Elliott Erwitt vs. Tyler Mitchell: Capturing Humanity and Blackness

On July 15th, I had the opportunity to visit the Museo Diocesano Carlo Maria Martini in Milano, Italy. I was immediately drawn to the famous photo captured by the photographer Elliott Erwitt, that depicted a young child on the back of a bicycle looking back with two baguettes fastened to the seat.

the flier advertising the exhibit

As I trotted through the exhibit, I noticed how he captured the goofiness, joy and humanity of white expression. Erwitt depicts whiteness in a welcoming way that invites you into warmth, tenderness and care (CW ahead).

Erwitt, 1928.

With that being said, I noticed a stark contrast when consuming the exhibit. What I mean by that is – you go from seeing silly pictures of people with dogs to a KKK rally. Then at the very end you see a little Black boy with a toy gun pointed to his head and around the corner from that, you see Andy Warhol and Grace Jones in the backseat of a limo. Pure chaos. I don’t know if that was the curators fault or if Erwitt himself “okayed” these photos but, the KKK photos are not on his site currently.

However, this one is:

Erwitt, 1950.

The caption next to the photo read: “In this photograph a child jokes and laughs. He holds a toy gun in his hand with the tip of it pointed at his temple. It is one of Erwitt’s first photos, and is among his favorites. A photo soaked in great contradiction.”

“This is another favorite early photo of mine taken in Pittsburgh in 1950. It shows a black boy with a gun to his head. Again, it’s a picture, but you can make out of it whatever you wish”

Erwitt tells Time Magazine.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. At this time, Erwitt was hired to take photos of the point of Pittsburgh that was being demolished. Where are those photos? In the Italian description of this photo, it is said that Erwitt states:

“Contradictions are perfect, they make the photos more interesting and offer several different interpretations. You can see it however you want. It may be fun or it may not be fun at all, that’s why I like it!”

2022 Photo by me

Erwitt knows his audience. This photo might be cute and fun to a white viewer in the 1950s. However, it reminded me of the Jim Crow era, when caricatures of Black people inhabited the streets as posters, billboards and advertisements. I’m almost positive that only white people
found that photo “funny.” I almost projectile vomited when I saw it.

Just like this

Personally, I don’t love or dislike his photos as a whole, but I hated this one. I thought it was a valid description of what white America can do to a Black person but for it to be a child… it reminded me a little too much of Beloved. There seems to be a dark undertone when it comes to the word “Joy” in white American culture.

The Implications of white Joy

The reason why it’s so easy for me to question white joy, is because of pictures like the one Mr. Erwitt loves. The undertones of white joy go hand in hand with white supremacist thought and theory. That’s why a museum (in 2022) can display a picture of a KKK rally with a picture of a Black boy smiling with a toy gun pointed to his head in the same exhibit.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Ash, well isn’t this photo just depicting the times? You know it WAS the 50s.” To that I’d say, yes you have a point. However, it’s the context not the content. Since the photo was captured in the 50s, shouldn’t that be a dead giveaway? That photo was hilarious to white people. I could imagine comments flying out of people’s mouths commenting on the boy’s intelligence and his lack of awareness…. even his lack of humanity.

This type of humor could be labeled as “dark humor,” and I’ll save that talk for the next blog post but really it’s the flat-out ignorance for me. You have to be ignorant to enjoy this type of cynicism. It’s kind of like how everyone still uses the word “picnic” while knowing the origins of the word now (and if you don’t, google exists but since I’m kind I’ll put a link *rolls eyes*)

In general, the joy of whiteness is allowed to be captured because it’s normalized. We grow up seeing it, we go online and see it, we go to the museum and see it. Carefree living and existing is lowkey a white thing. That’s why Europe is so fun for white-identifying/white-passing people. There needs to be deep internal interrogation when consuming white art because some white art functions as a lever for uplifting and grounding white supremacist ideals.

Black Joy as Radicalism

There are some Black artists who have repurposed the long history of racism in the art world and reclaimed it. For example, Betye Saar.

Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Saar 1972.

I love the reclamation of history proposed in this work. Not only does it depict Jemima as empowered- posting a gun by her hip, it also has a comical element as we see her smiling with a white baby crying. Of course, this type of art is labeled as “political” but to me, it looks fun. The best thing about it though, is that the subjects are not real- this is a still-life, repurposed, caricature.

The problem with Erwitt’s white humor depicted in his art, is that it took moments of humanity from other cultures and molded it into something that upholds and reinforces that the white race is powerful, dominant and beautiful.

Therefore, when artists like Tyler Mitchell capture photos of Black people existing, all of a sudden that’s a radical act. And don’t get me wrong, as much as I love reclaiming elements of Blackness that made us hate ourselves because it’s powerful and clever- I enjoy the works of people who aim to live in the present and pull from the positivity of their culture right now.

Tyler Mitchell captures humanity, tenderness and the divine feminine qualities of Black men

“In his first published monograph, Tyler Mitchell, one of America’s distinguished photographers, imagines what a Black utopia could look like. I Can Make You Feel Good, is a 206-page celebration of photographer and filmmaker Tyler Mitchell’s distinctive vision of a Black utopia” (Google books).

In his book, Mitchell does exactly what Erwitt should’ve done when capturing joy- focused on one group of people. Because joy is facilitated differently in the Black community, it was easy for Mitchell to capture it effortlessly and without controversy.

Mitchell, 2020.

However, just like Erwitt, Mitchell plays around with how photos evoke emotion. In these photos above, I’ve interpreted themes of support, love, femininity and gentleness. This is intentional. It’s similar to the first photo I displayed of Erwitt’s at the beginning of this article. It asks the viewer to question their biases and seep into the raw emotions of these portraits.

Although it seems most of Mitchell’s photos are planned, they have a clear message of empathy coupled with softness. Especially when it comes to Black men and children. When comparing Mitchell’s art to Erwitt’s, you’re able to observe how Blackness is seen. Not only in the subjects of the photos, in the colors as well. Erwitt has no photos of any Black subjects in color. However, he does have photos many photos in color. It makes me question whether or not the artist believes that Black people could ever make it past “Black and white”

What Mitchell does with his photography is a counter-argument to white culture, fashion, creativity, photography, humanity and existence.

I also want to comment on how he dropped this collection at peak timing; January 2020. The timing is very ironic. Now in 2022, I have a book of joy to visit whenever I’m feeling down.

“I often think about what white fun looks like and this notion that Black people can’t have the same. Growing up with Tumblr I would often come across images of sensual, young, attractive white models running around being free and having so much fun. I seldom saw the same for Black people in images– or at least in the photography I knew. My work comes from a place of wanting to push back against this lack. I feel an urgency to create a body of images where Black people are visualized as free, expressive, effortless and sensitive.”

Tyler Mitchell
Mitchell, 2020.

The purpose of this article is to provoke the reader to interrogate their daily living and reassess how existing in Blackness should not be a radical act. There is a deep understanding of personhood and humanity that every Black person has to go through as a rite of passage and indoctrination into this world. Therefore, checking your privilege is an understatement.

If you felt negated in any way when reading this article, I challenge you to assess those feelings and ask them why they appeared.

Also if you learned something or enjoyed this article, please send me a tip or warm words 🙂


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