In 1979, Peter Mitchell’s first exhibition opened at Impressions Gallery, which was then located in York. A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission considered what Leeds would look like to aliens from Mars. Forty years on, curators Kerry Harker and Anne McNeill have staged a survey of his work in the same gallery, now in Bradford, where the landscapes and cityscapes he has spent his career capturing seem somewhat alien themselves. Planet Yorkshire is Mitchell’s first ever retrospective, and the bleak scenes of a dying industrial Yorkshire stare glumly out of their frames into the gallery’s resolutely clean, minimalist space. Outside, Bradford’s City Park is itself an expression of modernity – the wide Mirror Pool and its surrounding developments are juxtaposed against its gothic City Hall, an ornamented monolith of a past era and testament to the city’s former glory.
The photographs on display were taken from the 1970s to the present day and are split into groupings such as ‘Annals of a Life Threatening Postcode’ (a study over time of Mitchell’s residential street in Leeds), ‘Secular Prayers’ and ‘Swimming Pools’. Theme of dilapidation, destruction and decay run through much of the artist’s four decades of work. The selected works demonstrate Mitchell’s remarkable ability to blend the subject matter of his photographs together using tone and contrast; images of beautiful countryside and architecture somehow made to look at home next to abandoned swimming pools and a semi-demolished power station.
Mitchell says he tries to show ‘what happens when the power runs out’, and yet life shimmers under the surface of his pictures; a grotesque kind of beauty underlies many of his documented locations and the people that inhabit them. From the mist shrouded eeriness of the 1984 miner’s strike at Pecklefield Colliery to a portrait of a Mr. and Mrs. Hobson taken in 1974 in the doorway to their home, which has literally been torn in half, we recognise something of our own world but through a dark filter. The portrait shows a ladder resting against the side of the couple’s home, which gives the impression of propping it up, whilst the adjacent chapel gives a sense of permanence and stoicism. Mitchell says of the image: ‘the combination of the House of This Life… and the House of the Afterlife was irresistible… and would that ladder matter much longer?’. This uncanny realm between life and death, the present and the vanished, is evident in all of his images. He describes his work as a momento mori – a reminder of the inevitability of death.
The picture Ann Jackson Aged 68 Years is a highlight of the exhibition, a beautiful gravestone from 1808, decorated with faces that appear strangely supernatural. Mitchell wrote of this image that ‘all photographs are the most explicit of momento moris and the English country churchyards are among the most beautiful of places to be…’. This sense of uncanniness pervades through the inclusion of scarecrow, known for its unsettling anthropomorphism. For Mitchell, they condense much of his documentary interest into a single form; ‘the scarecrows are everyman, they’re just there as an observer, or as a symbol of humanity’. The scarecrows pictured alongside Jackson’s grave remind us that shadows, or symbols, are left behind when the human subject disappears; when an era comes to a close; when the power is switched off.
Many of the work on display at Impressions Gallery are awash with symbols of former activity – as is Yorkshire itself. Around the Bradford area are numerous old and disused woollen mills, chimney stacks and craters left behind from old mineshafts. These pictures manage to capture Yorkshire in a raw, truthful light but at the same time as if through the lens of a fairy tale. The strange, whimsical human subjects, architecture and symbols caught in these images serve to show us Yorkshire as fact but also, as the photographer puts it, through ‘fantasy, fairystory, fate’. The result is spectacular and, at the same time, unnervingly candid.
Jack Shirlaw is a writer based in Halifax.
All images © Peter Mitchell, courtesy of Impressions Gallery: ‘Kirkstall Power Station, Leeds’, 1986; ‘From the series A Portrait of Sheffield’, 1978; ‘Francis Gavan’s Ghost Train, Leeds’, 1988.