Peter Mitchell, Early Sunday Morning

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by RRB Publishing (here). Hardcover, 250×300 mm, 180 pages, with 92 color reproductions. Edited and sequenced by John Myers. Includes a short explanatory note from the artist and a list of plates (location/date). In an edition of 1500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: By their very nature, cities are always in a constant process of rebuilding and reinventing themselves, and photographers have long pointed their cameras at the uneasy coexistence between old and new. Eugène Atget is likely the most famous photographer to document the modernization of a major city, his images of Paris at the end of the 19th century taking one last look at older buildings, streets, and storefronts before they were washed under by the tides of change. Berenice Abbott made a similarly memorable portrait of 1930s New York, capturing how skylines, architectural details, and neighborhoods were being transformed in the period just after the Great Depression.

As we see more of Peter Mitchell’s work from 1970s Leeds, it is becoming clear that he too invested significant energy in patiently tracking the nuances of change in a single place. Following up on his photobooks Memento Mori and A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission (reviewed here), Early Sunday Morning takes a deeper dive into his image archive, particularly the years between 1972 to 1975, and pulls out a selection of images that chronicle the face of storefronts, row houses, factories, and other buildings during a period of transition in Britain.

As seen in these images, part of the appeal of Mitchell’s work lies in its understated intimacy. For the most part, the photographs are taken from street level, and given the emptiness of those streets and the angle of the sunlight, we can easily imagine him walking on foot through his hometown, making pictures on quiet weekend mornings. While the storefronts and building facades are squared off and formally structured, there is an easiness to the mood that softens the rigor and clarity of Mitchell’s framing. He often catches pedestrians and store owners out on the sidewalks, adding to the sense of everyday normalcy and neighborly community. Mitchell was and is a local, and that familiarity and affection, for even the most rundown and shabby locations, comes through strongly in his pictures.

Mitchell’s consistent interest in storefronts is slightly different than that of Atget or Abbott – he is less concerned with the engaging (or surreal) contents of the window displays and more focused on the context that a store has within its surroundings. While eye catching displays of fabrics, canned foods, men’s jackets, and tin rubbish bins add visual interest to a few of the scenes, many more consider proximity, scale, and isolation, where a shop is part of a larger structure with upper floors, rooflines, chimneys, and other architectural textures and colors to observe, or separated from that context by neighboring structures that have been torn down or abandoned. His pictures show us how the fabric of the commercial life of the city is knit together, or is unraveling.

An attentive flip through Early Sunday Morning provides a surprisingly broad taxonomy of the businesses that served Leeds in the 1970s, like a checklist of everything a town would need from local providers. It documents pubs and hotels (both open and boarded up), restaurants and cafes, and a wide range of food shops, butchers, fishmongers, and chemists. Down the street, Mitchell found hair stylists, clothing, fabric, and shoe stores, laundries and drycleaners, printing and stationery shops, and sellers of sporting goods, bicycles, and books and records. Further interests were served by off track betting parlors, smoke and tobacco shops, political offices, pawnshops, and even a store selling racing pigeons. And out of town a bit further, Mitchell documented metal works, lumber yards, cold storage, plumbing supply, paper factories, auto repair shops, and of course, funeral homes and undertakers. He even captured the cute Bus Stop Cafe, housed in an old double decker bus.

Often what enlivens a Mitchell storefront picture is the signage. Like Walker Evans, Mitchell seems to have been seduced by the old letterforms of business names, painted advertisements, and other descriptive words that adorned the outside of the shops. This interest extended to billboards and other painted ads, mostly for beer, cigarettes, and newspapers, sometimes painted on roll down grates or pasted between upper story windows. A few images also add the hand of the anonymous residents via graffiti, urging us to “rave on”, reminding us that “we still live here” (even though the building is boarded up), and cheekily telling us “nosey twat fuck off.” Paired with contrasts and pops of color provided by painted doorframes and striped awnings, these graphic elements and words give the brick facades a splash of personality.

Sadly, 1970s Leeds had its fair share of decay and deterioration, and Mitchell’s photographs memorialize plenty of closed and boarded up shops, storefronts to let, and layers of history encrusted on brick walls. Fires seem to have been a particular blight, blackening facades and puncturing roofs, and once the owners gave up or left, broken windows and brick rubble started to encroach even further. Many of Mitchell’s compositions turn the scenes into stripes of foreground, midground, and background, with the street at the bottom and the sky at the top, in a sense organizing the close-up jumble of debris and discarded junk laying around. A handful of images document the old brick row houses and back-to-backs, the march of the chimneys offset by the textures of crumbling ruin. And in a few cases, Mitchell ventures inside to show us old fireplaces and peeling wallpaper (the bold Concorde print is a dated standout), the images infused with a sense of muted nostalgia.

As a photobook, Early Sunday Morning is straightforward and practical, but also serenely calm. Its a decently large book, with square format reproductions that are placed one to a spread on the right (aside from a few like pairings), with plenty of surrounding white space. This leads to a measured page turn pace, and a minimum of distractions, as all the captions and dates are tallied up in a list at the end. It has the feel of slow walking, with local history passing by on each block.

This photobook has grown on me as I have spent time with it, the subtleties and details in the pictures taking their time to reveal themselves. Mitchell’s tendency toward restraint quietly fills these pictures, encouraging us to look more closely at the poetic nuances to be found on the everyday streets of mid 1970s Leeds. Early Sunday Morning is a “hiding in plain sight” kind of photobook, where the photographer’s consistent attention infuses the mundane streets with a durable splash of warmth and care.

Collector’s POV: Peter Mitchell is represented by Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière in Paris (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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