Is Peter Mitchell our most overlooked photographer? Martin Parr certainly thinks so. Sarah Freeman met the man who has spent 40 years finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Ask most people how they are doing and they will respond with a non-committal “fine, thanks”. Not Peter Mitchell. “I’m stressed and hopeless,” he says having done battle with a garden gate that appears to be held together only by cobwebs and apologising for the overgrown shrubs out front. “There was a beautiful little garden under there once.”
Inside is not much better. One room, which was presumably at some point a dining room, is now doubling as a skip/filing cabinet, it’s been years since anything was cooked in the downstairs kitchen and the front room is similarly chaotic.
“Don’t sit there,” he shouts as I go to grab an old aeroplane seat. “It’s likely to tip you out as soon as you sit on it.”
Mitchell is clearly distracted, but then has every reason to be. Widely regarded by his peers as one of Britain’s most underrated and overlooked photographers, he has spent the best part of half a century quietly enjoying his relative anonymity. Every five years or so there’s been an exhibition, perhaps a new photographic book, but it’s all been done at his pace. Recently, however, things have changed.
This year his work was showcased at the Arles photography festival, the author Geoff Dyer has been writing about him in the New York Times and he’s just about to open another exhibition at Impressions Gallery in Bradford. Suddenly, in his mid-70s, Mitchell has found himself in demand and he’s not quite sure how to deal with the attention.
“They all want me to do everything so quickly, but I’m just not used to it. I know I should be grateful that people are finally taking an interest, but it all seems very rushed.”
While Mitchell may still be some way from being a household name, he has long been championed by fellow documentary photographer Martin Parr and in another life he would almost certainly have been a national treasure.
“I’m still analogue,” he says while searching through a pile of papers looking for something important, although he’s not quite sure what. “I don’t have a mobile phone, I don’t have a laptop. I decided long ago that I was too old for that kind of stuff, but I mean what photographer these days doesn’t have a smartphone?”
It’s a fair question, particularly given the work for which Mitchell is now belatedly making his name. Quirky, funny and always poignant, his life’s work has been to capture a snapshot of an often disappearing Britain. There are photographs of demolished streets with just one house left standing, of churches whose interiors have been all but ripped out and of a single work boot abandoned on a wall.
“I mean who else would take these pictures?” he says, showing me a framed photograph of a front garden packed with gnomes and – for no good reason – a plastic skeleton. Behind it is another image of what some would call street art and others graffiti, which may or may not represent a trio of Muslim women. “Both of those have gone now. That’s what I do. I capture things before it’s too late.”
For years Mitchell paid the bills by working as a graphic designer, mainly creating exhibition posters for museums and galleries, but ever since he arrived in Leeds in the 1970s he has been taking photographs.
“I came to visit friends and I never left,” he says. “I was entranced. I’d come from London where people lived in the village of Hampstead or the village in Lewisham, but in Leeds you could walk right across town from north to south, from east to west. I had no money of course and needed a job. I remember looking in the Yorkshire Evening Post and saw an advert for a delivery driver. I told them I’d never driven a lorry before, but the boss just said: ‘Don’t worry, lad, you’ll soon pick it up.’ I got the central Leeds patch so I soon learnt where the killer breakfasts were and the best places for a pint. I was generally done by lunchtime so I had the rest of the day to take photographs.”
One of his early projects was to turn his lens on the Quarry Hill council flats. At the time they were being demolished and the residents were being moved out to new houses with gardens. It wasn’t a pretty side of the city, but Mitchell was fascinated.
“I went into Leeds City Art Gallery with a few photographs and said: ‘How about an exhibition?’ You could do things like that then, you didn’t need to be vetted by a committee. It was 1975, European Architectural Heritage Year. Leeds had this great Victorian architecture, but a lot of it was disappearing and I thought my work had something to say. It was funny really – in one room there were all these lovely black and white pictures of the Corn Exchange and Temple Newsam and then there were my pictures of a derelict housing estate.”
It wasn’t just the subject matter that set Mitchell’s photographs apart. Taken with a heavy Hasselblad camera and using colour film, each image was accompanied by a detailed description penned by Mitchell himself.
“Not many photographers were using colour film back then, partly because it was expensive, but also it wasn’t seen as artistic. However, I just instantly found my style and nothing has changed. I still now only take half a dozen shots and hope that one of them is good. Martin Parr came back from his last trip with 40,000 images – 40,000, imagine editing that lot. For me taking a picture is as special as having your portrait painted.
“And I’ve always thought the words were important. It always used to make me laugh when you’d see some exhibition by a local camera club and all they’d put underneath some landscape was Nikon F2 100ml lens Kodak lens. I’d think ‘OK, but where is the bloody place?’”
That first show at Leeds resulted in a landmark exhibition in 1979 at the Impressions Gallery, which was then based in York. He called it A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission and had the images mounted on space charts used by NASA. Mitchell wanted people to imagine the shots of factories and suburban streets had been taken by a visiting UFO.
“It caused a bit of a stir,” he says, still with a glint in his eye. “Some people were outraged that I’d used red frames, but it did get people talking about me.”
That exhibition should have been the springboard for bigger things, but Mitchell returned to relative obscurity, juggling the day job with his passion for photography. However, with Impressions Gallery about to stage Planet Yorkshire, the first ever solo exhibition of his work, and the interest from around the world, his bank balance is looking better than it ever has.
“They are suddenly paying me money,” he says, still slightly incredulous. “But the funny thing is that now I don’t really need it.”
Well perhaps, but it might just pay for someone to mend that gate and cut the grass.
Planet Yorkshire at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford has been curated by Kerry Harker and Anne McNeil. The exhibition runs from September 16 to December 3.