Surrounded by the collection of model airplanes, joke shop toys and family heirlooms he has amassed over his lifetime, Peter Mitchell explains the personal significance of each item over a cup of tea. His methodological and mythological way of thinking offers an intriguing insight into the photographer’s mind and what has been driving his work for the past four decades. Peter is fresh back from exhibiting in Arles at the Les Recontres de la Photographie - Europe’s leading photography festival - and it appears as if he has only just realised that he is still influencing the photography industry.
“I was born in Manchester in 1943 and was evacuated to London as a baby during the war. My mother married a guy from south London during the war, and I grew up in London, and lived in there till I came up to [Leeds] in 1972 and not moved since. Rooted to this very spot in this very house.
I still like to think that one day I’ll go back to London. I still call myself a Londoner, but I’m an honorary Yorkshireman. If you’re born in Leeds, you’re called a Leeds Loiner, so it would be nice if there was a certificate saying I am now a Leeds Loiner.
I never have worked as a photographer; the first job I got was as a truck driver, and this has now become mythical; it’s like the laughing policeman - the truck-driving photographer! I started shooting the scarecrows almost straight away when I started truck driving. I always thought they were too childish to be an exhibition or a project.
…I mean, are they really scaring crows?
I see [the photographs] as a portrait of me, told through different moods of scarecrow. I'm quite intrigued by these scarecrows having a second life. I think they represent something to do with the character of the farmer; some are very basic. (Image 3) That’s only a bit of gear shoved over a cross. When I actually came to look at them properly, because they had all been in files for years, I was quite pleased they had a fashion element about them.
They are all my favourites. Well, you can see that some work better than others. I can see a characteristic of my pictures is that term: it’s a sum of the parts. You’re used to seeing photography particularly as an amazing image; a startling image, like, ‘Oo, where did you see that?’ or, ‘Ew, that’s horrible, isn't it?’ I tend to think that mine looks better as a group than an individual.
(Image 2) Structurally there are some terrific elements in that, like the storm coming up from behind, the face that you can’t see, so it’s kind of a bit like a horror film or something like that perhaps, and just the sun is on this side which is a favourite tactic of mine.
(Image 2) This was the image right at the end of the Scarecrows 1974–2015 book and it’s in the same field as (Image 1). That’s the thing in the summer; the rapeseed is in the field and he’s sitting on the seat doing his job in his yellow anorak. He appears again a year later in spring, just like it was a real person - like it was a relative of the farmer.
(Image ) I was on the A64 that goes to Scarborough. There was this scarecrow doing this John Travolta bit in the wind… You know, ‘Oo, la, la, staying alive, staying alive.’ I went back the next day to shoot it and I took that picture in this muddy field. I thought, oh, I’ll take one at the weekend - re-do it because its not that interesting and it’s particularly good when they get a bit raggedy - but it had gone by the weekend. It would have just been there for the crop to grow up. He's just there for the job and gone when it’s done.
I like the idea of a thousand photographs worth one word. To me, [the scarecrows] are friends. It might be an age thing, but they are deeply rooted in a type of consciousness, which might be part of Englishness too, I think. They were certainly part of my childhood.
They kind of appear in films, where they have just flashed by a scarecrow and they are sitting on a train or something, and this thing is out there, watching them, taking note, a bit like CCTV, so you can’t not personalise them somehow. Of course, you don't get female scarecrows; I've only got one or two females. It’s to do with the construction of them I think.
I somehow feel a homage to time passing. It’s hard to describe, but the dinosaurs passed away and the skeletons of the last remains of us. Mars was a planet once and it’s passed away, and scarecrows are going to pass away.”