In this essay from the Spring/Summer 2006 Issue of Photoworks, Leeds based photographer Peter Mitchell described his personal journey through his fitful career and the motivations over the past 35 years.
I’ve always felt easy about towns, always loved architecture. Leeds is the city where I’ve ended up and it’s now where I’m from. It’s where most of my photographs are from and where they are still produced and today I am struggling to find a genesis for Annals of a Life-Threatening Postcode, a project unconsciously started thirty years ago and now approaching its zenith. I could use the man at the swimming pool with his whole back tattooed (a rather feminine sun opposite a male moon with furrowed brow and dark clouds sweeping across his face) or the print of Rousseau’s The Waterfall I bought my mother when I was sixteen and it went into the front room of our house in Catford SE6. My parents were keen gardeners and I always saw the picture as an image of the Garden of Eden. It’s in my house now.
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No surprise then that I have always regarded my own work as primarily symbolic rather than obvious (should that be ‘pure documentary’?) and Leeds provided the eye-opening blueprint to explain the world. Any city would have. In the 1970s Leeds was gearing up for change, still a ‘high’ Victorian city with Boar Lane ‘the finest Victorian street in Britain’ but fast becoming the ‘motorway city’ it proclaimed on its postmarks. There was the powerful thrill of being totally inundated by change (the town being far smaller than a metropolis) but also with the destruction of Boar Lane, say, or the creation of the great deserts that were once workers’ terraces in south Leeds, a kind of foreboding set in coupled with a sense of urgency. I got photographing where ever the deliveries took me (I drove for Sunco for two years) and in the knowledge that for these places their time was up – We Are All Heroes of Today was an early series and Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t later from 1978. The first exhibition was An Impression of the Yorkshire City of Leeds at the Education Gallery, Leeds during European Architectural Heritage Year which gave me much satisfaction as Leeds proper was flaunting its listed Victorian heritage. Not just a case of ‘time goes by; it’s a passing fact’ (even Buddy Holly’s songs knew there was more to it than that) but a whole kind of seismic shift not easily discernible at first but becoming ever more obvious with the Three Day Week, the Miners’ Strike (with that ludicrous image of Thatcher’s henchman wearing on his head a paper bag with eye holes like a renegade Klu Klux Klansman) and the inner city riots on my doorstep. These were people whose time was up.
Britain Reconstructs – Time & The City Both from the mid-eighties had the new heroes of today become demolition workers to replace the fallen publicans, flagmakers, newsagents or cold-steel rollers. I always had them grouped up as in a wedding photograph but whereas weddings celebrate an optimism for the future my pictures celebrate the removal of the past (certainty) and kick-off doubt and anxiety as a recognized way of life yet not precluding silver linings and always looking on the bright side. Anyway how can you celebrate anything without including hope?
I’ve always had difficulty in deciding what was authentic and what was ersatz and if there was a difference – did it matter? Dinosaurs, empty swimming pools, scarecrows (Robert Doisneau used to do them, surely, and I’m sure I’ve seen some from Araki), Francis Gavan’s ghost train and in A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission pictures from the planet Mars emphasise my work. In 1990 with Memento Mori – The Flats at Quarry Hill, Leeds large mahogany lettering culled from demolished buildings (an aesthetic in which Leeds was particularly rich) spelt out the title around the whole gallery ceiling in imitation of famous Temple Newsam House, a Jacobean mansion in Leeds which has stone lettering around the entire roof: ALL GLORY AND PRAISE BE GIVEN TO GOD THE FATHER THE SON AND HOLY GHOST ON HIGH PEACE ON EARTH GOODWILL TOWARDS MEN HONOUR AND TRUE ALLEGIANCE TO OUR GRACIOUS KING LOVING AFFECTION AMONGST HIS SUBJECTS HEALTH AND PLENTY BE WITHIN THIS HOUSE. I love the strength of that; typographic certainty! Not quite the same sentiments for the flats (although my belief is that at one time there was) but the book that accompanied the photographs was noted by the architectural profession as being the first and only complete account of the life of a block of flats and that for me equates Quarry Hill with Temple Newsam. REAL – not like so much stuff out there now which is merely remnants of the authentic.
When selecting work I always think it will be at the last and the end but (so many buts) strangely that never happens. Two things that I like about photography: like those before me who wielded nature’s pencil or painted with light I like the travel of rays from the sun which then bounce of the object of my desire and become the hard actual image in my camera and I like the fact that I can obtain unlimited photographs from one negative. A physical reality that then has a use/can be used. Whether I use the tattooed man or Rachel Whitread’s House in my Annals is a problem (I employ a lot of structure which governs design and presentation) but the real deal for this project is to discover how come I’ve stayed so long on Spencer Place. The latter half of the 20th century no less! Isn’t it axiomatic, part of the job, that photographers have to get about a lot? Don’t we search out events rather than wait for things to find us? Can there actually be anything left in Leeds worth photographing? It all goes much deeper, I think, and I’m expecting my thirty odd volumes (and rising) of diaries to explain how times change and then how time itself changes. The unbearable notion that they might not and it’s all been a terrible waste of a life haunts me constantly and allayed only when I’m considering the next cargo of photographs. So perhaps then the Garden (the fall from grace will be useful); the middle bit – war, revolution, the Ripper, Asboland, street life etc. – already taken care of; the strange graffito on the ruins of ‘The Gaiety’ pub just down the street suggesting that I ‘conquer fear’ chimes with my own feelings about contemporary life. It’s not about muggers, serial killers and girls doing business… it’s about a new state of mind. And that’s it, that’s what has changed – the nature of fear and I’m not thinking recent national events. No longer a physical adrenalin rush that scares you or you manage to avoid, more a dull ache at the front of the brain. Stay on the same street too long and you’ll never get on the housing ladder; stay in the same job too long and you’ll be seen as lacking ambition. Stick with the same face too long and you’ll end up ugly. New Leeds? Being north of centre Spencer Place was originally part of an architectural dream called New Leeds but that was 1827 and the microbes of time got to work early like they always do.
One of my postcards shows Francis marooned in Leeds with his broken-down ghost train waiting for a new generator. Even the dance of death has to take a holiday occasionally. The caption was poached from a then-current pop song ‘I’ve been riding on the ghost train; it’s the life that I choose’.
That’ll do for me!
Published in Photoworks Issue 6, 2006 edited by Gordon MacDonald
Commissioned by PhotoworksBuy Photoworks issue 6