By Paul Wright
I’ve been a fan of Peter Mitchell’s images of Leeds since I first saw his photograph of Mr & Mrs Hudson taken outside their newsagents in Seacroft in 1974. A brilliant image that is part of a body of Peter’s work documenting the shops, cafe’s and factories of Leeds from the 1970s onwards.
Peter’s striking images were an essential part of the colour documentary scene in the seventies and eighties and often featured shopkeepers and factory workers outside their places of work. I was interested in talking to Peter about his days back then and and how he came to photograph the changing face of the city which he now calls home.
I managed to get hold of Peter on his landline – much to people’s surprise he doesn’t have an online presence, own a mobile phone or laptop, he simply told me that “I never got round to it”.
Born in Salford’s Hope hospital in 1943 Peter lived for a short time in the North West before moving with his family to London in the 1950s. He grew up in Catford and attended Hornsey College of Art. After a brief spell working as a trainee travel agent for Thomas Cook he worked for a number of years in the Civil Service as a draughtsman and later found regular work as a graphic designer.
Peter moved up to Leeds in 1972 into the house in Chapeltown where he still lives and works today. Whilst having a stint working as a delivery driver around the city, he started to photograph the shops, houses and factories that didn’t have long before they were to be demolished – or ‘goners’ as Peter refered to them.
I recently posted one of Peter’s images on our Instagram page and it sparked a debate about the image being photoshopped. The image in question was taken in Leeds in 1983, a derelict row of terraced housing on Elford Place with the words ‘Rave On’ daubed across it’s walls.
The argument being amongst some that the term ‘Rave On’ didn’t originate until the acid house and rave explosion in the late 80s. I tried to my best to explain that it was popularised during the rock and roll and jazz era’s of the 1950s. When I caught up with Peter he found this hilarious, “I’m an old Buddy Holly fan, that’s why I took it. The single Rave On was released in 1958, it’s one of my favourite Buddy Holly tracks!”.
Due to many of the subjects of Peter’s work he has previously been referred to as the Alan Bennett of photography, something as fan of the playwright he is quite proud of. He told me a story about a recent meeting he had with him. “I was attending an exhibition in London, though due to the large scale of the event I felt a bit out of sorts. It was blazing hot, everyone was sweating so I decided to go out and get some fresh air. I had a copy of my book Strangely Familiar with me, and as I used to live in Camden I had an idea where Alan Bennet lived. I made my way into Primrose Hill and saw a row of Georgian houses that looked familiar and knocked on his door. His elderly housekeeper answered and I explained who I was and that I had come down from Leeds. Alan came down the stairs and I told him that I’m a photographer and that I wanted to give a copy of my book to people who have helped me during my lifetime without knowing it. Alan was intrigued by this concept and he sat down for chat and a cup of tea with me. A couple of days later I received a postcard from Alan saying ‘Dear Peter, I apologise for not recognising you, I feel bad about it. It’s such a lovely book. Hope to see you again’. It was a special moment”.
On the day I visited Peter he had been invited to attend the Methodist Church in Seacroft where he took his famous photograph in 1974. It was to celebrate the excellent Chapel FM who’ve turned the space into the first ever arts centre in East Leeds. and also host their radio station from the site.
I went along with Peter who was invited to talk about the photograph that put the church in the spotlight, I noticed a copy of the brilliant compilation album ‘English Weather’ by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley & Peter Wiggs hanging proudly in the arts cafe – they used Peter’s image for the album cover – another proud moment for him. Peter told the audience his story about that day in 1974 as he made his deliveries and also how Mr & Mrs Hudson stayed in touch with him for many years after the photo was taken.
At the end of the event they celebrated with a cake that much to Peter’s delight had his photo on it. He was asked to cut the cake up for people and was delighted with the concept of himself cutting into his own artwork.
You can keep up to date with Peter Mitchell’s work via his Instagram page which is managed by his publishers RRB Photobooks. A limited number of signed and numbered ‘Rave On’ prints by Peter Mitchell are currently available via RRB Photobooks here
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