The following is from an interview for the ASMP Newsletter (American Society of Media Photographers), 2003:
Please give us a thumbnail of your career in photography and what led up to it.
I was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in New Brunswick, NJ. I have been interested in the visual arts since I can remember. My Grandparents and my great grandmother lived in a large Victorian house on acreage facing the Raritan River. It was there that I spent many hours visiting with my great-grandmother after the formal Sunday dinner. She let me try on her jewelry, collected on her many journeys to Europe and the Middle East. She gave me postcards from many of the places where she traveled. That started me collecting postcards and being drawn to images of far-away places. GG was an amateur painter and she must have seen that I was already very visual, so she gave me her paint box and palette. Art was part of my life since I can remember. Those Sundays and that life I was born into seem to me now as remote as scenes in a British novel.
I started painting after my great-grandmother gave me her ancient wooden paint box filled with old paint tubes, brushes and a classic wooden palette. Seated high on the river bank I painted my first painting, a view of the town.
By the time I was ten years old I had had experiences with death that changed me. At the age of six I came close to death because of a ruptured appendix. Had I been born only a few years earlier I would have died because medicines were not available to stop the poisoning of the system. The death of my great-grandmother when I was around nine deeply affected me. These experiences focused my life on being fully alive every moment and propelled me into an interest in art and history. I developed a keen awareness of the meaning of time and the power of artistic expression to transcend it.
My studies in art history and studio art in high school and then, more seriously, at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts gave me a foundation that I still use in all I do. It was there that I was introduced to the excitement of original research and scholarship, and to printmaking and the making of books by hand on a Washington Press.
While I was in college, in 1955, I attended The Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which had a direct effect on my life. It was like no other exhibit I had seen. The designed spaces led the viewer through the story of the daily life of all peoples throughout the world. Images were printed for dramatic effect. It was not just a row of matted photos in a line on the wall. I came back and incorporated images I saw there into paintings and prints that I was making in studio classes. Increasingly photography was affecting my image-making.
So perhaps it was not an accident that my first job out of college was as a special assistant to Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera/film and President of the Polaroid Corporation. While there I worked on color theory and optics for him. I did a lot of photography to show off the latest Polaroid films. Because I really created my job I became completely hooked on photography and increasingly independent minded. Working at Polaroid then was like working today in the cutting edge high-tech digital companies. The Polaroid film (and camera) was the standard for instant pictures before digital came along. Since I had been an art major in college and took honors in studio art and art history, I learned photography on the job.
One day I complained to Dr. Land that I did not know any women photographers, and he showed me a book by Nell Dorr and arranged for me to meet her. That meeting began a life-long friendship that can only be described as magical. She inspired me to express my artistic life in photography.
In 1959, I married Frederick Mitchell and went to live in Spain where I bought my first camera, a used Rolleiflex. In 1960, we moved to California, where I set up my first darkroom with an enlarger given to me by Ansel Adams whom I had met when I was at Polaroid. We became friends, and later I was an assistant on his staff at a workshop in Yosemite.
During the 1960s I was fully occupied with having children (three daughters) and working at the process of learning photography, especially black and white printing. In 1969 my first book was published, called Gift of Place — a poetic, romantic vision of childhood and home. During this time I became a friend of Dorothea Lange and had the opportunity to observe her working in the darkroom and talk to her about her photography in several conversations before she died in 1965. To a Cabin, my book inspired by Dorothea Lange, was published in 1973.
In the years when I became interested in photography it was not a part of the commercialized art world. I saw photography as a medium in the middle of life, so alive, capturing a moment in time for all time. I wanted to be part of it.
From the beginning my work has centered on people and my connection with people. In the early days while I was teaching myself to print I was raising three children and managing a household. I wanted to be there when my children needed me, so I avoided the advertising and corporate worlds. It was natural to make portraits the centerpiece of the business when I began, because it fit with family life. Mostly I wanted to make books because it is the most wonderful way to produce ideas in photography. Over the years I have developed a mosaic career that includes photographing portraits and weddings, gardens and interiors. I also sell usage of my images, write books, articles and introductions, teach workshops and consult with many private students. And, of course, I continue to photograph for my fine art collections that often end in projects that I publish and exhibit.
What are some examples of that mosaic career?
The research and writing side of my work has resulted in several fascinating projects. In the 1970s I wrote many profiles on photographers, which I think of as portraits in print. The decade culminated in a major book, Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. Published in 1979, the book bears witness to the lives of those women born around the turn of the last century who had been left out of the history of photography. In addition, there was a show that traveled to sixteen American museums. It was an amazing experience to go around the country and lecture on these great women photographers.
In the early 1980s I decided to publish my work in editions of photogravures in order to create fine art that was as archival as possible. Several editions of flower images were published by a dealer, and then in 1985 I created an imprint, “Elysian Editions” and produced my first portfolio: Dance for Life: The California Dance Legacy of Isadora Duncan contains 12 photogravures and a text of original research illustrated by historical photographs. In 1991, I produced Flowers, a portfolio of five flower images printed in color photogravure.
Fine art is my soul work and commercial work is my living. I have always done some workshop teaching, but in this latest period I am teaching more, especially one on one, becoming a coach for people who want to find their expressive selves, realize their projects and just be better image makers.
What are some of the odd or unusual turning points in your career?
On October 20th, 1991 our house (including my studio) was severely damaged in the Berkeley-Oakland firestorm. It took two and a half years of attention and labor to save and restore the house, the contents and my work. To learn so much about construction and conservation became a fascinating and completely absorbing experience. When we moved back into the house in 1993 I realized how much career momentum was lost, despite the fact that I had continued to work the whole time.
Once in the house I focused on the restoration of the garden, which I am still doing. In the spring of 1993, I traveled to England to photograph gardens. The images were published in an artist’s book of “Iris” prints in 1996, and the exhibition has traveled across the country.
Disaster struck again when my husband, Frederick, died suddenly just as the show on English Gardens was being printed. In the period of 1996–1998, my husband and parents died. I lived in the eye of the storm for those years, adjusting to loss. I try to learn from the past, not dwell on it.
What is important to you in relation to your career?
It is crucial to maintain a healthy balance between my life and my work. I tend to merge them dangerously close. My family, friends, garden and my Yoga practice all help to provide equilibrium. In all facets of living and working it is important to be transparent, honest and have integrity.
How have you taught yourself to adapt to change?
Re-inventing yourself is essential to growth and just plain survival in life as well as in the crazy world of freelance photography. When business drops off, it is a time to follow a dream that cannot fit in the time that is filled with commercial work. I have to apply creativity in the search for more clients and also to excite my aesthetic eye again. The old adage is true: If you have the time, you don’t have the money. If you have the money, you don’t have the time.
Any major regrets?
That I cannot have nine lives!
What are the most important things you have learned?
Life is a gift. In my last 12 years, I have lived through disaster and loss. I have learned that loss is part of life. Instead of denying your experiences, you have to embrace all of them. I am more passionately in love with life than ever before.
On the business side I have learned that you cannot discuss your personal problems with clients. They need you to be on top — they don’t want someone to break down on their dime.
What is your favorite food?
fresh raspberries in summer, soup in the fall, smoked turkey in the winter, artichokes in the spring and chocolate anytime.
Why did you join ASMP?
I was persuaded to join ASMP in 1978 because I needed to learn about the business aspects of photography. I had absolutely no training in business practices. The association with other photographers that is possible through membership in ASMP is invaluable. Also, I have served in leadership roles both locally and nationally, which is the best way to really benefit from the society.
What is your current project?
I always have something simmering on the back burner and something boiling on the front. I am still photographing nudes, a subject that has fascinated me for many years and is still quietly bubbling along. The project that is boiling over is a book and exhibition on portraiture called The Face of Poetry, to be published by the University of California Press in 2005.
What is something you would like people to know that was not asked?
Never give up your dreams.
Text © 2003 Margaretta K. Mitchell