Peter Mitchell, A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by RRB Publishing (here). Hardcover, 88 pages, with 64 color photographs made between 1974 and 1979. Includes detailed captions by the artist, an essay by Val Williams (in English/French), and various other ephemera (maps etc.). The prints were originally displayed in a 1979 show at the Impressions Gallery, and were shown again in 2016 at the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the remarkably consistent themes across the history of photography is the idea of the photographer as an observant outsider. Going back to the 19th century and continuing through to today, and encompassing major swaths of photojournalism, documentary photography, travel photography, street photography, portraiture, and other genres, the concept of an artist making pictures with the fresh eyes of a foreigner repeats itself with amazing constancy. Traveling to locales far and near, applying their own points of view to local circumstances, and seeing these places with deliberately alternate perspectives, photographers often cast themselves as intrepid explorers, in search of visual treasures.

But back in the 1970s, British photographer Peter Mitchell was the exact opposite of an outsider. Living and working in Leeds, he made pictures from the inside, looking closely at the crumbing storefronts of the city he knew well and telling the small personal stories of the buildings and their workers, shopkeepers, and owners. While his documentary practice followed in the systematic footsteps of Atget, Mitchell’s pictures were steeped in everyday warmth and affection, both in their rich use of color (a less than obvious choice at the time) and in their focus on the evolving history of real people. And in his witty diaristic captions, he named names, nearly every mundane place intimately known and populated by people named Edna, or Max, or Francis, or Noel.

The twist in this artistic tale comes in Mitchell’s wildly unconventional approach to displaying these images back in 1979. At that time, the Viking Lander 4 had recently reached the surface of Mars, sending back the first otherworldly pictures of the rocky red surface. Mitchell latched on to this historic space mission, and used it to reconsider his own photographs of Leeds. His conceptual inversion was bewilderingly elegant – while we were watching the startling events on Mars from the Earth, he presented the images of his hometown as if they were being seen by aliens from Mars, right down to the scientific measurement scales around the edges. In the show (and in this book almost four decades later), he displayed both sets of images, putting them on equal footing. The effect is nothing short of transformative and subtly mystifying – dull, overlooked Leeds now looks somehow unknown and mysterious, its architecture and inhabitants just as strange as anything discovered on Mars. With this daringly oddball staging, Mitchell had thoroughly upended the insider/outsider frame of reference we had taken for granted.

Given this reset of expectations, when we look at Mitchell’s intimate pictures of Leeds, the details feel all the more eccentric and surreal. With the dusty red surface of Mars in our heads, the muted colors of Leeds seem somehow parallel, and the artist’s captions echo this similarity in their discussion of mineral deposits and common rock formations. Red brick, soot stained stone, peeling paint, and age worn greyness are the city’s main textures, with hardpacked dirt, overgrown weeds, and wet concrete sidewalks their constant companions.

But within this muffled dreariness, Mitchell brings an understated dose of levity to the proceedings, using a splash of unlikely bright color to enliven his compositions. As the rain falls and the grey skies deepen, he gives us the jaunty spirit of a pink jumper, a yellow upholstered chair left outside, some green and white striping on a storefront window, and the brash red, white, and blue of a Union Jack cement mixer. And for those looking for canals and monsters on Mars, Mitchell finds them both in Leeds, in the form of a headless theme park dinosaur forgotten in the underbrush and plenty of canals connecting warehouses and factories.

Some of Mitchell’s most notable images include residents in the frame, making them something akin to wide angle portraits. With our outer space, alternate universe eyes, these folks standing in their doorways, posing in groups, or just passing by on the sidewalk are quietly confounding, their civic pride and sense of community turned into wry anthropological comedy. Mitchell’s photographs are universally friendly and sympathetic, and in some cases a bit wistful, and yet an undercurrent of weirdness seeps in as we get to know these café owners, woodturners, cabinet makers, herbalists and dye workers. Somehow the everyday has been made unexpected, the routines and behaviors that would normally pass by unnoticed now tingling with the newness of discoveries.

While some may find Mitchell’s juxtaposition and reframing dumbfounding, there is a certain clever brilliance to this project that is truly original. Had we just seen the two anonymous (and uncooperative) ladies standing in front of the cinema framed in a white mat on a white wall, we might have drawn one set of rather boring conclusions about what the artist saw that day. But through the eyes of a spaceman, who by definition can’t know all that we do about the patterns and rhythms of human existence, its oddities are far more pronounced – every single detail has the potential to be astounding.

Given the time period when they were made and the quality of their craftsmanship, Mitchell’s images deserve to be recognized in the larger context of British color photography, in the company of Paul Graham, Martin Parr, and others. But it is the ingenuity of their presentation as images from some curious but distant space civilization that makes this project/photobook so memorable. By conceptually dragging us across the galaxy, Mitchel has forced us into a puzzling close encounter with ourselves.

Collector’s POV: Peter Mitchell is represented by Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière in Paris (here) and Wirtz Art in San Francisco (here). Mitchell’s work has an intermittent history in the secondary markets, with very few lots coming up for sale in any given year. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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