Peter Mitchell

Chryse Planitia. Mars, 1979.


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Peter Mitchell born 1943
Photograph, C-print on paper
Image: 187 × 187 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2018


New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission 1979 is a series comprising sixty-five colour photographic prints, taken between 1974 and 1979, which document the urban landscape and inhabitants of Leeds and other cities in the United Kingdom. Since childhood Mitchell has been interested in aviation history, and this series was inspired by the advances of the US Viking Space Missions which landed observation vehicles on the surface of Mars in 1976. Using this historical moment as a point of departure, Mitchell chose to present his images from the perspective of a Martian who has landed on earth and is experiencing Leeds, and bordering cities, for the first time. During the US Space Mission of 1976, the spacecraft Viking 1 and Viking 2 sent images of the surface of Mars back to earth for the first time. These shots documented the red-toned surface of Mars, some showing the blurry outline of the observational equipment itself. Mitchell has included five reproductions of these images within his series. He also adopted the original photographs’ black borders as a framing device for his own images, hand-drawing on his own fictitious co-ordinates.

Mitchell’s series documents backstreets, corner shops, factories, churches and cemeteries in Leeds and Sheffield, as well as other locations in Cumbria and London, building a compelling picture of these cities during the late 1970s. Many of the portraits show the city inhabitants standing outside their homes or places of work. Equal attention is paid to the entirety of the setting, the figures often appearing dwarfed in the composition by their surroundings. The majority of the subjects gaze directly at the camera adopting stiff, frontal poses giving the images a formal impression and sense of stillness. Describing the distinctive style and subject matter of the photographs, historian David Mellor has commented, ‘it is as if Alan Bennett had met Diane Arbus in an urban picaresque’ (Mellor 2005, accessed 12 June 2017).

Ruins, crumbling facades, abandoned shops and cemeteries punctuate the series, pointing to themes of life, death, memory and loss. For example, Mitchell’s pictures includes shots of Mrs Lee’s dress shop – which burnt down the day after closure – a decayed synagogue and a defunct station in Sheffield, where the trains pass through but never stop. The 1970s were a time of great change in Britain as it struggled with widespread social unrest as well as the collapse of heavy industries. Commenting on this aspect of the series, Mellor noted, ‘NASA’s 1976 Viking Landers were a triumph of robotics, of remote sensing and imaging – that very culture of digitized information which was to supplant the manual world of industrial era Leeds.’ (Ibid.)

Text is a crucial element in Mitchell’s work, and each image in this series is accompanied by a caption to be displayed alongside. These idiosyncratic snippets of text are excerpted from Mitchell’s diary, and range from deadpan descriptions of place, to short anecdotes and humorous musings. Historian Val Williams has likened the artist’s distinctive combination of photography and text across his different bodies of work to the Situationist writing of the French theorist Guy Debord. She further comments:

The tone of the photographs and his words harked back to earlier, perhaps imagined notions of Britishness without a trace of nostalgia. Mitchell’s tone in these writings and photographs is jaunty and self-depreciating, a mixture of the folksy ‘Mr Wood’s greenhouse containing his prize vine’ with the wistful ‘Crown Court – Another fine alleyway on its way out’ and the personal ‘Carina repairs hoovers on a Saturday. She is nice.’
(Williams 2017, p.1.)

Although adopting the position of curious interloper (an alien who has just touched down on earth) in New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, having been based in Leeds since 1972 Mitchell was in fact photographing from the position of an ‘insider’. David Mellor has remarked that, through this approach, Mitchell has ‘avoided letting the Viking Space Mission slip into standing as a perverse literal example of the alien eye mode of documentary’. (David Mellor, in ibid., p.5).

The series of sixty-five photographs and their accompany texts was first exhibited at Impressions Gallery, Bradford in 1979, in red metal frames; it was restaged at the Rencontres d’Arles in the South of France in 2016, when six sets of prints were made under the artist’s direction. Of these six sets, one set is reserved for exhibitions, one is held at Arles, three are in private collections and one is in Tate’s collection.

Mitchell’s work occupies an important position within the history of colour photography specifically. He was photographing in colour at a time when black and white was the predominate medium for documentary photography in Britain, and before colour photography was fully embraced by museum collections. His work thus evidences an alternate history of colour photography distinct from the predominant narrative of the emergence of colour photography in the United States in the work of photographers such as William Eggleston (born 1939) and Stephen Shore (born 1947).

Further reading
David Mellor, ‘Peter Mitchell – A New Refutation of the Viking IV Lander’, 2005, republished online in ASX, 21 May 2009,, accessed 12 June 2017.
Val Williams, ‘Peter Mitchell Performs Photography – Life Aboard the Unda Wunda’, in Peter Mitchell, A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, Bristol 2017, p.1.

Sarah Allen
June 2016

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