There’s no plaque or certificate to verify this, but Mathieu Bitton is pretty sure his home is “the world’s smallest Black History museum.”
Over a wide-ranging career that spans album cover art direction, filmmaking, photography, and being Lenny Kravitz’s personal creative director, Bitton’s creative catalyst has always been deeply rooted in African-American culture, which may seem strange given the fact that Bitton is neither American nor black. His obsession started as a kid in Paris avidly collecting blaxploitation movie posters and an assortment of R&B, jazz, soul, and funk albums. Far from being some fleeting phase, Bitton’s compendium of black music, art, and beyond has grown as wide as his appreciation has deepened.
Yet, he’s still at a loss for words to explain why his Los Angeles home has become a physical embodiment black culture.
“It’s hard to answer only because I don’t know if I’ve completely figured it out except for that it’s the art that moves me the most,” Bitton says. “I think it’s just beauty. The best answer I can give you is that it’s all so beautiful.”
Bitton has curated the beauty he’s captured over the years into his Leica exhibition Darker Than Blue. Taken from Curtis Mayfield’s song “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” Bitton’s intimate collection is a celebration of black communities.
“Looking at the political climate, I needed to contribute something and not just ‘Look at this cool photo of a rock star or this beautiful Russian model on a bed smoking a cigarette,’” Bitton says. “I’m proud of the work that I’ve done, but I felt like with the political climate, I had to do something that would evoke a reaction–that somebody would look at and wouldn’t just say, ‘She’s hot–nice boobs.’ I needed to go a little deeper than that.”
In order to go deeper within black communities, Bitton had to reconcile with the fact that A) some people just don’t want their photo taken and/or B) they don’t trust a white man taking it. In the past, Bitton has been punched in the shoulder and had a sandwich hurled at him for taking unsolicited photos. He doesn’t use what people don’t consent to. However, he’s found that more times than not, having a simple conversation with someone tears down any hesitation and has allowed for some of his most compelling work. Take, for example, his photo “Mickey and Friends” from Darker Than Blue that depicts two young Brooklyn girls with their grandmother. After getting an unspoken nod of approval from the grandmother, Bitton began snapping a few photos when the girl in the Mickey Mouse T-shirt asked, “Why do you want to take my picture? I’m so ugly.”
“And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re so beautiful. That’s what stopped me in my tracks was how beautiful this moment is and how iconic you look,’” Bitton replied. “Then she started telling me how people bullied her in school because she’s overweight and then all of a sudden we had this whole conversation. I was telling her that I photograph rock stars and legends and that she was the most interesting subject I shot on that trip.”
Through his career across album design and photography, Bitton has gone past being just a collector to contributing to the legacies of the artists he admires most, including Prince, Miles Davis, Bob Marley, and Marvin Gaye. But he doesn’t hesitate to say that Darker Than Blue is some of his most personal work to-date. He’s shifting his lens from the biggest names in entertainment to the overlooked and unsung in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative.
“I see myself as a storyteller,” Bitton says. “I’m just capturing a moment and I’m lucky enough if I get it in focus.”