From “Note to Self”
Lawrence Arts Center January 2010

I spent two decades as an artist/photographer on the American east coast, during which I taught photography at Rutgers University. Then, for reasons unnecessary to describe here, I stopped to pursue another direction–one in which daily involvement in the production of art and photography was not possible. Among things undertaken during that time, I was a gallery director. Now, I have taken up teaching and art/photography again and find the environment for visual exploration richer than ever.

The photography I do is for pure visual investigation and has no commercial purpose that I can identify. During my hiatus, the tools and techniques of photography were transformed. It took me a while to appreciate digital cameras and printers. I am still deeply infatuated with early processes that involve silver and light, being not-at-all sure that we have made any real improvement in image quality since the 19th century. Not all photographers loved the darkroom, but I did. The slow alchemy of early processes and individual characteristics of hand-made lenses and other materials have been replaced by precision controls and uniformity of output. Forgive me if I find this less beautiful than leaving some things to chance. If you find in my pictures evidence of aberrations or color out of gamut, know that I am seeking mystery in this new medium, and I am growing to appreciate digital imaging more and more because I am finding little mysteries in it.

My involvement with photographic processes developed through study in design, graphic arts, painting, drawing, and to a certain extent, journalism. I discovered in myself an affinity for photography and educated myself through immersion in its technological and social history. I have worked with virtually every major technique, ranging from daguerreotype, cyanotype, gum bichromate, platinum, albumen and other non-silver techniques as well as silver based plates, flexible film and printing media and in the last decade, digital imaging. I have taught History of Photography to undergraduates and graduate students. During the 1980s I collected historical glass negatives; over 20,000 of them before I stopped. I believe a full education in photography must include exposure to the history of the medium, not only the “art history” but also the chemical and optical history starting with the “Locked Treasure Room” invention of Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti, thoughts on pin-hole projection by Aristotle and the Renaissance drawing inventions that led to modern camera technology. Favorite texts of mine, among many along these lines, include former University of Kansas chemistry professor Robert Taft’s 1939 book Photography and the American Scene: A Social History 1839 to 1889 and Josef Maria Eder’s exhaustive classics History of Photography and Ausführliches Handbuch der Photographie (Comprehensive Handbook of Photography.)

There have been countless subtle influences on me but I have also experienced strong gravitations and sustained orientations that are evident in my creative work. For example, following the completion of my MFA degree at Rutgers, I encountered the early work of photographer Emmet Gowin at the Witkin Gallery in New York City. This led to my briefly studying with Gowin at Princeton University in an advanced seminar held while artist/photographer Frederick Sommer was artist-in-residence there. At the same time I attended Peter Bunnell’s history of photography classes at Princeton. For many reasons, these experiences expanded and enriched my thinking about photography and art and their relation to every aspect of life. Readings for the Gowin/Sommer seminar included such titles as The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form by Kenneth Clark, Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle by Charles Darwin, and Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The variety and ambitiousness of this interdisciplinary approach to art and photography impressed and challenged me to think deeper and more broadly about art making, and indeed, all human endeavors. From that time forward I felt free of cultural constructions, such as “pop,” “hipster,” “avant garde,” etc. and tried to understand, paraphrasing the poet William Stafford, “what the world is trying to be.” I could mention other major influences, such as the writings of Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe, particularly his Italian Journey, and Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, as examples of seemingly dissimilar but in fact very conversant formative experiences that continue to interest me. Instruction in observation and the development of “quality of attention span” (Sommer) is a theme of all the writers listed above and a perennial pillar in the training of visual artists.

I dream vividly and regularly. A few months ago, I dreamed about returning to teaching photography after many years. In the dream, I was in demand as a teacher because I was a “memory person.” I walked into the classroom on the first day. It was in a Modern building—circa 1960–but the classroom itself represented no particular era. The furniture was eclectic and arranged (or not arranged) in a haphazard way. The space resembled a comfortable coffee shop, with worn sofas and easy chairs from various periods, a half-dozen random lamps in varying conditions, two long scarred folding tables, and a variety of electric Christmas tree light strands hanging from a funky makeshift arbor that surrounded the whole arrangement. The students were very excited to see me arrive because they wanted me to tell them stories. I felt that I was in a new world, different from the one in which I had taught before; one in which individual styles were fully expressed and conventions of any kind were simply unnecessary and uninteresting. One student wore pressed tan slacks and a blue blazer with brass buttons. Others resembled back-packers, gypsy people, or Kurdish Turks—wrapped in layers of loose skirts, vests, shawls, roomy pants, scuffed shoes and boots and mismatched suits from decades ago. My feeling was that such clothing suggested timelessness (but not placelessness) and replaced the cultural homogeneity of corporate fashion to which we have become accustomed. In my dream, conventional thought had been replaced by the natural diversity that supports survival. The hard borders of thought between peoples and the distinctions between humans and other forms of life had become porous–thinking of Heisenberg, “sub-atomic.” I imagined there were no cultural industries based on progress or obsolescence. Nature, having previously been thought of as resources for the use of man, had been at last understood as the whole of life, inclusive of man. Two young women sitting at the end of one of the tables wore nothing at all, but this seemed normal in the dream–a perfectly natural condition free from any connection to fashion, climate, religious practice or morality. When I began the class by saying, “I would like to talk with you about the color orange,” everyone leaned attentively forward.

I describe this dream because such dream/thought experiences fuel my imagination. Re-entering the world of art and photography as a practitioner has given me the opportunity to experience the visual world as a familiar yet decidedly richer and more nuanced place than ever before. Now halfway through my sixty-second year, I am experiencing the splendor of seeing. Common things I previously overlooked loom before me, animated and vivid. Making pictures is a way of enlivening my appreciation of the material world even in its phases of decay. How can I help but be stunned by light itself as its waves cross even the most familiar surface?

From: Surfaces: Photographs by Rick Mitchell
Signs of Life Gallery November 2011

I work by walking with my camera and allowing myself to be stopped by things I see. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am or if I am alone or in a crowd. By now, after years of working this way, it feels like the images are opening like new blooms here and there– as constant as the twinkling of stars.

This exhibition reflects my interest in making images in all kinds of environments, both familiar and unfamiliar. The “home place” is rich with memory and feeling that may be brought to a level of intensity through vivid color, sharp focus, or an angle on things not often taken. My approach to photography, as an artist rather than a journalist or scientist, is to make images that are just slightly out of register with “normal” color and sometimes, as we photographers say, “out of gamut.” This is something like “magical realism” which appeals to me in literature. Walks in even the most familiar neighborhoods become adventures in new perception and imagination.

Away from home I seek places that connect new experience with familiar feelings– not necessarily common feelings– but ones that are somehow known to the soul and convertible to knowledge– think, karmic geography. How else would one sense that one knows a place at all? In this frame of mind, I experience the conundrum: all places are foreign/all places are familiar. Or, nothing surprises me, yet everything is new. The earth, ever changing, never twice in the same location somehow remains ever available for study. Does the dynamic universe make even the concept of “place” as in “fixed place” seem quaint? Yet, at some level of things, I can fix a moment in a photograph.

I would like to claim to be naive but there is no chance of it. My eyes pour feelingly over the surfaces of the beloved Earth. Who built this house, I wonder; who made this wall? Who made the light that shines upon it? I sense the world is a being. “Don’t be shy about your condition,” I say. “Let me look at you.”