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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

How to be a Real Artist

A few years back I met a guy who told me that he even though he didn't look like an artist, he was an artist.

Trouble was the guy had statement glasses, a black polo neck, and a designer chin. He didn't look like an artist in the same way that Danny Kaye doesn't look like a choreographer when he's doing the Choreography number in White Christmas.

Kaye (who was a choreographer in real life) looked like somebody pretending to be a choreographer, in the same way my guy looked like somebody pretending to be an artist.

Because really, what does an artist look like?

Does the British photographer Peter Mitchell look like an artist? He doesn't wear statement glasses or have an 'artist's' haircut, so maybe not (though he does wear DMs). What I do know is that he is one; through his work, through his life, through his persona. he's the living embodiment of an artist.

Last year his Scarecrow-centred biographical book, Some Thing Means Everything to Somebody came out. I was told he was on death's door, that he wasn't going to make it through the week, that this would be the only review that he would see of the book. So I wrote a very nice one. And it did the job. He's alive and kicking now, And he is very suddenly being recognised as an artist in his own right.  And I guess it's all down to me for keeping him going with that review.

That notwithstanding, I would have written a very nice review even if he hadn't been at death's door. It's a great book. As is Strangely Familiar (and here's a review of that one). As is Memento Mori.

More than that, though, is the influence Peter has had on a generation of UK photographers. I wrote a chapter on British photography from 1970-2000 for the History of European Photography series recently.

It was really difficult to do. I had to narrow it down to about 25 photographers across all genres, and so as a result loads of great photographers and artists were missed out. No David Hockney for example! How can that be so?

There are so many great photographers from the 1970s in particular who I just couldn't include and it was a real shame. It made me sad.

What was interesting was that some key people who were working back in the day helped in my choice making. And there was one name that kept on coming up. And it was Peter Mitchell.

'Oh yes, you have to have Peter Mitchell.' He wasn't a big name, but in the small world of British photography he was huge.

The quality, the colour, the originality of his work are why he is so highly thought of. But there is also the thoroughness and the work ethic. The Scarecrow book highlights his individuality and unique way of thinking, but look at Memento Mori and you end up with quite a different persona.

This is a complete book, a beautifully researched book that ties in architecture, social history with
news reports, planning documents and archive pictures of all time.

The subject of the book are the Quarry Hill Flats, flats which, according to a newspaper report from 1939t were felt to have 'something immoral and disreputable' about them and 'were thought to be largely inhabited by actresses, Lords and foreigners.'

Memento Mori a reprint of the original 1990 version and is published by RRB which is run by Rudi Thoemmes, Peter Mitchell's biggest fan and the brains behind Photobook Bristol. The book is laid out in chronological form, starting with reports on the design and construction of the flats, the inspiration in the Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna, all the way through to their destruction and beyond.

Interspersed with the documents are Mitchell's own thoughts, tied in to the political events of the time (the three-day week of the 1970s makes everything seem like wartime). There are notes on the structural failings of the flats and vandalism in the area (one couple from Northern Ireland talk about wanting to move back to Belfast for a bit of peace and quiet).

So it's a superb book, a book that was originally published in 1990 but feels very contemporary with its use of multiple voices, a range of visual sources (including a range of archive and vernacular images) and a layered narrative that combines with Mitchell's personal vision.

Does it make him an artist? In terms of the quality of work, it does, in terms of the attention he has received for the book, I'm not so sure. Memento Mori was recognised by many as one of the great documentations of social housing, and it struck a chord in Leeds where it went way beyond the 1990 photobook ghetto. But in the wider world? I'm not sure.

As I mentioned earlier, Peter Mitchell has very suddenly got the attention of people in the UK, Europe and beyond in a way that he didn't have a couple of months ago let alone a couple of years ago.

But it's not because of any of the work that he has done, and not really directly due to the books that have been made.

What makes the difference? A show at Arles helps.

And an article on his scarecrows by Geoff Dyer in the New York Times. That really does the job.

So if you want to look, feel, and sound like an artist, forget the glasses and the polo neck and the mid-life crisis leather jacket and the Danny Kaye beret. Get an interview by Geoff Dyer for the New York Times. Then everyone will come running and you will be a real artist.

Read Geoff Dyer on Peter Mitchell here.

Buy Memento Mori here.

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