Photographer Ann Mitchell copyright 2007
I have known many of Ann Mitchell’s photographs from her 2007 Balcony Press book Austin Val Verde, Impressions of a Montecito Masterpiece, as we have shared the January-February 2008 issue of LensWork magazine together. From the start Mitchell’s photographs struck me with their introspective and quiet viewpoint about a specific place.
The photographic investigation of this Southern California estate was completed over a two year period. The book is a collaboration of her commissioned photographs with the personal recollections of Gail Jansen who is the founding Executive Director of the Austin Val Verde Foundation. Mitchell writes about the transition of her own creative interpretation of this large estate during the progression of this project. Her earlier work was softer with a narrower and selective viewpoint and in later photographs the “extreme detail is found in the later images“.
There is a certain quality to her earlier images that recall the elegant garden photographs of Eugene Atget. I sense a more atmospheric essence to her earlier studies and I find them to be really wonderful. To Mitchell’s immense credit the later photographs which have the entire subject in focus are equally elegant and beautiful.
To undertake a portrait of a place that was built and subsequently developed by a series of owners and now in a transition to a public space is a task I find daunting. Much like trying to define a person and to go beyond the surface facade to try to dig deep in search of the spirit and soul.
Sometimes for her photographs it is too easy to be pulled into by the textures, lines, shapes and mass to miss the underlying structure that ties it all together. Mitchell is able to visually link the structural design that establishes the story about the individual responsible for the building and surrounding grounds. I have more of a sense of who they were even if they are no longer with us to personally tell me their own stories. In a sense Mitchell is attempting to capture latent traces of the prior owner’s spirit. Mitchell has gone well beyond just a straight documentary of the architectural facts or a scrap book of mementos.
There is a certain handling of both light and space that is consistent though-out this body of work as Mitchell has patiently waited for the right moment for each composition. The entire body of work was created with a 4×5” camera with a Positive/Negative film that leaves a certain tattle-tale mark along the entire margin of the image. At first, I found this technical remnant a disturbing photographic attribute and later realized that this helped with establishing that this series is a body of work and should not be taken literally. The photographs are not meant to be the thing itself, but a creative record of the essence depicted.
The warm toned photographs are suggestive of a time before as Mitchell points out some of the rooms with their red walls literally scream out at you. So choosing to use a toned black and white photographic image Mitchell was able to move past the emotional colors to a suggestive inference of those who called this a home.
All in all I just enjoy the balance of shapes and forms within the photographs as the light leads me around and inside the photographs. Such as the first photograph below of the steps which leads me away; to where, I am not sure, but perhaps to a place that I will find peaceful and calm.
Another creative decision that I enjoy is the ongoing dialog that accomplices each photograph by Jensen as she shares personal antidotes about the Austins, while Mitchell shares what she is attempting to create with each photograph. The pairing of the two dialog creates another dimension to this body of work. I think that it goes beyond an informative caption as the both writings (example on the bottom two images below) are a sensitive sharing of their experiences.
Mitchell has indirectly written a wonderful book about what it takes to create a photographic series and how an artist has to individually contemplate each composition and understand what it is that they are attempting to capture. She analyze’s what is before the lens and then what it is that the she is trying capture and the emotional effect that will result. In my opinion this alone is probably worth the price of the book.
Best regards, Douglas Stockdale