Forty-six years ago Peter Mitchell moved from London to Leeds, got a job as a truck driver, and started photographing the city.
Two-and-a-half years ago Tom Joy moved from Aberdeen to Leeds, left his job as a graphic designer, and started photographing the city.
While we talk at a table in the bar at The Tetley gallery, Peter is recognised by two artists visiting from London, and tells us about his invitation to recreate his 1979 exhibition of photographs of Leeds and elsewhere, A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, at the Arles 2016 Photo Festival.
“Can I boast for a little bit?” he asks us, because when you’re up north, you do have to check. “I’ve only ever been to one photo show, Paris Photo 2007, and it was shite, really. But Arles is supposed to be bigger than the Houston FotoFest. I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got a taxi for the week, free food. And the director came to see me in Chapeltown.
“Because it’s all colour work, the photos have faded, but the negatives aren’t too bad. So they’ve said, right, we’ll do the whole exhibition again. I said you can’t do it again, it’s sixty-five images, and pictures of Mars to go with it; but they said they can do it, they just need the measurements and the weights. So it’s being recreated.
“It has impressed me no end, but now… it’s like going to see Gerry & The Pacemakers, or Marty Wilde at The Grand. How can you ever bear to see these people you used to adore in your youth? And it’s the same with photography. This stuff is just shite. But that’s the risk you’re taking here. You don’t want to be associated with me.”
Often that was the case; that people didn’t want to be associated with Peter Mitchell.
“I’ve a sort of unsteady attitude, in a way, that has done me quite well. I was never an outsider or an evil eye on things; but you couldn’t get critics up from London to shows in Sheffield, in Newcastle, Barnsley, Huddersfield, Leeds; I got down to London two or three times and it sort of counted then because you would get a write up in the British Journal of Photography.
“I had my first one-man show in 1975, and it was a renegade show in as much as it was European Architectural Heritage Year, and Leeds had put on this great big show of its Victorian heritage in the art gallery, and I was in a separate little art gallery showing stuff I’d shot from the truck. Which proved to be massively successful.
“In the late-eighties, when we were about to be twinned with Dortmund, they were sending over an exhibition of their city, and some people at the council wanted to send my exhibition of Leeds: the truck driver’s view. And of course it was stamped on completely, it was thrown out, no one wanted to see that rubbish. So Leeds City Architects were commissioned to photograph Leeds: Park Square, the Civic Hall, Temple Newsam. I thought, that’s great.
“I’ve always thought Leeds was a very philistine place. I’ve been taking that back over the last two or three years, I have to say. But I came to Leeds in 1970, and I remember all those gable ends that you saw from the train coming into Leeds, whole lines of them to the railway edge. This is what amazed me about Leeds, coming from the metropolis where you could only see little bits of north London or south London, but Leeds you could see in a whole day. And I got the impression that Leeds’ time was up, that it was being demolished all over the place – which it was.”
The demolition of Quarry Hill flats gave Peter the subject for his most enduring work; photos of the end of life of 3,500 homes, presented together with the utopian blueprints and plans from its beginning; and photos from Mars.
“I had a sense that people didn’t know why they were knocking it down or what they would do with it; it was a PR exercise, somehow. Okay, its reputation had gone from bold utopian experiment to dumping ground for the misfits, but maybe just given another ten years, that great curve on the front, with its flagpoles; this great fortress, this great citadel opposite the bus station…
“But it’s a failure of the imagination, on behalf of Leeds. 3,500 people lived there, and it’s still empty. The site is still a car park, it’s just got bits that got lucky, like the Playhouse, like the big dole office with the spike on top.”
Tom Joy moved, two-and-a-half years ago, to a very different Leeds to 1970, in most ways; although the future now of the South Bank, and still of Quarry Hill, still exists as a test of the imagination. But in a relatively short time in Leeds Tom has been taking photos that make us imagine and have ideas about the city, by seeking out photographs away from the Civic Halls and the Temple Newsams, or seeing them differently.
“My understanding of culture, I think, becomes more warped the longer I’ve been in Leeds,” says Tom. “I’ve only been here two-and-a-half years, so it’s a difficult thing.
“I came here from Aberdeen, the silver city, which is only silver if you clean the granite; otherwise granite is quite dull. I came on a whim, and when I got here I wasn’t aware of everything that was going on. The cultural change that I’ve seen, and the cultural enthusiasm, is really cool.
“Because Aberdeen is so isolated, people there keep themselves to themselves; there’s so much money in the city, but nothing goes back into the city. It annoys me no end.
“Whereas in Leeds there’s far more cultural diversity, there’s acceptance for difference, whether that’s fashion or ethnicity. Everything feels very diverse and everyone is accepting and open-minded.”
Shortly after moving to Leeds Tom started his Leeds Lurking photography project, a way of building a portfolio, exploring the city, and sharing his fresh viewpoints of parts of Leeds that Loiners might not have thought to look at. He’s carried that intent through to the photos for this project.
“People are always in a rush and don’t look around,” says Tom. “My focus in the photos is to present people missing what is around them. They need to look up!
“My message is really to look around and enjoy the diversity and growth in Leeds right now. Everything is shot in portrait to accent the height of our skyline, which is growing at an incredible rate.”
As we discussed culture and photography with Tom and Peter, conversation turned to what people do look at, and take photos of, which in many ways is everything, but as Tom points out, is also nothing.
“I went to the KAWS exhibit at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and I was just seething the whole time,” he says. “90% of the people there were like, glance, snap, selfie, take photos then walk to the next sculpture to take photos. They leave at the end of the day thinking, well, I got all these photos.
“But you didn’t do anything. You did what everyone else has done. And did you truly experience the moment?”
“That’s interesting,” says Peter, “And I don’t quite agree. There was no photography when I was a kid. I had one uncle that took photographs, and they were rare things, cameras. I went on holiday package tours in the late-fifties and never took a camera at all.
“But for photography to have taken off so strongly, it must be to do with something very deep inside people. With things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, they’re all integral now with that idea of photography being assimilated into your bloodstream. And I still regard it as something very special. That god-made sun hitting somebody and you managing to capture their image on a surface of some sort, I find quite emotional somehow, quite profound. What it does is, it gives me faith in the person actually doing it, because that’s where meaning comes from, I think.”
“I do get to a point where I have a passionate argument with myself about the whole thing,” says Tom. “Because I realise I’m a bit of a hypocrite. I do take photos of loads of things, and I do post them online and tell people about it.”
“You can’t keep these things to yourself,” says Peter. “You can’t put it in a drawer. Well, you could, and it still might be wonderful, but I feel that you have to go public with them somehow as a part of society.”
Peter’s sympathetic view of the amateur phone-photographer is perhaps shaped by his thoughts about his own status in the world of fine art photography; the man with the recreated retrospective show at Arles 2016, who has always done photographs for fine art galleries and “scorned photobooks”; who also claims to be “a one-trick pony”, and is used to being regarded as ‘quirky’.
“What’s the other expression for funny old men? Eccentric. There’s this idea about quirkiness, because I’ve lived in the same flat in Chapeltown for forty-two years, I’ve rarely been out of Yorkshire, I’ve got no credit cards, smartphones or computers. I shoot film only.
“This all gets mentioned in things, as if to say, ‘He’s naive, or he doesn’t know much about anything. And he’s still doing them you know, still going round Chapeltown, looking at bits of graffiti or bits of paper stuck to the floor.’
“I remember an interview with Lord Lichfield when he had a retrospective, and was asked on the BBC if he’d chosen these eighty images in the show as his favourites. He said he didn’t have favourites because choosing was too difficult; ‘When you’ve got between four and five million negatives to look through…’
“People always ask me now, do you still take pictures? And I say yeah, I do. They ask, how many do you reckon you’ve taken? And I say, I’ve probably taken about 3,000. Maybe 3,500. And they go, ‘Is that this year or what?’ No, that’s in a lifetime!
“I’ve just crept around, doing – not lurking – but noting, and making a sort of position out of it. And I got lucky. There’s been no money in it, but I’ve got by, and it has paid off over a longer period. I’ve just sort of dribbled along into the foothills of old age now, and I think, well, I’m still here. And you’re here, half my age.”
We’re here because, as much as Peter’s photos of the South Bank from what we tweely call years gone by inspire nostalgia, we know they were taken by someone who is not nostalgic (“Although, obviously, I am”) but was taking heavily considered fine art photographs that, while they’ve earned him the status of an eccentric quirky character in Leeds, have also earned him a spot at one of the world’s most prestigious photography festivals, and mean he can’t have a pint in The Tetley without being recognised by visiting artists. Perhaps that says something about Leeds’ understanding of its own culture, as Peter’s photos of Quarry Hill – and the failure of imagination visible since – say something about a future course for the South Bank. Tom’s here because he’ll be recording all that, and because that’s what culture is, not something separate to the city and the way we live our lives, but integral to both, a way of confirming that we are living, and of thinking about how.
“A job to do in the near future is to find out where the ghost train man is, or whether he is dead,” says Peter.
“He used to come to Leeds with a ghost train. And I used to photograph him. I’ve not got many pictures, probably about a hundred, of which about three or four are okay. But I use the ghost train man as a sort of memento mori.
“He’s there in most of my photographic shows, in different disguises, sometimes covered in snow, sometimes taking his ghost train down, sometimes standing there with his dog. But I’ve not seen him since I think 2010. I know he’s retired somewhere. The last time I saw the ghost train, it was deteriorating at the same rate as people. Lost its teeth, its eyes had fallen out of the giant skull, its arms had dropped off. But I might look to buy it if he’s not using it anymore.”
First published in a Leeds Culture Strategy project