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A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission

Peter Mitchell’s groundbreaking show was first presented at the Impressions Gallery of Photography York in November 1979. Now – 38 years later – it will be published as a book for the first time.

Peter Mitchell – A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission – Longo

Jun 19, 2017 - Peter Mitchell
From ' A new refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. Published By RRB Photobooks, 2017.

When Peter Mitchell was invited to conceive a new exhibition for the Impressions Gallery of Photography in York (which had opened just a few years before Mitchell started his chronicle of Leeds) he established the scenario of a new space mission reporting back from Mars, and from that altogether stranger place: Leeds. How peculiar this location seemed to be, ruined almost, dotted with crumbling enterprise, not industrialized, with a population of small ambition and humble desires. Life on Mars was barren, windy and hot but Leeds was a crumbling mystery.

But perhaps Mitchell saw himself as a kind of alien, perhaps he always had – the Londoner in Leeds, a life lived in transient communities, a conceptualist practical joker amongst hard-headed documentarists. Leeds was all around him, almost forcing him to pay attention, but he could not see, visit or explore Mars, it was unattainable. What was the “refutation” in this new imagined space mission? Only perhaps that it was a figment of the imagination, just as his re-ordering of the post-war planning havoc of 1970s Leeds into a harmonious universe of building, façade, people and stories through photography was a refutation of the misplanning of the present. His work perhaps refuted, too, the contemporary documentary photography where his work had become situated, almost by accident. Mitchell performs anti-documentary by positioning himself as a space explorer flying to Mars. Attached to each invitation to the Viking IV exhibition was tiny lead plane trailing a red paper ribbon.

From ' A new refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. Published By RRB Photobooks, 2017.

The sense and meaning of the Viking IV project is elusive, hidden and slippery. Like the 1950s radio program Journey into Space which frightened already timid post-war British children, it is a kind of mournful comedy, laden with complex language, which is confusing and awesome.

As Peter Mitchell gleefully waves us into the dark and cavernous underbelly of the rotting hulk of Quarry Hill, we do not fear that we will meet the wrathful Leeds Minotaur and go along without a thought. Mitchell’s comforting, slightly antiquated language, with its echoes of Al Read and Eric Morecombe and all those cosy comics, does not threaten darkness or terror, or hauntings. But Mitchell leads us into dark places, more fearsome than we had imagined – the ghost train has real ghosts and Mitchell is perhaps not as jolly as we thought.

From ' A new refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. Published By RRB Photobooks, 2017.

The first caption in A New Refutation of the Viking IV Space Mission reads: Utopia Planitia, 48° North 2225.6° West. 23 July 79 Local Lander time the historic first picture from Viking Lander 4. It shows rocks and fine-grained material. The X-Ray fluorescence spectrometer shows the land to be a mixture of iron-rich materials, iron hydroxides, sulphate and carbonate materials possibly of volcanic origin. The horizon appears to be sloping but is in fact level. The 8° tilt is probably due to a rock under one of the Lander’s footpads.

From ' A new refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. Published By RRB Photobooks, 2017.

Mitchell’s fascination with materials continues throughout the sixty-five photographs in the series. There is the shale, rock and ore of the Cumbrian Coast, the “terrible east face” of Quarry Hill Flats, gravestones, silver plate, the concrete mass of cooling towers, the magnificence of Kay’s warehouse “Shades of the Nile in Leeds”. As in his study of the Quarry Hill flats, or the “Yorkshire City of Leeds”, Mitchell is concerned with solidity, man-made or natural, things that shouldn’t just disappear overnight, but in the time of reverse planning and anti-modernism, were gone the next time you looked.

From ' A new refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. Published By RRB Photobooks, 2017.

More than a joke, less than science fiction, Mitchell dares us to refute his remarkable construction of Leeds seen from Mars or Mars seen from Leeds, and plays on what we do not know, or what we fear to discover – a spectacle either beyond our wildest dreams, or too disappointing to even register. In one way or another, it’s all to do with faith – in the past, in the resilience of memory, in streets and shops, and factories and people, in the wild desires of architects and the hopes of the civic.

From ' A new refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. Published By RRB Photobooks, 2017.

By challenging the notions of documentary photography and the idea that the photographer is necessarily a visitor, an outsider, a traveller, an observer, Mitchell argues for the embeddedness of the photographer, his place within neighbourhood and community, the importance of inside information. Mitchell is at home among inhabited ruins, crumbling civilisations – Mrs Lee’s dress shop which burnt down the day after closure, the Flag Factory doing overtime for the Queen’s 1977 Jubilee, a decayed synagogue in Leeds, Morris Glyn Woodturners, about to close down, a defunct station in Sheffield where the trains run through but nothing stops.

Working from his apartment in the run-down district of Chapeltown, in Leeds, where he has lived since the late 1960s, Mitchell has emerged as a solitary storyteller, a proponent of the picaresque, a narrator of how we were, a chaser of a disappearing world.

From ' A new refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. Published By RRB Photobooks, 2017.

Peter Mitchell’s place in his adopted city of Leeds is also an assured one. From the once graceful terrace of Spencer Place, his vision is through the prism of urban decay in Chapeltown: the decaying inner city where Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, committed his first murder in the 1970s, where riots took place in 1975 and 1981 and where the seismic shifts of migration have seen Jewish, Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities become transient populations. For almost fifty years, Peter Mitchell has observed Leeds from this vantage point, positioning himself as a picaresque typographer, a collector of scarecrows, an airman in a metal plane, and a visitor from outer space. We would call him a psychogeographer, a flaneur.



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