Photographs copyright of Ann Mitchell
I have to admit, 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 series of this estate was completed over two years and the final book is a collaboration of her commissioned photographs and the personal recollections of Gail Jansen, the founding Executive Director of the Austin Val Verde Foundation. Mitchell writes about the tranistion of her own creative interpetation of this large estate during the progression of this project. Her earlier work was softer with a narrower and selective viewpoint and over time the the “extreme detail is found in the later images“.
As such, 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 immensecredit, the later photographs, which have the entire subject in focus, are equally elegant and beautiful.
To undertake a portrait of a place, built and subequently developed by a series of owners, but now in transition to become a public place, I find daunting. Much like trying to define a person, to go beyond the surface facade and devel deep to try to find the spirit and soul.
Sometimes 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 persons responsible for the ensusing building and surrounding grounds. We have a more of a sense of who they were, even if they are no longer with us to personally tell their own stories. In a sense, attempting to capture latent traces of their spirit.
Mitchell has gone well beyond just a straight documentary of the architectual 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 remnent a disturbing photographic attribute, but later realized that it helped with establishing that this series as a body of work, should not be taken literally, but suggestively. The photographs are not meant to be the thing itself, but a creative record of the essence of what is.
Like wise, the warm toned photographs are also 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 to the presence 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 is peaceful and calm.
Another creative decision that I enjoy with this book is the ongoing dialog that accomplies with 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 and as a result, I have really enjoyed this book. I think that it goes beyond an informative caption, as the both writings (example on the bottom two images below) are a sensitive sharing as to their experiences.
In a sense, Mitchell has indirectly written a wonderful book about what it takes to create a photographic series, how an artist has to individually contemplate each composition and understand what it is that they are attempting to capture. To analyze what is there before the lens, what it is that they want to capture and what emotional effect that will result. In my opinion, this alone is probably worth the price of the book.
By Douglas Stockdale