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Remembering Jack Mitchell Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

11 November 2013

Jack Mitchell, who passed away last week at the age of 88, made a name for himself photographing celebrities. But not the kind that fly into your TV screen every night like flies at a window. He focused his lens on artists, dancers, actors, musicians and writers. People who made art.

You might think he had an easy time of it. After all, most of these people were used to the stage. In fact, he very much appreciated working with dancers:

They're accustomed to taking directions. And they have a youthful quality, maybe because no matter how big a star they are they take class every day. They are never out of school. Dancers make the best subjects in the world.

But Mitchell wasn't shooting 8x10 publicity shots. He was after something else.

Photographing for a long list of dance companies and a longer list of high-end publications, Mitchell wanted his photos to reveal character the way an X-ray reveals bones.

He wanted to get beyond the pose to the person. But people who spend their time in front of the camera tend to be always "on." It can be difficult to capture them as the people they are rather than the celebrities they've become.

To make their portrait, in short.

But as far as those subjects themselves were concerned, he succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.

You can hear a few of these artists describe their portraits in the trailer to Craig Highberger's documentary Jack Mitchell: My Life is Black and White :

Don't miss Patti LuPone and Judith Jamison talking about their portraits. You can order the film, by the way, for $20 from Jack Mitchell's Web site.

You can see more of his work here:

  • The New York Times, with whom he worked for many years, has published A Portfolio of Celebrated Characters, a slide show of 12 of his images among whom are the actress Meryl Streep, the choreographer Twyla Tharp and the pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
  • Corbis has a collection or his images, including a few color ones.
  • Mitchell's Web site has several galleries organized into artists, dancers, film-theater, musicians and writers.

In addition, Mitchell published Icons & Idols: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Arts, 1960-1995, which includes 160 portraits. In the foreward playwright Edward Albee writes, "I am constantly startled by how much of the 'soul' of each one has been captured in these photographs."

Perhaps it isn't surprising that these artists appreciated Mitchell's achievement in capturing their character. They know what it takes to get to the truth in their own spheres and must have appreciated seeing the photographer at work on them in his.

He shot these portraits, for the most part, in black and white. Probably because most of them were done for publications when it was too expensive to print in color. But the reliance solely on tonality plays like a metaphor for character over celebrity, as if the recognizable public person were in color but the soul is always in black and white.

It may be stating the obvious but these days, when first photographs are always in color, it's worth pointing out that he shot black and white from the start. And again, because publishers at the time printed black and white, not color, he shot black and white for most of his career.

Mitchell was born in Key West, Fla., in 1925 and learned the ropes from his father, a railroad employee who bought him an expensive camera to get him started. He advanced his craft by studying photography magazines and started earning a living from his images at the age of 15. He served as a U.S. Army public relations photographer in Italy, both in Florence and Venice, after World War II before establishing himself in New York City.

From 1960 to 1970, he was the photographer for the American Ballet Theater and he contributed to Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, People Magazine, Newsweek, Time, LIfe Vogue, Elle, Harpers Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Madam Figaro and Stern, among others.

From 1970 to 1995, he contributed numerous special assignment photos for the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. He retired in 1995 and moved back to Florida, where he had grown up and taken his first published photograph, a photo of the actress Veronica Lake on a war bond tour.

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