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Past exhibition

Terminé le 31.01.21

Peter Mitchell. A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission

If, on reading this title, people feel slightly lost, they are even more bewildered when they see it adjoined to these photographs. What is the connection between pictures of English cities and their inhabitants – the photographs are mostly taken in Leeds with some from Sheffield and London also – and a Viking space mission? An example of British humour? Perhaps so, but what else?

Born in 1943 in Eccles, Greater Manchester, Peter Mitchell started work as a draughts- man for the Ministry of Housing. He got a place in Hornsey College of Art in north London a few years later and settled in Leeds in 1972, where he worked as a graphic designer and a typographer. In 1973, he found a job as a lorry driver in a company and regularly photographed the city of Leeds during his rounds. A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission brings together these pictures, taken between 1974 and 1979, and reveals a city struggling to adjust to the economic changes underway, and the construction and destruction that they cause. Peter Mitchell took pictures of small shops, crumbling storefronts, declining manufacturing and ordinary people from mostly working-class backgrounds.

There is neither irony nor condescendence in his pictures; quite the contrary, they are all photographed in a very formal manner with the aid of a stepladder. The owners or their employees pose proudly in front of their shop and Mitchell presents them like the heroes of a modern tale. Each photograph is accompanied by a caption excerpted from his diary. The tone of these snippets of text is jaunty and self-depreciating. The notes identify each place and each person. These strangers suddenly become familiar. We learn, for instance, that Keith and Sandra are the landlords of a welcoming pub, that Leslie has a dog with various names, or even that Sindey and James, wood turners, are soon going to have to close their shop and have not found a buyer, even for a modest sum. So much information that sometimes borders on the anecdote but which often says a lot about the story of these inhabitants, about their human thickness and the consequences of their changing city for them.

These photographs of Leeds obviously offer a strange parallel with the industrial landscapes of the city of Charleroi: both have undergone an economic reconversion and a profound social and cultural change. But the connection with Mars may always seem slightly fuzzy. Peter Mitchell, actually draws his inspiration from the conspiracy theories in fashion at the time and presents his series as the result of a Martian mission to Leeds in reaction to the Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes, launched respectively on 20 August and 9 September 1974. Mitchell’s photographs are attributed to little green men from Mars who apparently discovered a city with a feeling comparable to the feeling of Man (with a capital “M”) discovering the red planet. The connection with the Mars exploration is strengthened by the NASA coordinate grids surrounding the photographs, and by the pictures of Mars taken from the space mission that punctuate the series.

When the series A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission was exhibited in 1979 for the first time at the Impressions Gallery of Photography in York, the second photo gallery to have opened in England, curated by Val Williams, the novel aspect of Peter Mitchell’s documen- tary style left a lasting impression on many people. In a context where colour photography was very seldom on display – this was the first colour exhibition, in a British photography gallery, produced by a British photogra- pher –, Mitchell’s eye-catching and thought-provoking works captured spectators’ attention. Martin Parr was one of them, and he would later reveal the influence of Mitchell’s documentary approach on his own work. Through this ground-breaking show, Peter Mitchell questions the concept of documentary photography at that time by making a “counter-documentary” and taking on the role of an explorer from Mars. But this questioning also extends to the concept of the pho-
tographer as an outside observer. Peter Mitchell is not a visitor in transit; on the contrary, he photographed Leeds “from the inside”. And yet he invites us to see this series as the work carried out by a stranger landing from nowhere, and this glum and even ordinary little city suddenly becomes intriguing and mysterious; its architecture and its citizens become as strange as the discoveries found in distant universes.

A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission is cer- tainly tinged with British humour, but it is far from being a completely gloomy statement or a cynical depiction of British cities and their inhabitants. On the contrary, Peter Mitchell, both through the use of soft, almost pastel colours – contrasting with the grey and leaden, English sky – and through his gaze, full of tenderness and attentiveness, paints the sensitive picture of a city, with empathy and respect, and, beyond the city, the portrait of an era.

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