Some Thing means Everything to Somebody
Scarecrows aren’t as abundant as they used to be. A somewhat tokenistic effort in crop defence, scarecrows now tend to be limited to more ceremonial duties, such as decorating trendy suburban allotment plots. We are still likely to encounter the scarecrow’s cousin – the guy – particularly on fund raising trails and competitive villages’ fêtes, cobbled together with bits of redundant clothing and other surplus household objects.
The fifty-odd scarecrows within the pages of Peter Mitchell’s monograph have been photographed over the past four decades and accompany an eclectic array of objects from the photographer’s past on the adjacent pages. He describes the book as ‘my autobiography told through inanimate objects silently observed by scarecrows’. The miscellaneous quality of Mitchell’s collection is similar to the makeshift fabrication of the scarecrows themselves. His belongings are not, however, ephemeral objects, but neither are they (for the most part) of high value. They comprise a range of items that could be representative of collective boyhood and adolescent memories (such as model aeroplane kits, comics, pin-ups, LPs) to far more personal effects, including family photographs and memorabilia from Mitchell’s past exhibitions, as well as an Egyptian winged cobra brooch – a motif that appears repeatedly throughout the book.
These objects reflect Mitchell’s diverse personal interests and the inventive, and at times eccentric, ways that he has framed his practice. His passion for cosmology, for instance, is present in his choice of many of these things. This theme was also reflected in his seminal exhibition A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission at Impressions gallery in 1979, in which he contextualized his environmental portraits of shopkeepers and workers around Leeds by speculating what the city might look like to visitors from another planet. Such an irreverent contextualization of his work in fact had truer resonances than we might imagine; that exhibition being the first exhibition of colour photographs in the UK by a British practitioner – colour film being a material that was considered the reserve of commercial imagery and family snaps alone.
Although Mitchell’s possessions might appear to be a little random, he describes them in his introductory note as the things that ‘made’ him a photographer, and reveals much of their personal significance within captions at the end of the book. The relevance of the scarecrows is, however, not articulated at all. Their uncanny qualities perhaps propose ideas around ‘the other’ – perhaps picking up on earlier themes in his work. Maybe we are supposed to read their blobby limbs as cumbersome spacesuits? Are the scarecrows just something that, as per his Leeds shopkeepers, he has enjoyed collecting during his career? It would seem actually that the scarecrows’ link with mythology connects them to many of Mitchell’s possessions.
Scarecrows are firmly planted within our popular culture and our imaginations, and as with the other objects in the book, they ignite myriad other emotions and narratives. While they are often presented as sinister or malevolent, scarecrows are represented in equal measure with more charming qualities, particularly in young children’s literature: they do not tend to be anthropomorphised by a single archetype. This open, malleable quality of the scarecrow is reflected in Mitchell’s strategy, whereby he purposefully selected for the book, those that had been constructed without facial features, allowing the viewer to interpret the character of each scarecrow themselves. Mitchell’s photographic approach, however, is far from typological or clinical: he allows brooding skies and fields veiled in mist to contribute to their meaning. He has also shot most of these pictures from a low perspective, giving us a child’s-eye-view of the scarecrow – as if we were tentatively stalking it, not entirely confident that the figures are harmless. Although there is humour throughout the series, many of the scarecrows are unsettling, and despite their unsophisticated construction, it is difficult to avoid reading them as figures.
Scarecrows and other human effigies are associated with seasonal rituals and in some children’s stories they can be used to represent the passing of time – offering a point of continuity within narratives around the annual cycles of arable farming, as well as the life cycles of the small mammals who bed down within them and the birds who pick out stuffing for their nests. These endearing personal qualities are owed to their diligence – their willingness to loyally preside over the crop come rain or shine until there is little more to them than rags: their stoicism makes them noble narrators of Mitchell’s biography.
But there is also a melancholy in the scarecrow which, accompanied by the nostalgia within many of Mitchell’s reproduced possessions, can feel elegiac. (These are, after all, his personal effects and sifting though them feels a little invasive.) It is, however, by no means a morbid piece of work. Some Thing means Everything to Somebody is an exciting concept, amusingly and thoughtfully contextualized, and beautifully presented in this enchanting book.
Some This mean Everything to Somebody is published by RRB Publishing and is available in an edition of 950 including a print for £45.00, and can be purchased from RRB Photobooks.
This review was originally commissioned by Photomonitor and can be viewed here.