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Photographer's images catch the stars

Saturday, January 29, 2005

By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Photographer Jack Mitchell began working with dancers early in his career. This multiple exposure portrait of choreographer Martha Graham and dancers Pearl Lang, Bertram Ross and Mary Hinkson was made for The New York Times in 1973.
Click photo for larger image.

Ease is the first word that comes to mind when looking at the subjects in Jack Mitchell's photography. After learning something about the man himself the reason for that response becomes apparent.

Nearly as celebrated as the art and entertainment personages he's photographed over a full career -- 45 years of it spent in New York -- Mitchell comes across in the introduction he wrote for a 1998 book of his photographs as down-to-earth, comfortable with himself and the world, a man who's been perfectly suited for his life's work since childhood.

The book is "Icons & Idols: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Arts, 1960-1995" (Amphoto Art), and 137 black and white images, most reproduced in it, comprise a traveling exhibition of the same title at The Andy Warhol Museum.

One of the things that sets Mitchell's work apart from the saturation of 20th-century celebrity images is this prevalent ease -- as though the people being photographed are having a good conversation with Mitchell -- are guests at his home, or he at theirs, rather than posing in a studio. Of course, most of them are posing at his Upper East Side Manhattan studio, but with an apparent comfort that removes the protective filter often raised by people -- especially the famous -- about to go on visual record.

He's been credited by Arts magazine as being the first contemporary photographer to treat artists as individuals with "character and identification not expressed exclusively through their works."

Mitchell learned the basics of photography early from his father, and when he was 12 his parents bought him a Kodak Baby Brownie camera. He credits the 1940s black-and-white movies he frequently attended for honing his awareness of aesthetic use of light and shadow and, one concludes, feeding his interest in stardom.

This 1971 Jack Mitchell photograph of Eric Emerson, who acted in Andy Warhol's films, is among 137 images in "Jack Mitchell: Icons & Idols, A Photographer's Chronicle of the Arts, 1960-1995" at The Andy Warhol Museum.
Click photo for larger image.

When he was 15 he used the only press pass he's owned to gain access to and photograph Veronica Lake, his first pictured film idol.

Through a combination of talent, drive and luck, he secured a commission from Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival founder Ted Shawn to shoot at Jacob's Pillow in 1950. His immersion in the world of dance followed from that assignment.

Mitchell has photographed most of the world's major dance companies for The New York Times and Dance Magazine, the latter of which published its 168th Mitchell cover photograph in July 2003. He frequently photographed dancers for the program books produced by those companies and was photographer to American Ballet Theatre for a decade.

An outstanding image in the show is of Merce Cunningham, performing his dance "Solo" in 1975, birthing from an egg-shaped silhouette.

But Mitchell also recorded the greats from a variety of disciplines -- including theater, screen, music, the visual arts -- for publications ranging from the Times' Arts and Leisure section to Vogue and Rolling Stone.

One of the earliest images is from 1960 and shows silent film star Gloria Swanson, whom Mitchell shot over a 12-year period, presiding in her chauffeured Silver Cloud Rolls Royce. Among the many are composers Philip Glass (1984) and Samuel Barber (1977) and visual artists Philip Pearlstein, a Pittsburgh native (1986), Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the last two photographed in 1977.

Very suitable to this particular venue are images from the 1970s of Warhol and several of the groupies who starred in his films and/or hung out at The Factory studio. Mitchell has promised five of these to the museum's collection, including one of Andy, a feather-encircled Holly Woodlawn, Eric Emerson looking like he stepped off the set of "Hair," and two of Jane Forth that show haunting vulnerability.

It's sobering to realize how many of the subjects are no longer alive. Three images of John Lennon and Yoko Ono were taken in 1980, weeks before Lennon was murdered. It also gives pause to see time stopped on the face of, for example, a youthful Julian Schnabel from 1984, the year before his first Carnegie International appearance, or the governor of California (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in bodybuilder stance in 1976.

Born in 1925 in Key West, Fla., Mitchell moved with his family to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where he grew up and which he returned to after closing his New York studio in 1995. The exhibition was organized by the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, where Mitchell was a Master Artist in residence in 1983.

In the book's forward, prominent playwright Edward Albee -- represented in the exhibition by a 1995 portrait -- writes that he knows most of the people photographed and ponders Mitchell's ability to capture each so well. Then he provides his own answer:

"How can Jack Mitchell see with my eye, how can he let me see, touch, even smell my experiences? Well, simply enough, he is an amazing artist."

"Icons" continues through April 17. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and until 10 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $10, seniors $7, students/children $6, 5-10 p.m. Fridays half price, members free. The "Icons" book is $24.95 in the museum shop. For information, call 412-237-8300 or visit

Robot words

Chico Macurtrie, the artistic director of the Amorphic Robot Works Collective, will give a free gallery talk at 1 p.m. today at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, where his work is being exhibited. Information: 412-471-5605 or

(Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at or 412-263-1925.)

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