Raised in Manitoba and Oregon, Graeme Mitchell is a Los Angeles artist whose work spans video, drawing, painting, sculpture and photography. Mitchell worked for a decade as a portrait photographer in New York before transitioning to personal art. His commercial portraits have graced the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker, W, Interview, Dazed and Confused and Tank. Mitchell’s debut exhibition, Das Ding, opened at Wilding Cran Gallery in downtown LA, showing his work from 2012–2014.
A sixth-generation conceptual artist living in Brooklyn, Jay Batlle’s Epicurean paintings, drawings, performances and sculptures refer to the gourmet as a source of inspiration and social commentary. Batlle’s work explores “the good life”—success, fortune and abundant sensual pleasures—and the gulf that exists between this ideal and reality. Batlle has exhibited internationally, including the Chelsea Museum and Exit Art, New York; the National Museum of Fine Arts, Santiago de Chile; and the Museum of Liverpool.
I’ve always avoided getting too close with my neighbors. It’s an unspoken rule in NYC: keep to yourself but always be companionable. The ones with whom I’ve been able to transcend this iron code are friends for life.
New York is all or nothing / Graeme is my friend for life.
The front doors to our Brooklyn apartments faced each other in the psychedelic purple hallway of the Chocolate Factory. Behind those doors were our respective studios—Graeme’s darkroom and my painting place. Before we knew each other, I always seemed to be going out around the same time that my Canadian neighbor began his daily street photography. Day after day our doors opened simultaneously, and we were facing each other, buttoning our coats. Then one spring day as I was leaving to take my lurcher Seymour for a walk, we started talking, and we haven’t stopped since.
Thereafter, our solitary routines seemed to merge naturally into seeing each other and chatting about what we were seeing. Mainly art. Graeme’s work was the first street photography I’d seen in years which spoke to me. I ended up looking forward to grabbing some cold beers in the store downstairs and shooting the shit with Graeme. Getting home was no problem: we just took the elevator and parted on our respective thresholds, still talking.
Graeme has since relocated to Los Angeles. We caught up recently over a long lunch at the Soho House in West Hollywood.
Jay Batlle: I’m having a Peroni? You?
Graeme Mitchell: Yeah, great, two of those. It’s hot. Nineties in February is bananas. It’s nice up here though! It is rare to have such an elevated view of this city.
JB: Please don’t remind me. Brooklyn has been brutal this winter. Okay, so when did you first start making photographs?
GM: At the age of 11 or 12. My dad was into tech, so there were old cameras around the house that I’d play with. I figure at that age a camera was a cool object, like a boom-box or a sword, but for whatever reason I was serious about using it or performing with it. I’d direct my brothers in these scenes—neon sunglasses, roller skates, the works. It was playing.
JB: When and how did you start making portraits?
GM: Right from that start. It’s what I assumed cameras were for, to photograph people. I didn’t take pictures of anything else for years. After my brothers, I moved on to portraits of friends. I did this, I’d say, throughout high school. It was my way to connect with people, to show affection. The actual photographs didn’t matter. That would come much later. My portraits as work began after moving to NYC and meeting editors who spotted this natural direction.
“It makes me think of how academic the art community is. It sometimes feels like a institutional bureaucracy, everyone eagerly critiquing and policing the ‘conversation.’”
— GRAEME MITCHELL
JB: What motivated you to work mainly in analog and black & white film?
GM: Even as a kid black & white was interesting to me because it made things different. This excited me, and it only grew later in discovering the work I most admired—Friedlander, Evans, R. Adams, Atget, the Bechers—all black & white. I respected that tradition of a seeming visual constraint that made the medium unique.
JB: There is something so tangible about the process and tradition.
GM: Yes, and I still find a possibility of beauty in that tangibility. Yet, the analog part—shooting only film—was mainly a byproduct of the black & white. It was the way to make a photograph with the qualities I sought, namely tonally. Digital was unable to. Black & white film is also extremely inexpensive when you develop it yourself, which was necessary for me at the time. Still, it went beyond this. It was an intense concentration for over a decade. Looking back I think this was because I was self-taught, and analog black & white was how I taught myself the formal aspects of photography that I felt I would need later to do what I wanted with the medium; only once I understood them could I move on. For what it’s worth, I use it all now: digital, analog, color and black & white.
JB: What drove you to move to New York?
GM: I wanted to be a fashion photographer! As context though, I was from small towns, and what I knew of photography was entirely from magazines: Avedon’s portraits in The New Yorker or a Paolo Roversi story in W. All the while, what I really wanted to be was a writer. To me, art was Infinite Jest, but I wasn’t raised with the concept of making a living as an artist; this simply didn’t exist as a possibility. Photography solved this. It was a commercial career and also kind of like writing. I laugh at this now, but it’s how it all began.