Above and Below: Navigating Multiple Worlds with Trent Mitchell

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You can glean a lot about Trent Mitchell from the first line of his website’s “about" page. Instead of the seemingly mandatory “Steve is a photographer, cinematographer, journalist, writer and nuclear physicist from Ulladulla….”, Trent’s just reads: 

"I'd stare into my favourite crystals for hours when I was a kid.”

A sentence that speaks volumes as to the Gold Coast-based photographer’s appreciation of light, his curiosity but perhaps most of all his humbleness. Which comes as an utter surprise as Mitchell’s CV is just as dazzling as the crystals he speaks of - reading basically as a who’s who list of surf photo awards peppered with some of the most prestigious contemporary photographic art prizes Australia has to offer. But despite all this, TM maintains a sort of personal facade and a social media presence much more akin to that of a hobbyist than a seasoned professional - his Instagram acting as a sort of depository for visual experimentation and facilitates an on-going, very friendly dialogue with his 30k followers. 

From humble beginnings in a suburb of Sydney’s north, Mitchell began experimenting with photography at a young age and cut his teeth with the medium by combining it with his love for the ocean and bodyboarding. And while he has since broadened his scope of subject matter to encompass editorial, advertising and fashion (for companies including Google, Leica and Renault), his present canon of work is still clearly defined by an obsession with the sea. The legacy of his early ocean-experimentation “Chasing the Curve” has remained a constant even up until his most recent series “Inner Atlas” - an exploration of bodysurfing. 

Attempting to divert one’s eyes from Mitchell’s Instagram feed for a moment and to seek more information on the man behind the lens is a seemingly fruitless endeavour. A Google image search reveals very little about TM albeit a contrasty image of a black-clad fellow with rangefinder in hand. Combing this with the collective sense of intrepidity, curiosity and observational humour drawn from his “Australia, Seriously?” series, it’s tempting to paint a picture of the enigmatic photographer as a sort of barefoot bushman-in-the-city with a Leica thrown over his shoulder. And that might not be all too far from the truth. Mitchell’s work is undeniably drenched in that sort of subconscious Australian vernacular that you might find in a Tim Winton novel - giving us reason to compare his work to the likes of a Trent Parke or Martin Parr. 

In this Q&A with the man himself, we gained a little more insight as to the inner-workings of Trent Mitchell - what drives him as a photographer but most importantly why he can’t stop pointing his lens at the ocean. What came to the surface was a picture of what could be considered the archetypal photographer; an individual not without an existential crisis or two in his past but who has built on such adversity to find his voice with a camera.

Photo: Trent Mitchell

Photo: Trent Mitchell

MM: Can you tell us a bit about your roots? When and where did you grow up and how did you come to find photography? 

TM: I grew up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney at a place called Mona Vale. I found photography during  high school art classes while creating a visual diary for paintings. The paintings I was creating look like my photographic seascapes today. So it was a bit of a case of my art evolving beyond a canvas. My initial photos were terrible but I was curious enough to learn and take the long road shooting film and doing it on my own.

MM: Who were your early influences as a photographer?

TM: My earliest influences were landscape photographers like Ken Duncan and Peter Lik. I loved landscape photography early on because I could get out and create on my own. I loved being around nature and in spaces that moved me. Once I got a water housing I tried to apply that thinking to surf. I told myself I wanted to be a “landscape surf photographer” and I didn’t even know what that was but I liked the sound of it. I started looking at surf stuff with a landscape eye and there weren’t many surf photographs that I saw and loved as stand alone images. The ones that did were by Jon Frank, Ted Grambeau, Vince Cavataio and David Pu’u. Those guys combined influenced my foundation surf work. 

MM: How long did it take you to find your photographic style/voice? Have you always known what you wanted to do with the medium? 

TM: Oh, thats such a tricky question. I really can’t answer either of those questions with a complete answer. I still feel like my style has evolved so much over the years and it's still changing. I’m enjoying my work more now than I did say, five years ago. And as far as knowing what I want to do with photography, I’m still trying to work it out. So I guess the answer is there’s no arrival with style and knowing. It’s all a work in progress.

Photo: Trent Mitchell

Photo: Trent Mitchell

Photo: Trent Mitchell

Photo: Trent Mitchell

MM: What sort of influence did the ocean/bodyboarding/surfing have on this? And how did it impact you both conceptually and technically?

TM: Oh, life has everything to do with influencing where one points a camera and why. So being in the ocean bodyboarding loads I guess your used to being low on the wave face looking up at the sculptural aspects of waves. The curves, lips and negative spaces. You start to notice all of these different shapes and moments from a lower, more powerful angle than say a surfer would. That’s why boog photographers have eyes for impact work. I don’t feel like riding waves or being in the ocean helped me with photographic technicalities or concepts too much. 

MM: Your work is very technically adept. Do you think ocean photography helped to facilitate this control of light etc?

TM: I definitely developed an appreciation for light in nature for sure. I would say that learning to shoot Velvia film taught me how light works, or behaves early on. I’m not a very technical photographer although I feel like I do understand light and the physics of it well enough to get myself out of trouble if I need to.

MM: Congrats on having one of the most impressive CVs in Australian photography, mate. It’s kind of a who’s who of surf photo awards but also some incredibly prestigious contemporary photo awards. How have you steered your work into more contemporary photography? And does that still feed off of your water-focused work? 

TM: Cheers. The funny thing is you hear of people starting water photography through becoming injured and then ending up shooting their mates and all of that thing. Well, I was already shooting heaps, just launched my first photo book in 2011, Chasing the Curve. It was really well received in the industry and beyond. I was on a bit of a roll with stuff I guess. I was where I dreamed of being and on the trajectory I had always wanted. Then one arvo I tore my ACL skating down a little hill around from my place. I went from this mega high to really low, in a split second. I couldn’t shoot water for 8 months. I felt my dream was over. I basically ended up depressed on the couch for months. The phone stopped ringing and I just dropped off the photo scene pretty fast. I was working full time as a photographer so it hit pretty hard. I’ll never forget that feeling. I was really down. I was borderline going to quit and sell up all of my gear. So I started thinking if I sold all of my shit and walked away from surf photography and just kept one camera what would it be? What would I shoot with that one camera forever? I decided I would buy a Leica MP and I would continue to shoot street, urban landscapes and just everyday things. So that’s what I did. I turned my back on surf and looked inward from the sea into the land I loved. I’d already built up an archive of shots over my travels and I made a goal to grow it into a real body of work. That’s how I got into shooting contemporary photography, so to speak.

From the series, ‘Australia, Seriously?’  | Photo: Trent Mitchell

From the series, ‘Australia, Seriously?’ | Photo: Trent Mitchell

From the series, ‘Australia, Seriously?’  | Photo: Trent Mitchell

From the series, ‘Australia, Seriously?’ | Photo: Trent Mitchell

MM: I’m a BIG fan of ‘Australia, Seriously?’. It has a real Trent Parke feel and it seems like maybe a visual language that could have been developed under the glitz and glam of the Gold Coast. Am I on the right track here? What was your approach to this work?

TM: Your kind of on the right track. So while I was off my head on pain killers on the couch with my busted knee I would look at the Magnum website for 8 hours a day for weeks at a time and i’d start dreaming. I love Trent’s work among others that shoot similar to him like Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey, William Eggleston, etc. I was influenced by great photographers of the everyday for this work. And that also includes Parr, Erwitt and Shore. Australians from the Oculi collective, Andrew Quilty and James Brickwood got me going too. I guess this is a list of photographers I love that all have their own ways of seeing and shoot the everyday so very well. My approach to shooting Australia Seriously? was just to have fun with a camera. I noticed across my earliest archive I kept pointing my camera at stuff that reminded me of my own childhood in caravan parks or stuff I found funny, like ridiculous signs, dumb typography, big things. Dumb shit people make. Funny moments. Road trip things, road houses, odd buildings. Colour. I wasn’t trying to be that way, I just honestly loved it. I always get people saying oh, that’s very Parr or very Parke when commenting on my pictures, but the thing is I was taking photos with a similar approach before I knew of them. Obviously not as good though! Now, I’d hope I have my own way of seeing and use photography to comment on Australia in my own way. 

MM: Did your early surf photos days help to expose you to our country and therefore your photographic awareness of it? I’m thinking of that early shot of yours of the dog half in shadow at some roadhouse in South Australia. 

TM: Yes, South Australia definitely opened my eyes to the potential of what's really out there. It blew my mind. It still does. I’d go there tomorrow if I could. There’s so many interesting nooks and crannies around Australia to create incredible photos I could honestly spend the rest of my life trying to do that quite happily. It would be the best thing ever.

MM: What are your present goals as a photographer? What have you been pointing your lens at lately? And on that note, which lens would that be, exactly (if you don’t mind me asking)? 

TM: I’ve just finished a body of work on bodysurfing called Inner Atlas. I’ve been working on a short film with Robert Sherwood that’s a bit of a bio piece and shows a lot of the bodysurfing stuff too. So my main goal is to finish this stuff off and get it out there. Inner Atlas is definitely my most authentic body of work to date. I’m really proud of it. It was all shot with a 24mm f1.8 Nikon lens on a D850 with a flash.

MM: One tip for up-and-coming photographers? 

TM: Print your work.

Photo: Trent Mitchell

Photo: Trent Mitchell