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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The First Ever Review of Peter Mitchell's Book of Scarecrows. And it's Biased!

When Photobook Bristol ended on Sunday, I came home with the three books that had launched over the weekend. And my wife and daughter said, "Go on, let's have a look then."

So we had a look and we spent way longer than the twenty minutes. The previous photobook record that we had once spent looking at Showdogs (a strangely enjoyable book of pictures of sad-looking dogs).

The three books were Peter Mitchell's Some Thing Means Everything to Someone (the scarecrow book), Mariela Sancari's Moises (the dead father book) and Laura El-Tantawy's The People.

They all got a big thumbs up and my daughter summed it up by likening the books to different films. "The scarecrow book is the most popular one, but it's weird and fun at the same time. It's Back to the Future. The one with the dead father is really sad so that's like a drama where the more you think about it the sadder it gets. Maybe that's Grave of the Fireflies. And the Egypt one is hard-hitting and historical but has a lot of energy. It's a thriller where everything keeps moving and you never know what's happening. It's The Bourne Identity."

Which is a pretty good summary. So there are the unbiased reviews for you. My reviews of all the books won't be 100% impartial, they never are on this blog, just as views in life are never impartial, photography is never impartial, some competitions are not impartial (how many competition judges have heard the line - from extremely well-known photographers or their agents, 'He'll enter if he wins'). People aren't made to be impartial, however much we may pretend. It's not in our nature.

But I'll write about the politics of free books, review copies and giving stuff away in another post because it's interesting. What's also interesting is the question of what a photobook review is for. Because this post is going to end up being a review of Peter Mitchell's scarecrow book.

One way of looking at it is to take Joerg Colberg's approach and regard a review as a systemised form of photobook analysis based on a marking system like this (these are the results for Land Ohne Mitte,. Read the review here).

 Photography 4, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 3 – Overall 4

It's a pretty good system which I like. It tells you he loves the book, he thinks it's fantastically thought out, but the book might be lacking something in the fetish stakes.  It covers some of the main spots and it recognises that a good photobook is not just about good photography. It's about design and ideas as well.

But for me it's about other things too. In the quick-speed world of photobooks, putting a review up on the blog is about recognition of what people are trying to do, it's about acknowledging the experimentation and the taking of chances. For me it's about how somebody tells a story and the open-ness of mind with which they do that. It's also about an economic rebalancing, so the low-rent end of the market gets a look-in rather than just providing free ideas and images for the wealthier, less-imaginative commercial worlds to pilfer and de-soul, It's a kind of positive discrimination where people who don't have much money are given a bit of a push up.

And it's also about taking part in shaping the photography world in a direction you want it to go. And it's a curious thing, but you find that other people are thinking the same thing as you and are shaping it in the same way, moving photography towards something altogether more intriguing, questioning and entertaining. And that becomes a creative community of like-minded people.

This serves to help people who have great ideas and are original but maybe don't get the recognition or financial reward their talent, hard work and dedication deserves. And I think that is one of the points of photobooks; they serve as an advance guard for the wider world of photography, and effect change in art, editorial and commercial markets.

But sometimes people are too ahead of their game, or they worked in a different era, or they are just too offbeat and they never quite get recognised. So a review can be part of giving that recognition. A book does not appear in a vacuum, it's tied into all other kinds of considerations and a review can recognise those human qualities, the essential decency of a person and what they are trying to do.

That idea is at the heart of this review of Peter Mitchell's book, Some Thing Means Everything to Someone, Peter Mitchell's Scarecrow book. Sure, it's about the book, but it is also about giving a nod to a great British documentary photographer, one who has never really got the attention he deserved possibly because he was always too far ahead of his time, something that comes up in his great book on the urban Landscapes of Leeds, Strangely Familiar.

Mitchell is the first British photographer to have a colour show at a British photography gallery. He's got a different way of seeing and experiencing the world then and Some Thing Means Everything to Someone is about that way of seeing, that way of being.  The cover has a map of the stars then you open it up and you see a free print and odd but great title typeface. Flick through it and you see it's a book of scarecrow pictures.And mixed in with those pictures are images of objects that form a biography of Mitchell's life.

So there are  Mitchell's scarecrow manifestations paired up with Mitchell's Material Manifestations; these are objects that are part of his life. In the introduction he wonders at the objects that accompanied Tutankhamun to the after-life. Mitchell likes to think that these were not just functional objects, but objects that he really loved. '...the possessions Tutankhamun put aside for the future made him a king; the possessions you see before you made me a photographer.'

The first object we see is a milk jug with the inscription 'To thine own self be true'. That's not an object, that's a manifesto. It's something to live by. And that is what comes up throughout the book. Born in 1943, we see the objects of war (and pre-war - the thing-biography is rough and ready with the chronology). His mother's wartime Alien Identity Disc (she was Italian) is shown and so is a baby's anti-gas respirator.

The fifties come, and there are sunday school prizes, Enid Blyton Books and a model of the Skylon at the Festival of Britain. Dan Dare comes in, then it's the sixties and Mitchell moves from CND to hitchhiking around the USA at a time when 'hippies ruled the world.'

There's space travel, life on Mars, town planning and, just in case the photography business collapsed, there's a sideways shift into screen-printing and Letter Press just as Apple Macs come into being. A beautiful Bauhaus chess set and a poster made in the 'style of English Englightenment' for Mitchell's first photographic show his obsession for the graphic, decorative and industrial arts - and what he calls 'a trend to regard things that interested me even if nobody else was interested.'

Slipped into the shifting from one age to the next is Mitchell's photographic journey. From 1969, there's a kodachrome of the Boulder/Hoover Dam, there are posters of his shows, a case he used to carry prints around the States as he hitched from gallery to gallery and a Travelling Exhibition Box from Impressions Gallery in York (the one that hosted the first British colour show). Polaroids, print cases and a knitted Hasselblad camera add to the idea of a man immersed in a visual/graphic world set against the political backdrop of the CND of the sixties, the Ripper murders of the seventies and the Miner's Strike of the eighties.

Some objects provide questions that are left unanswered. What is in the unopened parcel and who is Eyvind Kvaale? And some objects provide answers that provoke questions. Mitchell has the first 'interplanetary passport', Mitchell flew on Concorde (it was like being on a very fast tube train), Mitchell has a guide to the stars.

So if the objects provide a material vision of his life, a journey that is going to take him to the stars, the scarecrows are a manifestation of Mitchell's human form, a rough approximation. And they are wonderful and weird, a site to behold.

I live in Bath and have an allotment. Around my allotment you get scarecrows. Some of them are your basic tramp scarecrows, but there are others that are quite creative in a shabby kind of way. Arty shaman scarecrows that have a little magic about them.

Mitchell's scarecrows aren't like that though. His are agricultural scarecrows.  They're Worzel Gummidge without the West Country charm. You wouldn't want these scarecrows to come to life. They're all rather sinister it seems, psycho-scarecrows that could decorate the fields of the island in the Wicker Man..

The scene is set by a scarecrow in a wheatfield. His shoulders are hunched and the sleeves of his black raincoat come straight down. He has a hat and his face is covered by a piece of card of some kind. He's looking at you and you feel his world beckoning.

It's a dark world, a complex world, but the more you look, the less sinister it becomes. A yellow-coated scarecrow is shown tilted in a newly ploughed field, his arms stretched out. It looks like he's flying. He is flying, because there on the facing page is a picture of Mitchell's Concorde ticket and a photo of the Burning Concorde.

It's a book of pairings as well then. A prostrate scarecrow shot at night in a field of stubble is shown with a stained glass window. The Colour Before Color exhibition poster links up with scarcrow with a red oil-tin for a head, while a cover of Punch Magazine is paired up with a scarecrow holding a massive plank.

It looks simple but it's not. . There's a personal narrative, an object narrative accompanied by short stories of what these objects meant.And it all combines to form a whole that is so much more than its parts. It seems strange that a book of scarecrows has layers that you can go back to and back to.

But then I'm biased for a couple of reasons. I'm friends with Rudi Thoemmes who published the book under the RRB imprint. And I'm also biased because I know Peter Mitchell a little bit (but not enough) and he's a lovely, lovely man. I saw his talk at Photobook Bristol where he talked about the book and showed us a picture of his duodenum that was taken when he was in hospital the week before. That's why the talk was cut short. But he insisted on coming, he insisted on speaking and he stayed the three days no matter what the doctor said.

So maybe sometimes a review is to make somebody feel better, to cheer him up, to put a smile on his face. That's part of why I wrote this review. But at the same time I really do love the book. It's a slow burner that is beautifully printed and coming from a different place. So the other reason is to get the first review of Some Thing Means Everything to Someone up on my blog. Because it's brilliant!

Get well soon Peter.

Buy the Book Here.


Winifred Baker said...

Great review thank you! The annual Photobook event in Bristol is a brilliant new initiative and a very fitting place to launch this retrospective work by Pete. Hope lots of people enjoy it.

Brian Steptoe said...

Pleased to read your review. My copy arrived today and I am starting to be intrigued and immersed by the ideas, contents and sequencing. May have a go at applying Joerg's rating system myself.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Brian - and nice to meet you. Go for it with the ratings. Why not.

Brian Steptoe said...

Pleased to read your review. My copy arrived today and I am starting to be intrigued and immersed by the ideas, contents and sequencing. May have a go at applying Joerg's rating system myself.

My ratings look like:
Photography 4, Concept 4, Edit 3.5, Production 3.5, overall total 3.8