English Photographer Peter Mitchell Captures a Changing City over Four Decades

Feb 1, 2016 7:51PM

You could view “Is that It?”—a striking new series of works by the English photographer Peter Mitchell—as a standalone exhibition. Or, you could consider the show within its larger context: it’s the latest addition to Mitchell’s four-decades-long practice of documenting the northern city of Leeds in West Yorkshire.

“Is that It?” now featured at Wirtz Art in Oakland, is a collection of portraits of scarecrow-like characters, some pictured in idyllic natural settings, like the sunflower field of Untitled (Note 53) (2015), others standing or striding through bleak scenes, as in like Untitled (Note 87) (2015), where the foggy meadow setting looks vaguely menacing, even post-apocalyptic. The scenery, it seems, hints at Leeds’s agricultural past; the hollow, human-like figures are posed as vestiges of the past. There are few buildings here, and no actual people. But like his previous works that have been documentary in nature, these photographs are symbols of place and time.

Mitchell approaches the subject with the eye of an outsider. The photographer is originally from South London; he adopted Leeds as his hometown many years ago. He first got to know Leeds in the early 1970s, crisscrossing the city for his job as a deliveryman of electrical goods. The city, once a center of clothing manufacturing dubbed the “Motorway City,” was in decline then—the local industry was losing business to foreign competition. Mitchell started taking pictures of the scenes around him, and he never stopped. His work—notably the eerie cityscapes captured in his 2013 publication Strangely Familiar—charts the city’s fall and rise, from the vandalism and broken buildings of the post-industrial slump to Leeds’s reemergence as a university city and one of the U.K.’s largest urban economies. 

“I see the images as symbolic of all cities,” Mitchell has said of the haunting photographs in Strangely Familiar, “as all cities are changing, even now at a faster rate... it is to do with change and how times are changing, also how characters change.” If that collection focused more on the city’s architecture, the physical spaces inhabited and later abandoned by humans, “Is that It?” brings the “characters” themselves to the forefront. 

The central figure of Untitled (Note 13) (2015) is hunched over in the field, as if working the land; others, like the yellow raincoat-wearing figure of Untitled (Note 69) (2015), are “standing,” fully exposed to the elements. The empty look of these scarecrow-style figures, the very absence of humanness in these portraits, makes Mitchell’s characters ghost-like emblems of the past—viewed all together, the works form an intriguing contribution to Mitchell’s documentation of Leeds, and to his continually developing oeuvre as a photographer.

Bridget Gleeson

Is that It?” is on view at Wirtz Art, Oakland, Jan. 22nd – Mar. 12th, 2016.

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