Last year, Tyler Mitchell became the first African American photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue in its 125-year history—and what a better subject to begin with than with Beyoncé. Then just 23-years-old, Mitchell, who is from Atlanta, photographed the superstar for Vogue’s September issue. And now, his work is getting the museum treatment: A portrait from that editorial is being acquired into the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection in Washington, D.C.
The selected photo sees Beyoncé on location for her Vogue shoot just outside of London, wearing a sequin-covered Valentino dress and exuberant Philip Treacy London headpiece. “A year ago today we broke the flood gates open,” Mitchell wrote of the news on Instagram this morning. “Since then, it was important to spend the whole year running through them making sure every piece of the gate was knocked down.”
Mitchell uses his photographs to tell a bigger story; he calls himself a “concerned photographer” who is socially and politically engaged. To that end, Mitchell told Vogue that the Beyoncé shoot served as more than just a fashion spread, but rather an opportunity for empowerment. “For so long, black people have been considered things,” he told Fashion News Director Chioma Nnadi. “We’ve been thingified physically, sexually, emotionally. With my work I’m looking to revitalize and elevate the black body.”
Beyoncé wanted that point of view to come through the cover shoot. “Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like,” she said in her cover. “That is why I wanted to work with this brilliant 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell.”
She continued: “When I first started, 21 years ago, I was told that it was hard for me to get onto covers of magazines because black people did not sell. Clearly, that has been proven a myth.… It’s important to me that I help open doors for younger artists. There are so many cultural and societal barriers to entry that I like to do what I can to level the playing field, to present a different point of view for people who may feel like their voices don’t matter.”
Behind the scenes of creating that now-famed image, the photographer—who shot the singer near and around an English country house—also said there was an immediate comfort level while on set. “When she sat down for me there was immediately the kind of comfort level you’d have with a friend, which was quite unexpected,” he said. “You’d imagine someone as famous as Beyoncé to be protective of her image, but she was really an open book—and that’s exactly what you want as a photographer.”
Behind the Scenes of Beyoncé’s Vogue Cover Shoot: