Article: Q&A with Peter Mitchell
Q&A with Peter Mitchell
Peter Mitchell sits down with his publisher and long-time collaborator Rudi Thoemmes to answer your questions.
RT: Your photos captured so much of Leeds before buildings were torn down, areas rebuilt, is there building a street you wish you'd captured and didn't?
PM: Well, in a sense, it turns out that there's always dozens of things that you wish you'd photographed, particularly later, and there's always two or three things that stay in your mind you wish you really had done, because that would be useful for things that you might be doing now or in the future. You think ‘that will go well with certain other things that matter’, so, I guess you just forget them all really.
RT: But there's nothing specific where you're saying ‘oh I wish I'd done that one’?
PM: No, not at all. Quite often I'd think, particularly in the early days, that's one for Martin Parr to do (RT laughs).
Image: The people of Kingston Racing Motors, Olinda terrace, Leeds, 1970s
RT: Which leads onto the next question, Peter. Someone is asking if you are ever tempted to go back to places you've taken pictures of 30, 40, 50 years ago, to go back and do the same picture again from the same place at the same angle?
PM: No, you know [other] people have done that. I’ve remembered years and years ago, people ringing me up and saying ‘I've been following all those [pictures] in your last exhibition and there's still three or four I can't find out where they are. Could you give me a hand just finding it? I'm just photographing the same things that you photograph because you know I like your work...’
RT: Okay another interesting question someone is asking: One of the reasons I love your photographs is because of the signage and advertising and hand lettering, which seem to feature in your compositions. I'm also very drawn to similar things in my surroundings and I always wondered where does your eye for signs come from? Do you have a past connection with a trade or signwriting and why do you feel yourself drawn to these features in the landscape?
PM: When I was little, I always used to walk past houses and places and remember them for the various aspects to them. One, in that nice print, its name forgets me, but for the years I cycled past, it was a place that repaired all those things that you get on the tills and things like that, and small kind of, weight-lifting things, until one day I went past, coming back in the evening, it was still there so you know I stopped and walked back and just all the curtains were drawn, which means that the person's there died basically. It has become a sort of favourite photograph.
It would be just the same, I’d always go swimming on a Saturday morning and things. I could walk quite a bit, most people could walk because the busses and things weren't the same then, so you know when people said ‘have you seen this mate I'm trying to find this blahblahblah’, quite often you could say ‘yeah you just keep going down and make a turn’, or ‘if you're going across the traffic lights go hard right or something’. You ask people the way to things now and unless you've got your mobile with you which I suppose most people do, you can’t say.
It was just a love of things that were worth stopping at, used to have a dentist that I used to walk past and it had, as you would expect, a great big set of jaws hanging out there, had been there for donkey years, anyway, and I suppose that was one of the things I should have photographed but never did, because I'd have to step out into the middle of the road to get it fixed up and all the rest of it and then these things just pass. There came another time when I'm always making a note of these things to go back to, but that stopped long ago as well.
RT: Your love for signs and lettering comes from being a graphic designer in an earlier life?
PM: A long long before that, really. It was because when people said “you know if you're going to Burton's” “oh well I'm just going on to so and so and so and so and I’ll just walk with you on to there” and these things would catch your eye.
Image: Billboard on the side of the Pavillion Cinema, Stanningly Road, Leeds, 1986
RT: "Do you always use the one to one aspect ratio? What's your favourite 120 film and camera? Favourite focal lengths?" the technical stuff.
PM: yes well..
RT: Because you always use the same camera haven’t you?
PM: It's always been the same camera, the ‘Blad [Hasselblad] and that's with the same lenses on it, couldn’t be bothered with other things and it just provided me to get in exactly what I wanted to see and also what I wanted to cut out really. So it was just that. I have used other cameras, particularly that people gave me, 35 mm cameras, but then that's a different sort of thing anyway, whereas with a two and a quarter square you're going out very particularly to get something you probably seen in a prior way.
RT: Our next question asks: When I look at your photos I have a deep longing for the mucky Leeds (Peter laughs) I knew in the 1980s, it had so much more character and sense of identity do you feel that?
PM: I kind of agree with that, in a way, and particularly just going down the little roads and the ginnels and across this and that and the other. It's so much easier to get around now and people have got the cars now. You forget, when I was a kid you got a bike first of all, then you've got a motorbike and finally when you were 35 or something you bought a car. Whereas students and all got cars anyway now, when they're 18.
Image: Harold terrace, Leeds, 1970s
RT: Which leads on really to the next question, do you think there are fewer interesting places to photograph nowadays as opposed to the 70s?
PM: No I don't think so. You photographed that which you become involved with, it's not just doing things because they need a photograph to go into a magazine or something being sold or something. For me it's just things that I've liked, as it comes over the years, so a whole bunch of stuff that you liked but can't quite remember why you liked it when you look at it again. Or else it was stuff like ‘oh well you know now I've got six or seven of these things I do a couple more’ you know that'll make a nice bunch of pictures.
RT: ‘Hi Peter, I love your work and it's fired me to wander on a lot of Leeds’ back streets looking at dusty old . I gathered that a lot of your archive photos that have been published in your books by RRB are from negatives that weren’t developed at the time and I've only lately been discovered, are there many more photos left in the archive that we haven't seen yet?”
PM: Yes there are! There's a lot! (both laugh) Believe it! You can work it out, we'll say 3000 is not much, but when you add up what's in the book, say, you know it's, 100, 200, 300 there’s still lots.
RT: We added up, I think we reckon it's less than three thousand negatives and total we’ve seen about half and scanned half again, and then some some of the remaining will be the same images again
PM: From a different angle
RT: Yes different angles
PM: Just from when I'm unsure of what will make the better photograph somehow
RT: So there are a few more to come?
PM: There are, there are, there’s another couple of books in me yet I think.
RT: yes, good so none of that non-picture nonsense anymore then? (both laugh). Out of all the series you've done, do you have a favourite or favorites?
PM: Well that has to be the very first lot. I did the things that we were watching, actually watching today
RT: yeah the city of Leeds
PM: Yes, it was all so new as well compared with living in London and, you know, there was a determination to have an exhibition of it, so, there were two things like that. It was seeing objects that you want to have on the wall somewhere it wasn't a case of wondering about a book full of them or people were still using slides in those days, and I used to get up a lot earlier as well in those days, so I noted my bits and pieces, got down good days not only seeing the sun come up but the sun going down as well, and you know there's going to be some good ones in there somewhere, not necessarily so, but…
Image: Two anonymous ladies, Tivoli Cinema, Acre Road, Leeds. Taken from Sisson’s Lane, 1976
RT: I imagine your work is quite solitary, have you ever had run-ins with members of the public?
RT: you would call some of them?
PM: oh yeah
RT: The two old ladies at the cinema?
PM: The ladies yes, but there's one of somebody that collected bits of trains and signals in his front garden and I just thought I could yeah that's exactly it, you see a red flash here and a green or blue one there and he came out and shook me away. You know actually stopped using you know all about once it's all and he was just scared stiff with people, and I presume it happened previously, people were pinching his bits and pieces that were there, that were
antique bits and pieces of signals and all the rest of it. In a way, most people didn't object to their picture being taken and so in the early days I would go back and give people you know a little picture. One of these Boots things that are three inches square or four inches square or something like that and just present it to them. Lots of people particularly the work people and never ever had their photograph taken at work and when I come to think of it you know, when I was at school, I can't remember being photographed as such, even though you had to pay for it but it was minimal price, you opted out, or not, unless it was for the school magazine and they would have somebody that took it a picture.
RT: “ I'm interested in how photographer senses what they are shooting will have a long life in terms of interest, especially with urban scenes, when given that you took the photographs in that period, how do they sense it is something extraordinary? Is it the sense of things disappearing and you've got a knack for finding those?”
PM: No it's just having a desire to photograph something. Quarry Hills, that thing, I never bothered with it for the first few weeks until it started to look interesting; I’d see cranes moving in and such like and then I made a point of walking through it into the other side of town. Now that's become an object in its own right somehow, without me kind of knowing that at all, but always feeling that there was something odd about it. I think this goes for most things, it's like people on a bus staring at you or something like that, you just think yeah well I'm getting off at the next stop, but maybe there'll be something new at that place or point.
RT: Here's a nice question: “Peter I wrote to you in 1988, when I was 18, admiring your work, and you kindly sent me a postcard with some comments, (PM: oh dear!) what a gent! If you did the same thing now with the perspective you had before, where and what would you photograph?”
PM: Right well, where would I photograph? That comes up naturally, I think. You know there's also the idea of just how wedded to your camera you really are, most people are, but I'm not necessarily that much. So you know there'd be long-ish periods when I didn't photograph anything as such, but then suddenly I see something I think I could do a few of that sometime that'll be worth it. In a case that cropped up recently, I was out in the countryside and they got stuck in the traffic and I tried to sort of come backwards to where I was going and then suddenly I thought ‘oh I'm in this place called Malton and I remember Malton, what was it about Malton? Oh there was a nice butcher shop I wanted to always photograph and never got round to it’ and blow me the same shop is there, with the Big Bull still on the front, ceramic bull, and all the rest of it, still got the things that come down. I thought oh well I better photograph that having thought about it and it being so vividly in my mind so I went and photographed it. But that wasn't the same as before because I can remember actually photographing different things entirely but in the same little block and it was just that this was still there so I thought, oh well better do that just in case, but in case for what? So you do have this sort of process of waiting for the opportunity to make it valuable and to make it work as a photograph.
Image: Francis Gavan, Ghost Train Man, Woodhouse Moor, Leeds, 1977
RT: “What inspires you to take photos in the first place and what was your first camera?”
PM: I never took photographs until I went to Art College, which I was probably about 23 at that time and there were a couple of places I didn't get into then and place I did get into but then I didn't like it, and then moved to Hornsey, which seem to be exciting because it was a revolutionary cottage of its day. The idea of photography was because there was an interesting technician there who would sort of impose himself upon you “oh I'll get you, just just watch how I've load it with film, and this, that and the other, but he always sat there as a technician so he didn't seem to take any pictures himself, it was just going out and trying really. Funnily enough the things I photograph now and in the middle, the first things I photographed were things like derelict places, but they were the sort of derelict it in as much as the fireplace would have been half knocked down or something like that and it just seemed right to use it somehow.
You can see this [in my work], I’d gone past the business of just photographing the buildings and then I needed the owner of the building to be standing there and it was sort of important that it was the owner of the building or at least somebody that worked in that building that mattered. And that's worked all right. I see it, just recently I've just seen it, a couple of places that are still there after all this time, they haven't got shifted or whatever, it's still a shop but it was probably a different shop or something different in a way, but nevertheless but it just might be good for a little bit of infill somewhere.
RT: Interesting question here, did Peter sneak into fields to get his scarecrow photos or did he arrange with the Farmers first?
PM: No we always snuck into the field, no we didn’t as the farmers whatsoever and several times I was caught but they would only just be shouting and sort of half-joking and see me at the other side of the fields
RT They thought you were a scarecrow?
PM: Well because see I was walking carefully, I wasn't just tramping over things. But they were never that interested in them at all and of course some people, farmers, kept their scarecrows to the next year, so one or two scarecrows I've photographed three times over three years, you wouldn't see the difference between them.
Image: Scarecrow 40
RT: "Peter, I live in the Northeast and your contemporaries up here like Chris Killip had a focus on people. There are many people in your pictures but the interest seems to be mainly architectural. Is this fair and who are your favourites among your contemporaries?"
PM: Well I've worked without having a favourite really and therefore without having an influence. Now it was rather interesting to say, to the effect that I was, what was his name At..At… the French?
RT: Atget, late 19th Century
PM: Yes, and the American galleries that I did with Martin Parr and a few other yeah continentals. What was his name Tom something or other? He's a well-known character of Victorian collections we’ve seen at least twice down Photo London and he started calling me the Atget of Leeds. As well as, I like to hear Alan Bennett, yes once described as the Alan Bennett of all things.
RT: The Alan Bennett of photography?
RT: because you actually met Alan Bennett didn't you?
PM: I met him and I've lost his cards, he’s sent me two cards so far. One just off his own bat, I saw one of your type of pictures the other day and I I've lost the postcards now so I don’t know.
RT: But didn't you live near him and one day you just called on him?
PM: yes that's exactly it, it was at Camden Town
RT: You just knocked on his door and said “hi I'm Peter Mitchell”
PM: Yeah, I know he had a lady keeper there and it was a Georgian house but small and in around the curve and I could tell it was him. I didn't know where he lived but I knew he lived somewhere there, but he had his bike outside and that was padlocked to the railings and it had a Tesco's bag round the saddle and things, so the door was open.. ‘Yes can I help you?’ and it's a woman and I said ‘you know I'm Pete Mitchell and I've done this and I'd like to see Alan Bennett if he's in’ and all the rest of it and she said ‘whoa well he's not very well today’, I said ‘okay but maybe you could just mention that I particularly wanted to see him and I come from Leeds’ so she went upstairs and I could hear ‘this and that Leeds’ and whatever and ‘I think he’s a photographer or something’ and he sent a message back saying alright I'll see him, but he must have been in his pyjamas or something, said it will take me a while to get ready. So he came down just as looking as smart and dapper as he was and we had a terrific, not long, I would say about an hour and a half, in a house not a million miles different from this with this big cosy thing that he sat on and great piles of stuff that he had written or was writing on or redoing or something like that. He didn't know anything about photography, was just doing this sort of daft-laddie about it and then he gave me a ring later on as in fact his partner had heard of me and but was surprised that he didn't know, being a Leeds person, about my works either, so I was somewhat flattered by that.
Image: Mr. and Mrs. Hudson, by the old Seacroft Chapel, York Road, Leeds, 1974
RT: Peter this is a good question coming up, you’ll like this, getting into philosophy now. “To what extent do you trust your head when photographing and to what extent do you trust your instinct? How much do you think about photos you're taking?”
PM: Well I think a lot about them as a matter of fact. All these things kind of combine into a situation where you take the photograph. I'm thinking here of a well-known instance where it was Don McCullen, I think, and he was in, not Rwanda, but another of these places where kids were starving, and he mentions that these little kids would sort of come out and drag him along saying here’s your picture here's your pictures, which was a vulture standing over a child almost. Standing of way away but the kid was there hardly moving and it just looked like this perfect thing and being gnawed away by.. and you know that, you get the old joke, you go ‘well if you saw something like that, what did you give him?’ he says ‘oh I gave him the usual F-16 at a 1/30’ or something rather than a loaf of bread or whatever.
I've never felt any crimes about what I've been doing in terms of photography. I've never come up, of course I've never chosen that, if you're doing buildings and people that are okay about you anyway you don't have a chance to muck it up or whatever and I guess I've never seen myself as a documentary photographer that was just a title that was given you at the time. So I was taking a picture and a picture was going to be put on a wall somehow or somewhere.