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. Like this amazing young Japanese-Mongolian artist, Arisa Yoshioka, who has just had a show in my neighbourhood. I love her work, she inspires me; I want to be in proximity to her. I would photograph her the same as if she were a celebrity, the same way I would photograph Kanye West, Harry Styles, Beyoncé, Michaela Coel.
Ferdinando: I agree. ‘Celebrities’ are people who have a talent that brings fame. The difference between photographing a celebrity and someone who is not a celebrity is that when you present a celebrity in an image, the audience already knows them. That definitely changes the images; there is less independence than when you are constructing something that exists outside of the context of real life. It is a challenge, but I think there are ways to think about it that are sort of moving the needle forward. I’m wearing this T-shirt that I wear all the time: it’s got a Juergen [Teller] picture of Björk. Arguably the picture has a charge because we all know who she was at the time when he took this picture – her art, her taste, her persona. It raises the complexity of the whole image when the audience knows the person beyond it; it adds another layer.

We are asking a lot of people in the industry two questions regarding Paris Fashion Week: what is your memory of your first-ever show in Paris? And what do you think Paris Fashion Week represents today?
Tyler: My first memory of a show – and it’s an absolutely colossal fashion memory to have – is being snuck into the Comme des Garçons women’s fashion show in 2018. It was right after my cover with Beyoncé had been released. Life was happening very fast for me at that point, and I was in Paris with Carlos Nazario [stylist and global fashion director of i-D] and we were talking about collaborating. It was the sunniest day of September on the day of the Comme show, and as Rei Kawakubo is one of the fashion greats, I was like, ‘Oh, I would love to go to the Comme show.’ Carlos was, like, ‘I’ll just bring you in!’ He snuck me in and, somehow, I ended up in the front row. It was the most intimate, amazing show experience. For me, it was transformative, because living in New York, being an American from Atlanta, Georgia, all of this education about fashion came at me very, very fast. I was quite sceptical of it, each step of the way; like, are fashion shows really that important? Why do you need to go and physically be there when you can see the pictures online later? Then you sit in a Comme show and have your mind blown away, and you see exactly how jaw-dropping it is to see the clothes walking in front of you with the music playing.

What about Paris?
Tyler: It’s true that so much design history and culture collides here. I’m currently spending most of my spring and summer here, by accident and on purpose; I just happen to be working here most of the time, but this is also where the action is! That experience of having my socks blown off, seeing these amazing Comme des Garçons designs walk in front of me, that was quite a particular side to Paris Fashion Week, but the other side is to attend these behemoth, spectacular shows. They are wonderful and awe- inspiring, too. Personally, as a photographer I walk away from a fashion-week experience feeling both drained and inspired – like, really, fully inspired. If I sit in my room in New York and try to catch all the stuff on Vogue Runway and think about what images I want to make, I don’t get the same thought patterns and ideas popping out of my brain.
Ferdinando: With the explosion of this idea of being connected from anywhere, the rare moments of real connection have become indispensable. Paris just happens to have been chosen as the industry’s in-person experience for several logistical reasons. There is a need for it, especially in a world where geographies have been completely redefined and we are OK about talking long distance forever and doing interviews on Zoom. A city bringing everyone together just resolves a lot of human needs for real interaction. Paris is also like a billboard. You know, I can even envisage a sort of shift to where the streets, the stores don’t really represent places to buy, but Paris becomes a massive open-air gallery, with the stores becoming experiences and people buying from their bedrooms. I wonder if going back to a very human scale could even be engineered as a marketing strategy. Paris also represents couture, which is why it maintains a certain uniqueness.

Couture is a sort of embodiment of authority within this: a brand that does it is almost more legit than a brand that doesn’t. For some reason this thing still seems to carry a certain weight in the consumer’s mind. What is your first memory of Paris Fashion Week?
Ferdinando: My first show was about a decade before my second show. It was a Chanel haute-couture show that happened to be on my birthday, 25 January, and I remember even now the melody of the opening track. By Chanel standards, it was quite a private show; it wasn’t one of those massive-scale ones. But the energy was so tangible and so physical, and I remember understanding in that moment all the intangible qualities of experiencing something in person; this sort of next-level, multidimensional physical experience. I started to be a little more careful about judging things without being there, because if you have been in fashion for the past few years, you can get the impression that images online do it all. I remember making a mental note that I hadn’t understood what fashion was until that moment – and that I had better not forget it!

Taken from System No. 21.