Contemporary photographic culture would find it difficult to understand the impact that Peter Mitchell’s groundbreaking show A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission had when it was shown at the Impressions Gallery in 1979.

It was the first colour show, at a British photographic gallery, by a British photographer.

In terms of photography the UK was a backwater, and the slowly firing renaissance really just featured black and white work. Colour was the domain of commercial and snapshot photographers. Not only was this show in colour, but it featured photos and portraits, taken in Leeds, showing traditional shops and factories. The images were mounted on space charts, the conceit being that some alien had landed from Mars and was wandering around urban Leeds with a degree of surprise and puzzlement.

This show was so far ahead of its time, that no-one knew exactly what to say or how to react, apart from with total bewilderment.

I am happy to report that I was immediately converted and delighted in the novelty of this serious colour work. I had first seen colour work emerging from the USA a few years earlier, in the images of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore amongst others, but had not experienced this within our native shores.

Since those early heady days, Mitchell has continued to shoot in Leeds and a small surrounding area of Northern England, but his work has rarely been appreciated or indeed seen. When the history of colour photography in the UK, is written about, Mitchell’s name is often omitted.

The images are considered, classic environmental portraits, taken well before this style enjoyed a recent revival. The full charm of Mitchell’s work is embodied in images of shops and factories with owners or work force standing proudly in front of their businesses. Quite why our alien visitors to Leeds never stayed, we’ll never know.

Martin Parr has collaborated with Nazraeli Press to produce a volume to correct this oversight and demonstrate what an important fine documentary photographer Peter Mitchell is. Strangely Familiar is now available from Nazraeli Press

Originally Published in Strangely Familiar

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