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Cause & Effect Mental Contagion
Art. Environement. Interview.

Katrina Mitchell Minneapolis, MN
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Web site

Katrina Mitchell was born in Australia and grew up in Minnesota. She attended college at Cooper Union in New York City and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. Her work has been shown in galleries and other venues in Madison, Minneapolis and Chicago, and she currently has work in Lincoln, NE at the Lux Center for the Arts. She will spend the upcoming summer in India working with two non-governmental organizations in the area of livelihood and micro finance interventions.


My work is an exploration of the beauty that is present in the overlooked, in the spaces between the recognizable; I photograph that which is abundant, but unseen or underappreciated—such as lichen, common plants and weeds, even concrete and street markings. It is an opportunity to reveal the world that exists all around us and to connect to the beauty that is available to us everyday.

Katrina Mitchell
Trig Points | Where Are You Now? series

MC: Can you talk about your trig point photographs, and what is happening in that series?

Katrina Mitchell: They are my guilty pleasure and they relate to things that are there that we don’t see. They actually exist all over the world in different formats. They’re used for for lining up orthographic photography. When people take aerial photography of the planet, they help in the developing of the images to correct for the curvature of the earth and to line up the multiple images. Now with satellites and computers they don’t need to do this as much because it’s done automatically to a certain extent. In the city of Minneapolis we have a well-developed system of them. They form a four-by-four grid and almost nobody ever sees them. Often when I go out and photograph them people have stopped me and asked if I painted them, and I say, “No, they’ve been here since 1956!” And they say, “You can’t be serious. I live in this neighborhood and I’ve never seen it.” We live around stuff all the time that we never see. They’re all over the planet. I’ve always wanted to get a global project going and see if people can find them in their town and send me a photograph of them. I found them in New Zealand, and I know they exist in Australia. My dad tells me they’re in Russia, too. I’d like to see proof.

Katrina Mitchell
Trig Points | Where Are You Now? series

MC: The scale of your subject matter in your macro photography creates a strange images out of familiar things. Why have you chosen to photograph on such a small level?

Katrina Mitchell: I like the abstraction. I am trying to remove the clutter of the world. To get to the point when everything falls away and there is just shape, space, light, color. 

Katrina Mitchell
Katrina Mitchell

MC: Why do you think we overlook small-scale beauty?

Katrina Mitchell : Actually I think we overlook beauty, period. It's a little trite to say, "Stop and smell the roses." but really, so much of life goes by in a blur. We all get caught up in the mundane, sometimes frustrating aspects of living life. The onslaught of email, driving here and then driving there, washing the dishes, paying bills, going to work. Our life becomes about doing, and we just get busier and busier and busier. But then, what defines us?

Throughout history, spirituality, philosophy and art have all been an interruption in the daily ebb and flow, calling on us to reflect on our bigger selves.

MC: Where do you go to find subject matter, and what do you look for?

Katrina Mitchell: It is important for me that what I photograph is within my regular routine. I don't typically go out of my way to find subject matter. I find subject matter in people's yards, along the sidewalk, at the dog park... When I am on vacation, I find it within the immediate realm of wherever I am, whether that is at a hotel, or at a bus or truck stop.

Sometimes what attracts me is how common something is. A weed that is easily overlooked, as in the image "Chandelier.” Other times I am struck by something out of place, as in the image "Shimmer" which is a shot of an albino leaf.  I am less attracted to things that have an obvious beauty, like flowers. I'm drawn into the exploration of the thing, more so than the thing itself.  I often have no idea what genus or species it is, or the history behind a thing, but am more curious about the space that it occupies, what its relationship is to other things.

Katrina Mitchell

Katrina Mitchell

MC: You commented that you can't really make a flower look more beautiful, that you prefer to make other things look beautiful, could you explain that a bit more?

Katrina Mitchell: I like things that are a challenge—giving people an opportunity to look somewhere that they wouldn’t look for beauty or to connect with something bigger. It is so easy to make a pretty person be pretty, or a flower, how can you make it not be beautiful? And it’s overdone. The art is in the flower itself, not in the taking of the image.

MC: Do you see environmental issues in the work that you do?

Katrina Mitchell: Not overtly. I’m very concerned about the environment and about sustainable development, and I think a lot in my work comes from a spiritual connection with the natural world. I think of myself very much in the same realm as the transcendentalists who look to nature to find divinity. And I think that as an artist everything that you are, everything that you’re interested in, everything that you read and are fascinated with, all of that shows up in your work and you don’t have to overtly say it.

For example, I had an opportunity to show my photographs to a minister who is an art lover. And he had seen one of my images and set up a meeting so I could show him some of my other work. I didn’t tell him much about myself and he didn’t know anything about my work, but he looked at a few images and said, “You’re really interested in the overlooked in life.”

I think that one of the biggest problems facing the environment and environmental protection is that the environment is overlooked, especially in urban settings. We don’t think about where the wind is going or where it came from. We often don’t think about where the water goes or where the garbage in the street is going to end up. In some respects the environment is just invisible to us unless we want to make a special effort to go and see the environment in a park. It becomes very separate and unseen.

MC: Who or what are your influences?

Katrina Mitchell: Architecture and graphic design are my biggest inspirations. I like the simplicity in solving a complex problem. I like things that are simple, sparse. If they are also whimsical, humorous or witty, all the better. Just like a crow attracted to shiny objects, I like light, happy colors, orange and pale blue.

Two books and two poets, shifted the way I see the world. The Spell of the Sensuous forever altered my relationship with the world "out there." I now know that there is no separation, it is a continuum and there is a reciprocal relationship between me and everything else. As David Abrams quotes in his book, from phenomenologist Maurice Merleaux-Ponty, "...the color blue thinks itself within me." Two years ago, Cradle to Cradle rocked my world. The idea that all of life, and the systems in it can be designed, and that the current state of affairs in the world is just a design failure, is a place to stand. When we are the designers of life then anything is possible. Mary Oliver's poems continue to show me the fragile, intimate connections between the physical world and our larger existence. And Billy Collins just makes me smile. Every winter I too am shoveling snow with Buddha.

There are artists whose work consistently steals my breath: Ann Hamilton, Anselm Kieffer, Minor White, Uta Barth, the Starn twins, Francesca Woodman, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Serra. I am often blown away by dance and experimental movement performance, such as Meredith Monk and Big Dance Theater.

Katrina Mitchell

MC: What sort of equipment do you use? What's your creative process?

Katrina Mitchell: The physical connection between me and the camera is very important. I shoot with an old, well worn, hand held, manual 35mm Nikon. It was a press camera at one time. It is heavy but has a nice, even weight to it. It feels right in my hand. I don't have to be careful with it. Even thought it is a precise instrument, as all cameras are, I rarely worry about damaging it. When I am looking through the lens it is just an extension of me. It feels natural. I love shooting with film. There's a magic to it. The experience of capturing images, and viewing them are separated. When I pick up film from the lab I don't wait to get home to look at it. I take it out right away, quickly scanning for an "ahh" moment, having my own private moment with the images before putting on the critic's hat. A guilty pleasure.

I've tried more remote equipment, like a 4X5 view camera, to get a bigger negative, or to add the tilt and swivel that make selective focus easier, but I lose the spontaneity and the physical connection between me and the camera that has the mechanism of it fade into the background. It becomes about the technique of photography instead of about the experience of the subject. 

I am considering taking the plunge into shooting digitally but am concerned that without the time, and distance, that the latency of film provides I will be tempted to delete images that might have merit if given their own space. Even now, with film, I find that images I like 1-2 years later are not always the ones I first picked out. You need that gap of time, space, distance, to let the subject-ness of it, the indexical nature of photography, to fade so that the informal can show up. The question becomes not, what is it, but how does it move, what does it feel like. To define the image by its subject is to limit our experience of it. Without the index of what it is the image can expand to be whatever we make of it. It can speak to something bigger than just our mind.

Beyond the film my process is to digitize the images and do as little as possible to clean the files and correct color. I no longer print with chemicals, instead opting to hand off my files a fabulous photographer and printer, Christian Korab, who makes gorgeous Epson prints for me. I eschew traditional framing techniques and let my painter's background show up in how I take an image and make an object out of it. I am still searching for an environmentally-friendly way to handle my images, but for the moment I mount them on aluminum panel and coat the surface with resin. The result is a tangible image/object that floats off the wall.

Katrina Mitchell
Mango Jam

MC: You mentioned that one thing you like about using film as opposed to digital is the latency—that some of the pictures you like best now you might not have liked when you took them. Which pictures would you say you like now that you weren’t so attached to in the beginning?

Katrina Mitchell: Well, there’s a lot when I look at my negatives. I get really struck by all these images and moments and I can’t pick which ones to scan and then print. And so that’s very mood-driven. Maybe I’ll be in a very somber mood, so those will be the ones that stick out to me. But I just was looking the other day at my images and I saw this image of a flower. I rarely shoot flowers because they have an inherent beauty to them, so I feel like it’s hard to improve on them. But this picture is just a fragment of a petal and it looks like an orange flamenco dancer’s dress whirling around in the image, and I thought, “Wow, that’s really so beautiful and different and not like my other work at all.”

MC: Maybe that has something to do with how abstracted the image becomes. It’s not something you can look at and immediately discern what it is.

Katrina Mitchell: Right. And the ones that are more abstract seem to have more longevity to them. The ones that you can tell what it is - and I think this is just how photography works to a certain extent—once you figure out what the image is, it loses some of its mystique. Especially with my work where it can be so abstract that once people figure out the game, they think the game is to find out what it is, and once they solve that game it’s no longer interesting for them. And I don’t think that that’s the game at all.

Katrina Mitchell

MC: What is the game to you?

Katrina Mitchell: The game is to be moved. To be in the moment. To allow time to stop. To let yourself fall into the space of the image.

MC: Have you always been drawn to overlooked beauty?

Katrina Mitchell: I guess in a certain way I’d say yes. I used to do a lot of work with camera accidents, for example blurred images or things that are cut off in funny ways; using the wrong kind of film and the wrong kind of light, double exposures, that kind of thing. And I will often go through a stack of film for a friend or relative and something that they’ll just think is some horrible shot that they would have thrown away I will find to be really beautiful. So I guess there is this aspect of it, these things that we didn’t mean to do. I like those moments.

Then the next body of work I did was at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. There’s a botany lab that’s really hidden. You have to go through other buildings to get there. And once you get inside it’s this magical place that smells really great, and it’s got all these old plants. It’s not a greenhouse that’s made for visitors, it’s a lab, so plants are labeled and they’re not arranged in a way that’s necessarily aesthetically pleasing. I love that space and I did quite a lot of shooting in there. I enjoyed the out-of-wayness of it and how you can take something that was meant for a scientific purpose and display the beauty of it.

Katrina Mitchell
Palm | Botany Lessons series

Katrina Mitchell
Draceana | Botany Lessons series

MC: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

Katrina Mitchell
: I know there’s a very serious environmental concern with photography. It’s chemical-based, and the chemicals are not only very harmful to human life, they’re pretty toxic, and there aren’t great ways of disposing of them and recapturing them. Some places recapture the silver but the rest of the photography chemicals just go down the drain. One of the things I think is really great is the move towards digital photography, because it takes that negative part out of the process and makes it a little bit lighter on the planet. And yet I’m still looking for a way to mount and express my images that isn’t toxic, and it’s a struggle. In a perfect world, I’ve thought of having somebody blow glass for them, but then I think glass isn’t really the most environmentally friendly substance either. And so I feel kind of trapped, because I love photographic images and the process of making photography but hate the environmental degradation that happens because of the process. But I think its getting better with digital being able to print the Epson prints. In the world of photography, if I were to show in New York, they really frown down upon Epson prints and they go more towards traditional pictures printed off of digital files. That’s back to the same old problem of it being really toxic. It’s ironic, because there are a lot of photographers who talk about environmental concerns and yet their photographs are printed on Cibachromes and mounted on plastic. And I just think that’s kind of haughty.

I have very little concern about digital archiving. In photography the whole archival conversation is a little hilarious, because nothing lasts. It’s not like paintings. Nothing lasts hundreds of years. Even silver-based photography, which is the most stable, is printed on paper and paper is not stable at all. And so art, photography specifically, is something you have to enjoy in the moment that you enjoy it. It’s not something you can collect and pass down from generation to generation like your grandmother’s china. So it’s really meant to be enjoyed and savored in the moment.

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