|Cause & Effect
Katrina Mitchell Minneapolis, MN
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Web
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.
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,
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.
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,
MC: Why do you think we overlook small-scale
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
think that that’s the game at all.
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
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
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.
Palm | Botany Lessons series
Draceana | Botany
MC: Is there anything else you’d like to
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