When things are good, when sadness gives way to peace, life rhymes for Mike Mitchell. That’s the way he puts it.
It rhymes. He hears it, though you may not. A private poetry reading for one.
Of all the things that rhyme for Mike Mitchell, nothing rhymes like light. There it is, off in the clouds. A burst, describing momentary squiggles of brilliance in the sky. He sees it and he listens to it, though it makes not a sound. Lightning in the thunderhead. One silent burst, and it’s gone.
A camera flashes in the distance, across the shipping channel from the spot by the willow tree where he always unfolds his camp chair, the spot on Hains Point that he calls his “satellite office.”
Another lightning burst.
“It’s rhyming, man,” Mitchell tells me. “I can’t explain it, you know. Light, light, light. Three enunciations of light.”
So this is a story about a man who loves light. About a man who thrived in it — professionally and financially — but somehow, thuddingly, found himself penniless and living in a basement, a light-deprived urban cave.
And it’s a story about how resurrected light — the kind captured on rolls of film a long, long time ago — unexpectedly, even if for just these few moments, has turned Mike Mitchell into a photographer of international renown. It’s about how light can liberate a cave dweller from the darkness.
* * *
The music on the radio in his 1955 Chevy jolted Mike Mitchell. Jangly guitar. Rolling bass. Lopsided drum beat.
“Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something / I think you’ll understand / When I say that something / I wanna hold your hand.”
It was 1964, and Mitchell, an 18-year-old boy from Oxon Hill who preferred taking pictures to schoolwork, had never heard anything like it. It felt like a “clarion call” to his generation, he says. Not the sappy words, but the rhythms that this new band, the Beatles, was producing. It made him feel like something big was happening in the world. Something was changing.
Mitchell, who by then was already working professionally as a freelance photographer, talked the editors at Washington, a small now-defunct magazine, into getting him a press pass for the Beatles concert a few days later at the Washington Coliseum. It was the British group’s first in the United States. Mitchell did not have a flash for his 35mm Nikon camera, so he let the available light — the stage lights, the auditorium lights — guide him.
Mitchell developed those photographs in the bathroom at the home in Oxon Hill where he lived with his mother. He doesn’t remember if he got paid for the few images that were published from that concert. But he remembers how they were displayed — the magazine produced a mocking spread, deriding the Beatles as a fad.
“It was a parody. It was a spoof,” he recalls. “It was really embarrassing to me. I was mortified.” They had turned his clarion call into a sour note.
Mitchell eventually took the 16 or 17 rolls of film he shot that night and cut the negatives into strips of six, placing them in glassine sleeves.
The sleeves went into a white legal storage box, “heaped,” as he puts it, with hundreds of other images. They would stay in that box, mostly untouched and unconsidered, for nearly half a century.
The label read: “Beedles.”
* * *
In a town of exclamation points, a town of overt personalities and emphatic statements, of self-promoters and look-at-me swagger, Mike Mitchell seems more like a parenthetical clause. He’s an aside, a tangent, a run-on sentence in a bullet-point world.
It’s okay if you’ve never heard of Mike Mitchell because most people have never heard of Mike Mitchell. Even people who should know Mike Mitchell don’t know Mike Mitchell. Even Mike Mitchell doesn’t always know Mike Mitchell. He’s one of those Washingtonians who occupy the periphery of the city’s central vibe.
For much of his 65 years, Mitchell has been one of those searching souls, looking for answers about himself with the same earnest, deliberate, knotted persistence with which he gropes for the right word when he’s talking to you.
“I think,” he starts off one afternoon over lunch at Osteria Bibiana, a downtown power dining hot spot that I’ve chosen, a place he’s never been, “there’s a lot of room in the human brain to start exploring the trans-rational. I think my relationship with light is easily characterized as trans-rational . . .
“I’m babbling here,” he says. “You started this. You plugged me in.”
He’s graying now, with soft, loose features and a bit of a paunch. He’s dressed all in black with a roomy jacket, though it’s an inferno of summer heat outside. At the tables around him, business types are getting to the point, cutting deals, shaking hands, making their world move. Mitchell is immobile in thought, an aberration, his brow set, looking, looking, looking for the right word.
Another time, I ask Mitchell what he considers his real work. I’m curious, because he has weaved back and forth between the worlds of commercial photography and art photography. Can shooting images for an annual report or an advertising campaign compare with staging elaborate visions of refracted light that might end up hanging in an art gallery?
After a start and a stop, he recounts, by way of answering, something he’s read: a poem called “The Real Work” by Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet.
The poem inspired him to write a few lines about himself, a kind of admonition: “You are the donkey on which light can ride into Jerusalem. You are a mansion where light can throw beautiful parties. You are a tree where light can grow beautiful fruit.”
* * *
Mitchell traces his deep connection to light to a spectral morning in 1969 at a lake house in Massachusetts owned by his father, who was divorced from his mother. Mitchell was, by his own reckoning, a “morose” young man, a “tangle of crossed wires” that “began to short-circuit into a sense of meaningless.”
Depression pressed down on him, a condition that he’s battled for much of his life. At one point, he says, he was part of the clinical trials for the antidepressant Prozac.
On a cloudy morning, he walked onto the pier. Mindlessly, he aimed his camera at a gaggle of rocks in the water. The sun came out from behind the clouds, and he ended up double-exposing an image of it over the rocks. The image formed an X-Y axis.
He felt as if he was in the presence of “something huge.” He felt love, waves of love, and beauty. He was in awe of the vastness of it all. And it terrified him.
A voice spoke to him from somewhere, urging him to photograph those rocks again. “It did then occur to me that I was hearing ‘voices,’ but that didn’t matter,” Mitchell once wrote. “Sanity was not an issue.”
He felt “love of indescribable density and indisputable authority. . . . It must be what is meant by the word God.”
Then he heard the voice again.
“Open the shutter,” it told him, “and I’ll tell you when to close it.”
* * *
The next decade would see Mitchell come of age as an artist. There was a gallery show in New York in 1972 and another at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 1977. He shot with infrared film, finding something “spiritually engaging about photographing light that the eye couldn’t see.” It was like the rhymes that others couldn’t hear.
There would be a marriage and a divorce; there would be family troubles — he’s now estranged from his mother’s side of the family.
But his professional life was one success after another. Magazine assignments came his way, as did commercial gigs. At the apex of his commercial success he could command $4,000 a day for a shoot. But he was still searching. He conducted “psycho-archaeology” digs, probing his mind for liberation from his depression and pain. He looked for signs. He dabbled with Viking runes, the ancient alphabetic symbols that some believe have predictive or guiding powers.
It was around this time that his then-girlfriend introduced him to Ed and June Miller, who live on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. Ed Miller is a successful banker and Chinese art dealer. He and his first wife are the parents of Sienna Miller, the actress.
“I don’t want to be seen as a psychic,” June Miller, Ed’s third wife, says on the phone one afternoon. “But I have the same access they do. . . . I’m very hard to pin down to a word.” One way to describe her, she says, would be as “an intuitive transformative educator.”
Mitchell sought guidance from June Miller, first in a phone conversation for which he says he paid $100, then in numerous other calls as their relationship evolved from counseling to friendship and, later, to a business partnership. Around this time, Mitchell gradually left behind his commercial work and turned almost exclusively to art photography.
He refinanced his rowhouse near Dupont Circle so he could transform it into what he called “an elegant instrument to explore light.” He had huge magnetic walls installed so that he could display six-foot-high prints. He set up a large mirror to direct more sunlight into his world. He no longer felt the need to take medications to balance his emotions, so he stopped his antidepressant regimen.
He grew more solitary, immersed completely in the work, oblivious to the destruction he was wreaking on his personal finances. “This is the work of your life,” he thought to himself. “You do it at all costs.”
I ask if he was happy during that period. “Why is it required that it be happy?” he says. Then, as he so often does, he turns to something he’s read or seen to explain himself. “You ever see the movie ‘Proof’?” he says, referencing the Gwyneth Paltrow film in which the main character confronts fears that she has inherited her father’s mental illness while at the same time seeking answers about the validity of his mathematical theories. “She doesn’t know whether she’s nuts or whether the proof is solid,” Mitchell says.
When Mitchell did engage with the world, he could be as downbeat as that young man who stood on the pier in Massachusetts decades earlier. June Miller says her husband called him Eeyore, after Winnie-the-Pooh’s gloomy donkey.
By 2008, Mitchell’s finances had deteriorated to the point that he faced foreclosure on the home he had come to love so much. “I confess to you,” Mitchell says, “I was profoundly dumb about money.”
He became dependent on friends. A hundred bucks here, a couple hundred there. It got so bad that he hocked an expensive telephoto lens just to survive. Eventually, he and others concocted a complicated plan to save the house: A group of people, including a friend, would buy it at foreclosure, and he would eventually buy it back. As with many complicated plans, this one didn’t work out, though Mitchell is loath to go into the details. “My temptation to seek revenge has to be suppressed,” he says.
The house “meant everything to him,” says David Smith-Soto, a friend since childhood. “It was a huge blow losing it.”
Mitchell’s next-door neighbor let him live rent-free for a time in a basement apartment that he still calls home. But, he adds, “I can’t stand being there anymore. It has a really oppressive kind of effect on me.”
For all his troubles, connecting to his art also gave a kind of peace that had eluded him so often, a “vitality of the soul” he still feels today. And in the cave he discovered something powerful and fleeting: inspiration. He noticed that a small amount of light stabbed through a back door for a few hours a day. He photographed it, over and over, in a burst of creative energy. The images he created — wispy, swirling, mesmerizing — build on the body of work he’d begun with his Lumi-Gnosis series.
But then he put down his camera again. He’s not sure why.
He hasn’t taken a photograph since.
* * *
One day, in the depths of his financial quagmire, Mitchell happened upon a documentary about Christie’s auction house selling entertainment memorabilia. He scavenged through his belongings and pulled out the glassine sheets holding the images he shot back in 1964.
Both desperate and intrigued, he tracked down Russ Lease, a prominent collector who runs a Beatles replica clothing business in Columbia. “I was blown away,” Lease says one afternoon, recalling the day that Mitchell showed him the photographs.
The Millers were also intrigued. They set about developing a business plan. On a trip to New York, June Miller, who has an infectious, relentlessly positive manner, met with an attorney for Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon. She also shopped the idea of selling the photos to Christie’s.
What she was offering was remarkable. The Beatles are among history’s most photographed humans. But these were images — intimate, moody images bathed in sometimes hazy, sometimes glaring light — that had never been seen before. Here is the smoke curling off Ringo Starr’s cigarette as his thumb rests between his lips; here is a stage strewn with jelly beans, a police officer with bullets plugging his ears to block out the screaming girls. And, best of all, an image of the four Beatles shot from behind, the light captured just so that it describes the outlines of their heads, almost like the lightning Mitchell likes to “listen to” in the clouds.
On July 20, a Christie’s auctioneer at Rockefeller Plaza in New York opened the bidding on Sale 2633: “The Beatles Illuminated: The Discovered Works of Mike Mitchell.” The hammer came down on 46 sales, 46 black-and-white shots that had lived in obscurity in that white legal box marked “Beedles” since the second year of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
Someone thought enough of Mitchell’s photo of the four Beatles shot from behind to pay $68,500 to have it. All in all, the collection garnered $361,937. Christie’s will get some, and the Millers will get some, but “a healthy chunk,” as June Miller puts it, will go to Mike Mitchell.
Enough to pay off some debts. Enough, maybe, to get out of the cave. Into the light.