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Memoirs of a globetrotting photographer

May 17th, 2019

A man holds a large wooden harpoon with a pointed barb above his head inside his home.
Michael Mitchell. Philip Hakuluk, Rankin Inlet, Feb. 1986 (with harpoon), 1986. Gelatin-silver print, Overall (sheet): 27.8 x 35.5 cm. Purchase with assistance of The McLean Foundation, 1991. 91/43 ©Michael Mitchell

He’s an archeologist, author and photographer with works in collections throughout North America and Europe. He’s a daring freelancer who has spent his career travelling the globe documenting the stories of criminals, revolutionaries, Olympians and more. He’s Michael Mitchell, and as part of the annual Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, he’s coming to the AGO on May 30 to launch  Final Fire, a memoir of his adventures as a globetrotting “cowboy with a camera and a keyboard”.

Mitchell is no stranger to the AGO. He has 24 works in the AGO Collection, including the image of a family in Rankin Inlet, seen above. Before the launch, we chatted with Mitchell about his upcoming book, his adventures around the globe and the ways photography has changed the world around us.

AGO: Is it accurate to say that your new book, Final Fire, is a companion piece or continuation of your first memoir, The Molly Fire?

Michael Mitchell, photo by Ken Straiton

Mitchell: The Molly Fire was occasioned by the death of both of my parents within a few months of each other. They left boxes of paperwork and images that told the story of both sides of the family going back several centuries. I decided to do something with that material as a way of dealing with their sudden absence and also to understand who I am.

Final Fire is a memoir focused on my life as an artist photographer. Over the years I had many adventures—some bizarre, some dangerous, some funny, all of them challenging. As a freewheeling freelancer I was never bored. I got to enter so many different worlds—corporations, prisons, a revolution, the theatre, the worlds of Olympic athletes, of musicians and orchestras. I loved being a fly-on-the-wall.

AGO: What do you want people to take away from reading this memoir?

Mitchell: I want people to get a sense of possibilities, see the need to take risks, and see the importance of being interested in only everything. It’s important to be curious. Photography gives me a license to do that.      

Courtesy of ECW Press

AGO: Do you prefer writing or photography as an artistic medium?   

Mitchell: They are very different. The world is so strange that I’ve never felt the need to manipulate reality. I’m a purist. Writing, on the other hand, is always an adventure. You sit down at the keyboard with the tiniest notion. As you write you discover that you have ideas, thoughts and opinions. It becomes an adventure in self-discovery and understanding. I find that I need both media.

For example, the AGO has some of my images of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. A revolution is enormously complex and photographs can be mute in the face of such complexity. You need to have captions and some text to give the viewer tools to help them understand what they are viewing.

AGO: In the memoir, you reflect on the origins of photography. What would you say is the most significant impact of photography on world culture?

Mitchell: Photography’s arrival changed everything. Suddenly we knew what the farthest corners of the world actually looked like. We learned that war wasn’t heroic and operatic, it was ugly, dreary and messy. We learned that kings and queens, emperors and conquerors were just people. We learned to face the facts.

Final Fire launches at the AGO on May 30 as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Get all the details and learn more about Mitchell’s work here.

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