At Home Behind the Camera: Photographer Christopher Mitchell Captures the Exceptionally Ordinary

Christopher Mitchell, Man Fishing

By NOAH SONNENBURG, September 2020

Invariably, photographer Christopher Mitchell sees the world around him through curved glass. With his eye nestled purposefully in his viewfinder, Mitchell knows how to wield his camera with poise—he’s spent his whole life doing so. His passion started early on, as his father was the one who first introduced him to photography. Having worked for 27 years as a photographer and videographer for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned economic development corporation, Mitchell’s father knew his way around a camera and passed the torch along to his son.

“I don't ever remember being told, ‘Hey, don't touch that camera,’” Mitchell reminisces.

Constant exposure to this craft left Mitchell with a feeling of confidence behind the camera which made his ultimate career path clear.

“I felt I had three choices,” Mitchell says. “I was going to make films, shoot photographs, or join the military. I always felt like I was going to do one of those three things.”

His expectations couldn’t have been more correct. After high school, Mitchell traveled around the United States. He first blazed a trail to Brooklyn, NY, where he worked alongside a family friend to hone his filmmaking skills. After that, he spent time in San Francisco, CA, and Houston, TX, before finally returning home to Knoxville, TN. That exploration and subsequent return speaks to Mitchell’s body of work: a return to the places we know best, a return to home.

Today, Mitchell is a seasoned director and cinematographer who works on true crime shows. His videography work has earned him accolades of all kinds, including an Emmy nomination for his work on the Zaevion Dobson Tribute Special which aired on CBS in 2016. Outside of his cinematic successes, Mitchell sees his still photographic work as his true passion. It is a medium in which he has complete control. Without the inherent restraints of television and film production, Mitchell captures stories with his own signature style—abruptly and on film.

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Christopher Mitchell, Tree

To Christopher Mitchell, the perfect picture is a portrait—and he is damn good at them. His work carries with it the authenticity of Bert Hardy’s work while remaining awash with a Dorthea Lange-ian tone of mournful poise. Mitchell cites fellow Tennessean William Eggleston and Floridian Bill Yates as prime inspirations for his work. While his portfolio may draw strong ties to other artists, his method is all his own.

Meandering through the streets of Knoxville, Mitchell captures the overlooked people and places in his town. Never hiding their flaws or outright dilapidation, Mitchell’s work offers veracious vignettes into the corners of American living. But don’t call it folksy—this is real life.

“I would say being real is always my goal,” says Mitchell. “How real can I make it? How interesting can I make something that … maybe someone would miss? I like to find interesting and everyday objects, I guess.”

His method is unconventional but not uncomfortable. Milling around town, Mitchell keeps an eye out for his everyday subjects. When he finds something or someone worth a shot, his camera is out and ready. No fanfare, no panache,it’s all in the moment.

“The most planning I do is before I leave the house. I think about where I usually see people out and about,” Mitchell reflects. “They're fishing at the little fishing dock, or, you know, it's a tiny town and there's usually a guy or two who hang out in front of a little store drinking coffee. That's my plan, you know? It's just, where are people?” 

In his youth, Mitchell was a timid character. If he could tell his former self what he would be doing in a couple years’ time, he would have laughed in his own face. Today, however, his introductions and conversations with subjects are like clockwork. But he didn’t get there without practice. He credits much of this growth to his time in New York where, in his words, “shyness just got beaten out of you.”

Now, after years spent working on these impromptu headshots, Mitchell bears witness to something remarkable in the digital age. The vast majority of his subjects welcome his photographic advances with open arms. The warmth with which people respond to his requests is astounding, and Mitchell notes that he can count the number of people who have declined to be photographed on one hand.

Mitchell is grateful for his success rate. He notes that many times he has made a true connection with people. Some share small beliefs and stories of theirs, others confide their personal struggles to him, and others still become so engaging that Mitchell feels like he is leaving a close friend when he has to say goodbye.

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Christopher Mitchell, Drive Through Window

It’s no surprise that Christopher Mitchell has a penchant for the overlooked unique—the extraordinary in the ordinary. When he isn’t capturing portraits, Mitchell hunts for the forgotten institutions in his town. Spaces like the local Elk Lodge and the diners which pepper Knoxville are the perfect examples. While still populated by those who grew up with them, these places are a portal through time, tiny pockets of run-down Americana, remnants of the past that nonetheless continue on living.

“I think I want people to know that places like this still exist,” Mitchell says.

What Mitchell eventually chooses to shoot is often dependent on light—how it is reflected and the shapes it creates. The way these waves of energy dance before him is vital. A stickler for film, Mitchell depends heavily on his environment for how his pictures come out. For him, this analog philosophy is bar none. The joyous lack of consistency it offers and its ability to create the unexpected has become an integral part of Mitchell’s process.

“I think it's the visualization,” says Mitchell with a zealous joy. “Being able to visualize it in your head, photograph it and see how it comes out. That's always exciting because you're never really sure.”

Mitchell notes that the majority of his process takes place in his basement darkroom. Some days, after shooting, he will come home and talk to his family for only 45 minutes before cloistering himself downstairs developing images. This process is all about relinquishing control. For hours he toils over his development tools before his prints come out in all their imperfect splendor. 

“I don't mind the wait. I don't need that instant gratification of a digital image. And I don't like spending that much time on the computer either. I don't want to have to look at it on the back of the camera and go, well, you know, ‘I can fix that and I can fix that.’”

In the end, Mitchell recognizes that at a certain point his art is out of his own hands. It must be released to its audience,viewed in their own special way. That’s the truth about reality, it means something slightly different to everyone. That doesn’t mean he has no aspirations or intentions. In his mind, there is a special fate he wishes for his work and for the people who witness it.

“I hope they look at it and they find something in there that just says, ‘That's different. I haven't seen that before—that person or that place.’”

It seems then that Christopher Mitchell’s work is not unlike his own path in life. Once we catch a glimpse of his photographs we become transported to a small, textured world outside our own.

For more, please visit his website: https://www.photographerchristopher.com/

And follow him on Instagram: @photographerchristopher WM

Noah Sonnenburg

Noah Sonnenburg is a freelance writer based in Pasadena, CA. His work covers automobiles, film, fine art and entertainment.

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