Semotan started her career as a photo model in Paris. She was introduced to photography in the late 1960s by her partner at the time, Canadian photographer John Cook, who sparked her passion for working behind the camera. The art of photographic storytelling became her forte: photos that have the look of film stills; visual compositions and figural arrangements that tell stories extending beyond what is shown. This principle led to her years-long advertising campaign for the Austrian mineral water company Römerquelle with photos depicting diverse variations of a ménage-à-trois. Her advertising photos and her portraits of prominent figures from the worlds of art, film, and theater—Louise Bourgeois, Willem Dafoe, Elfriede Jelinek, Milla Jovovich, Maria Lassnig, Martin Kippenberger, Udo Kier, Jonathan Meese, and Daniel Richter—and not least of all, her exclusive artistic collaboration and friendship with fashion designer Helmut Lang brought her international renown. Just as Lang’s minimalistic design had a defining influence on international fashion, Elfie Semotan’s libertine advertising and fashion photos for him as well as for international magazines like Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview, The New Yorker, and Vogue created a new photographic aesthetic.
As a teenager, Mitchell spent a lot of time on Tumblr, a social media platform utilised by young photographers as a space to share their work. It’s a period of time which would become heavily influential on his vision, as Mitchell explained, “I would very often come across sensual, young, attractive white models running around being free and having so much fun – the kind of stuff Larry Clark and Ryan McGinley would make. I very seldom saw the same for black people in images – or at least in the photography I knew of then.”
In Idyllic Space – one of two video works in the exhibition – young black people enjoy simple pleasures, such as eating ice cream, hanging around the pool and playing tag. Mitchell cites the 2014 killing of Tamir Rice – a 12-year-old boy who was shot by Cleveland police while playing outside with a toy pellet gun – as an urgent call-to-action, Mitchell’s video installation highlights the mindless activities many of us take for granted, to the point of being overlooked, as a bold visual reminder that these moments have historically been denied or discouraged among black people.