Book Review Some Thing Means Everything for Somebody Photographs by Peter Mitchell Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Peter Mitchell wants to believe that the treasures entombed with Tutankhamun to serve him in the afterlife exercised a sentimental power over the boy king; chosen for something more than their promise of future utility. That Mitchell himself is held sway by a lifetime’s cherished objects, of both practical value and symbolic weight, is quickly evident within his new book.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
Some Thing Means Everything for Somebody
Photographs by Peter Mitchell
RRB Publishing, Bristol, England, 2015. In English. 132 pp., 124 four-color illustrations, 9x11".
Peter Mitchell wants to believe that the treasures entombed with Tutankhamun to serve him in the afterlife exercised a sentimental power over the boy king; chosen for something more than their promise of future utility. That Mitchell himself is held sway by a lifetime’s cherished objects, of both practical value and symbolic weight, is quickly evident within his new book, Some Thing Means Everything to Somebody. He writes in the introduction: “the possessions Tutankhamun put aside for the future made him a king; the possessions you see before you made me a photographer.” The mementos and markers collected in this volume narrate boyhood adventures and family ties, academic firsts and artistic achievements. But they don’t do it alone; each curated page is paired with photographs of scarecrows guarding the fields of Mitchell’s native Yorkshire in northern England. These figures (which he calls ‘friends’) have been part of the photographer’s story since 1974, when he was working as a truck driver and about to have his first one-man show. Like Mitchell’s architectural views of Leeds begun at the same time (recently published as Strangely Familiar), these scarecrows are wonderfully rooted and yet other-worldly sentries of home.
Through the strength of Mitchell’s vision, what at first seems a peculiar pairing becomes a steadfast symbiosis. In part, the scarecrows are a means to explore the emotional content and formal aspects of Mitchell’s catalogue of objects appearing opposite them in each spread. In the 1950s, their exuberance and heroic stance mirrors Mitchell’s imaginative wanderings via model planes and I-spy volumes. Nuclear disarmament handouts are more disconcerting in their placement across from a vertiginous horizon, hazy skies and a bloated, especially inert scarecrow. Some pairings are straightforwardly playful, such as the magic coal electric fireplace facing a scarecrow seated in a snowy landscape. The juxtaposition of Mitchell’s business card, a vintage typewriter and a mid-century chair with the book’s only non-anthropomorphic scarecrow – essentially a shapeless plastic sack hanging from a tree limb — is a chuckle and jab at the sanctity of modernist design. Mitchell also lays out the Photographer’s requisite costume in his Army-surplus iteration of the self-portrait; more clever in its pairing with scarecrows, for which clothes literally make the man.
Usefulness is an important concept to Mitchell; he evokes it in Strangely Familiar, and knocks it around again here. He emphasizes that the objects he photographed are not trophies in a static collection, but things that he uses every day — his Signalling Equipment Ltd. compass goes with him whenever he leaves Yorkshire. Yet it is an understanding of the utility of the photographs themselves that is his aim and moving target. In the absence of a more obvious personal memento, Mitchell’s late sister is represented here by a 35mm slide of sandwiches in cross section, from an industrial presentation from her work with the Experimental Sandwich Unit at Heinz Food. An utterly banal photo/object finds its second-act usefulness as narrative stand-in and poignant keepsake. While Mitchell’s scarecrows wear ephemerality on their weather-beaten sleeves, they, along with the objects they watch over, achieve a certain reprieve and raison d’être when fixed in his photographs. The scarecrows are recurring visual anchors in a story of steadfastness and continuity. Like Mitchell’s collected objects, the scarecrows define the boundaries of this life story and guard its riches. Yet, as it must seem even within King Tut’s tightly packed antechamber to the afterlife, what an expansive, magical place it is where Peter Mitchell and his friends live. —KAREN JENKINS
KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.
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