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Peter Mitchell: Leeds’ photographic chronicler

Flo Armitage-Hookes

Peter Mitchell has been photographing Leeds since the 1970s when the city was on the cusp of change, finding fascination in every detail with pictures that invite viewers to share his curious gaze

The Kitson House Telephone, Quarry Hill Flats, 1978.
The Kitson House Telephone, Quarry Hill Flats, 1978. Credit: Peter Mitchell

Peter Mitchell has been documenting Leeds for 50 years and the city has proved an ever-generous subject. After studying at Hornsey College of Art, he moved north looking for work and never left. While delivering to local factories, he started to see qualities worth capturing on film in the places where people lived and worked. Soon, a camera replaced the truck windscreen and he began to explore Leeds on foot.

In the early 1970s, the city was on the cusp of change – debris, destruction and decline pressed up against traditional high streets and red brick housing. Mitchell was an observant wanderer, attuned to moments of everyday intrigue, wit, appeal and oddity. 

Quarry Hill Flats provided many such scenes. The vast, pioneering social housing complex, inspired by Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, opened in 1938. Just 40 years later, Mitchell photographed its incremental demolition, capturing a solitary telephone box, roaming horses and other remnants of human activity. He recalls that there were still some tenants there but they kept the curtains pulled tight and no longer queued for the phone.

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in and appreciation of his work. Leeds Art Gallery is exhibiting a major retrospective, and his Instagram account Strangely Familiar is hugely popular. Mitchell is amazed and slightly bemused by this ‘hullabaloo’ and that, 50 years on, his images still captivate viewers.

Because, for Mitchell, everything is fascinating – if you look. His photographs invite viewers to share his curious gaze, pause and notice with him. Together, they form an incidental archive of lives, places and objects through a special lens of warmth and familiarity.

Nothing Lasts Forever: Peter Mitchell continues at Leeds Art Gallery until 6 October 2024