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Book Review: Strangely Familiar


Book Review Strangely Familiar By Peter Mitchell Reviewed by Colin Pantall Depending on who you speak to, Leeds is one of Northern Englan's success stories, a blue-collar manufacturing town transformed to a white-collar town filled with consumer and leisure possibilities. It's a great place to be a student, an office-worker or a shopper.
Strangely Familiar. Photographs by Peter Mitchell.
 Nazraeli Press, 2013.
 
Strangely Familiar
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Strangely Familiar
Photographs by Peter Mitchell.
Nazraeli Press, Portland, 2013. Hardbound. 68 pp., 47 color illustrations, 12x13".

Depending on who you speak to, Leeds is one of Northern Englan's success stories, a blue-collar manufacturing town transformed to a white-collar town filled with consumer and leisure possibilities. It's a great place to be a student, an office-worker or a shopper.

But not everyone thinks it's great. Owen Hatherley, author of A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, sarcastically describes Leeds as '…the token 'successful' northern city along with Manchester, because it's boring enough for southerneers to understand.'

Gone are the ruins of the 1970s, the failed social housing of the Quarry Hill Flats and the red-brick Victoriana that was once the mark of all the classic grim-up-north cities. Instead, says Hatherley, you get mean-windowed apartment buildings rising above a run of inner-city ring roads, an expression of socially divisive Thatcherite and Blairite economic and housing policy.

New Leeds versus Old Leeds. Which one is better? You can see the new for yourself by going to visit and staying in one of the city's overpriced hotels. To see the old, the best way is to take a trip in the time machine of Strangely Familiar, Peter Mitchell's book of photographs of Leeds in the 1970s.

Strangely Familiar, by Peter Mitchell. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2013.

This book is number 7 in Nazraeli's series of 10 books chosen by Martin Parr and it's a classic, a marvel of decrepit cityscapes mixed with environmental portraits that show the soul of a city and a people at odds with what Mitchell calls the 'glittering emptiness' of the city today.

The pictures were made between 1974 and 1996 but the bulk of them are from the seventies, pictures that point to Mitchell's love of architecture and social histories. So we see images of Leeds' famous Quarry Hill Flats (subject of another Peter Mitchell book, Memento Mori). Built in the 1930s, the flats were supposedly modelled on Karl Marx Hof flats in Vienna and were hugely advanced for their time. We see the flats in the winter, with a foreground of snow and a blizzard blowing. The balconies, Crittall windows and monolithic modernism give it the mittel-Europa aesthetic that (northern rumour/humour has it) inspired Hitler to earmark the flats as the headquarters for the SS had the Nazis invaded Britain.


Strangely Familiar, by Peter Mitchell. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2013.
Strangely Familiar, by Peter Mitchell. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2013.

Other examples of architectures and lifestyles long gone are also apparent in the book. We see flagmakers, fishmongers, corn merchants and a racing pigeon shop, all examples of retailers that have mostly disappeared from the British high street.

The Working Mens Hall on Park Street is shown against a foreground of derelict ground of brick and rubble. Constructed in 1867, it's a beautiful building that looks like an example of Old Penang Straits architecture, an appearance that is accentuated by the remainder of the faux-exotic Chinese typeface that has been plastered above the original Working Men's signage.

More dereliction appears in the picture of Edna, George & Pat, the butchers of Waterload Road. A window is missing from the butcher's but, according to the sign in the window, it's 'business as usual,' which is more that can be said for the boarded up chemist down the road.

Strangely Familiar, by Peter Mitchell. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2013.
Strangely Familiar, by Peter Mitchell. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2013.

It's also business as usual in Mitchell's picture of the Cabin Café. Here, the one storey roof is skew-whiff, the building held up by a series of hammered in planks and boards and imaginations that can ignore the wind and rain blowing in through the cracks in the walls. And there in the off-angle doorway stands the owner, Mr Gower, his firm Yorkshire stance making up for his building's lack of solidity.

In the introduction to the book, Martin Parr writes about Peter Mitchell's 1979 show, "A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission," the first color show by a British photographer at a British gallery, a show '…so far ahead of its time that no-one knew what to say or how to react, apart from with total bewilderment.'

Since then, Parr writes, Mitchell has continued to work but is underappreciated. With its combination of derelict landscapes and affectionate portraits, Strangely Familiar will put that right. It's an architectural study, a social history and a love letter all in one, a sure-fire sell-out and topper of many an end-of-year best of list.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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