Micaiah Carter’s portrait equality: ‘I look at Pharrell the same way I look at my great-uncle’

All images © Micaiah Carter. Courtesy Prestel Publishing

Mixing his signature celebrity portraits with images of his own family, Carter’s new book celebrates unparalleled beauty in everyone

Born in 1995 in Victorville, California, Micaiah Carter got into photography via magazines, Tumblr, Beyoncé videos and family photos. He worked for a spell on a local newspaper then won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in New York, and has had a meteoric rise to fame. Now based back in California, he shoots for clients such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New York Times, Nike, Ralph Lauren and Lancôme, and has worked with a who’s who of contemporary American culture, including Pharrell, Zendaya, Ben Affleck and The Weeknd.

Even so, his portraits seem intimate, warm in colour and vibe. His career is glamorous, but his photographs avoid hard-edged glamour; he works with powerful players, but his portraits exude gentleness. So it is perhaps not surprising to see that his monograph, What’s My Name, includes images of his relatives and vintage shots from his family album alongside fashion photography and celebrity portraiture. Perhaps what is more remarkable is that, to Carter, there is not so much difference between them. Some photographers fiercely divide their personal and professional work, but that is not his style.

“Honesty makes a good portrait – that moment where they’re confident in themselves, when there’s trust involved. Creating an environment that is relaxed and that has nuances of love creates a great portrait”

“I used to love to go through the family albums as a kid,” he says. “I’m the youngest in my family, so a lot of my relatives had passed away, but to have a way of knowing who they were, of knowing their style, their smile, their eyes, understanding why they were placed in that part of the book, it was all super important to me. My grandmother used to always sit on the front porch too, and go through the family album and offer oral history, which I thought was amazing.

“But I feel like it’s the same for me, that the way I look at Pharrell is the same way I look at my great-uncle in a photo,” he adds. “Not knowing him, but hearing stories about him and being excited about it, especially because the people that I photograph have all inspired me in one way or another.”

Carter’s father was in the air force and was involved in the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, “able to express himself in the Black is Beautiful movement”, says Carter. Maybe he passed on a sense that everyone has something special because that is what Carter reaches for in his shoots. As his friend and collaborator Tracee Ellis Ross puts it in the introduction to What’s My Name: “He creates a space that is less of a set and more of an exchange; kind of like hanging with a friend in their backyard on a sunny day in that peace that comes after all the food has been eaten, the catching up is finished, and you are just there together without an agenda. This is what he captures – the safety of connection, the beauty of being.”

“You’re just able to be your full self, and not feel ashamed of being a little weird or a little different,” says Carter. “Embracing that is really beautiful. That’s the best, and the most original. If you’re trying to emulate someone else it can feel a little forced. Honesty makes a good portrait – that moment where they’re confident in themselves, when there’s trust involved. Creating an environment that is relaxed and that has nuances of love creates a great portrait.”

Carter’s father died in 2021 and the photographer responded with his first solo show, American Black Beauty, at SN37 Gallery New York, in which he also mixed his own photographs of relatives, family photographs, and professional work. With his book, Carter is keen to continue this trajectory, working on self-assigned projects alongside commissions. He is drawn towards photographing his nieces, he says, towards the feeling of doing the shoot as much as the images.

“I often don’t share the images, it’s my family and I’m protective over them,” he says. “But to see my nieces laugh and smile – to be a little nervous but then, at the end of the session, feel good about themselves because they’re like ‘Wow, I actually am valued’ – I gravitate towards it. But it’s not just from them. It’s honestly everyone that I love to photograph.”

Micaiah Carter: What’s My Name is out now (Prestel Publishing)

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy