Drinking With Jake (Round Two) – Blue Mitchell
Written by Jake Shivery
Next in a series in which Jake Shivery and a guest get pickled and talk photography.
Blue Mitchell is a Portland based mixed media artist. He is the co-founder of Plates to Pixels and the founder of Diffusion magazine. The fourth edition of Diffusion hits the stands this summer.
Blue interviewed Jake a couple of years ago, for Plates to Pixels. Now, with relish, Jake turns the tables on his pal.
Who: Blue Mitchell, editor of Diffusion Magazine
Where: Jake’s Garage
When: May, 2012
What: Bulleit Rye straight up, beer back
Jake: Hi, Blue, and thanks for coming.
Blue: Thanks for having me over. This is nice.
JS: You’ve conducted a lot of interviews before. I’m new at this. Maybe you have some advice on how to conduct interviews.
BM: I never get the chance to sit down like this – I’m always doing email interviews. I don’t know – I guess I always start with the generic – background, art and photography, how did you get into the field, that sort of thing. The questions can get more complex when I get to know the artist more, but that’s always where I start. Sometimes I’m just at a loss – I get fresh questions from other people.
JS: Well, that’s not very helpful. I was counting on stealing interview techniques from someone with a lot of experience.
BM: We’ll see how that goes.
JS: Hmph. Fine – what’s cooking?
BM: This time of year, I’m buried in Diffusion. There’s little time for anything else. I’ve been lecturing a bit, and showing here and there. I’ve got some art happening on the side – stuff that’s more playful. The serious stuff takes more time.
JS: You have some long range projects simmering?
BM: Always. I’ve been working on “Mythos” for several years. Since 2006, really. It’s a pretty simple concept – crafting my own mythologies visually.
JS: Oh, yeah. That sounds simple. You have an example?
BM: One of the later ones was “The Journey Begins” – it’s landscape work, but all shot on a blanket in the studio. Then I combined that with a real landscape outside of Bend. Then it’s an acrylic lift on wood – it’s very warm.
JS: This is part of a series? How many in the series?
BM: That have been shown? Probably twenty or so. Maybe I should say ‘twenty or less’.
JS: Where have you been showing?
BM: My first solo gallery show was at Camerawork in 2007. Before that, I was in group shows in a few different venues, sometimes with photos, sometimes with found objects, sometimes with some collage of both. Since then I’ve shown at Newspace Center for Photography, Lightbox in Astoria and a few other galleries around the country. The Light Factory annual juried show is the one I’m most proud of outside of Portland.
JS: Are you actively submitting?
BM: Not really, not right now. It’s been mostly requests. That’s very nice.
JS: Oh, yes. It’s always nice to be asked.
BM: I had a gig as a visiting artist at University of Texas in San Antonio and at Amarillo College. I got to see a lot of really strong student work. In San Antonio I had the chance to visit the MFA students studios and look at installations. It was great. In Amarillo I did a workshop and lecture, about 60 people showed up for the lecture, I was impressed. They also kept me out ’til 2:30 in the morning. Suffice it to say that they showed me a good time in Amarillo.
JS: When you lecture for students, what do you discuss?
BM: Generally, it’s about my experience in publishing. My message is always: ‘Create your own way’. And networking. You have to have good people around you. There’s no way for you to know everything. On this Texas trip though, it was mostly about my journey as an artist, followed by the professional things I do now.
JS: You’ve also had some experience as a juror and a reviewer. Photolucida, and so forth. When you’re looking at other people’s work, what are you looking for?
BM: Stuff that surprises me. Most people that look at photos a lot see a lot of repetition. We’re all looking for a unique take and a strong artist voice. I try to not be narrow-minded about our medium, and I’m looking for artists that agree. If I’ve been watching an artist for a while, then I’m looking for the evolution. I want to see what’s occurred since they started – how they’ve changed.
JS: Any difference between what you’re looking for as a reviewer and what you’re looking for to publish in Diffusion?
BM: Not really. I’m watching a number of people, and I’m always looking for new folks, too. With the magazine, we try to strike a nice balance with unknowns and emerging talents and well-established, well-represented artists. Diffusion is a little different, because with each issue, we’re following a theme of some sort.
JS: Diffusion Four is coming out soon [as of this writing]. You pursued a Kickstarter project for a special edition.
BM: Kickstarter was great. We really hit the ‘sweet spot’ where we paid for all of our fees and made our goal. There are so many amazingly generous people out there – both the folks who donated money and all the artists who helped with the donation goods. I was blown away by the positive response. This has enabled us to do our first special – a limited edition, hardbound version. I’m pretty excited about it.
JS: With four issues under you belt, how do you feel about your magazine?
BM: I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m learning. I’m learning how to deal with the stress and the pressure. I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’re not keeping a very regular publishing schedule. I’m learning that it’s OK to back it up, if that makes it good. I’m blessed with a lot of people around me that make it all work. It’s getting its legs under it, and I think it’s really evolving into something good. I’m learning what works and what doesn’t.
JS: How do you view Diffusion in the landscape of current periodicals?
BM: As an annual, it’s limited. We have a good international following, but not a lot of submissions from foreign countries. The exhibitions are important – they’re one of my favorite parts. I want more of everything – I want it bigger, more global. And more exhibitions.
JS: You hung the last exhibition in Atlanta, much to the chagrin of your Portland artists. I, for one, want you to be proud of being a Portland-based operation.
BM: And I am. I am. Ultimately, the magazine is all Portland blood. We get amazing support from this community, and I’m well aware of what we can do here that we couldn’t do other places. Like I say – Portland blood. Just not Portland-centric. I want the shows to go on the road, that’s why we went to Atlanta. We’re looking forward to a show in Victoria, BC in July, again in Portland in 2013, and Verve Gallery in New Mexico in 2014.
JS: What else in the future?
BM: Ultimately, I’d like to publish books.
JS: What do you have in mind for books?
BM: Well, that’s what’s still up for debate. Initially, I was thinking I’d like to do monographs – now I’m not so sure – we’ll see. I think some other things might come before monographs.
JS: Like what?
BM: Well, I’m interested in writing. It’s the book form, after all – I think it should have more writing.
JS: You mean more writing and less photography?
BM: Well, yeah. That’d be an interesting way to start. The only thing I currently have brewing is conversations with artists about their photography and opening a dialogue about what their photography is. How do they use photography in other art? When does it become not-photography and becomes something else? This is largely a medium issue. Taking photography so far beyond an actual 2D photo, you know? Is it photo-real painting, or mixed media or collage – is the photo just a piece of the overall image? These kinds of questions lead to what photography really is – this subject really interests me. I’ve been finding that it interests quite a few other people, too. Maybe this is a book – initially, I was considering a special issue of Diffusion, but more about writing.
JS: That’s our segue to the big question of the evening. Process vs. content. How do you view what’s most important?
BM: Are you talking about Diffusion?
JS: Well, sure. But maybe we’re also talking about Blue.
BM: I think when I started Diffusion, it was perceived to be a lot about process, but for me it’s been an equal balance between process and content. We do our group showcases – and these are really about a theme and a process. In this section, I really want to show as many interesting processes as I can as well as a solid concept. The issue with concept in this case is that you only have the one, single concept that you’re trying to hold together. A lot of different processes means that we can dive really deeply into this concept, open it up to a lot of different artists’ visions.
Process is important to me – that’s what we spend a lot of time in Diffusion talking about. I find it very interesting to talk to artists in depth about how they do what they do. But we also pay attention to why they do what they do. I really feel strongly that the best work is the good combination of both sides – both concept and process.
There’s the whole gamut of photography out there – we see a lot series where the process is great, but the concept isn’t really there. Or, you know, maybe your final presentation is lacking, but the concept is so strong that it makes up for it. I’m interested in both ends of the spectrum. I’m really interested in the middle, too, of course.
Did I even answer your question? [laughs] It’s possible that I didn’t even answer it. Could just be more of my artspeak…
Let’s put it another way. The stuff that I like on my walls isn’t really about process, necessarily, it’s more about the image, but when it comes to a body of work, it has to have both for me. Photography for me is more about an emotional response – more on the feeling level, and less on an intellectual level. The intellectual is not as important to me. Visual impact is very important to me.
There’s a lot of photographers out there whose work is more challenging – social commentary or political commentary – that’s not really the stuff that I do or what’s in my magazine. Having said that, I want to emphasize the order: It’s always about the content first
JS: So, what’s better for you – a strong visual image that came off an iPhone, or a very heavy process- oriented thing, something with a great story behind it? Let’s see – this guy is deep sea diving with a panoramic pinhole sheet film camera and one leg on fire while being chased by sharks – but he takes a boring photograph.
BM: [laughs] I get that. We see it all the time. For me, it’s got to be about the strongest visual. The best content.
JS: Right, well, one argument regards an image’s value if you have to be standing behind the audience, describing the process. Is it still a strong picture if it requires textual reference? Can it still be a substantial photograph?
BM: OK, with that in mind, process always come second. I live in this digital world where I see the image, but outside of the context of the actual piece. I’m really about the finished piece – the final execution. I love going to the reviews, because I actually get to see the prints. This gives me a much better perspective on what the artist is doing. I don’t have to know the process, as long as I enjoy the print. I like the tangible object – I want to know that it’s interesting in real life.
I like to see the artist in the print. I want to know that they have some kind of thumb print left behind on the work itself. A pure quality thing – I want to see the artists’ hand.
The quality of the magazine has only gone up since I’ve started seeing more work in person. This is really important, since we’re doing an exhibition in addition to the publication. I have to enjoy it on the wall as much as I enjoy it when we try to reproduce it.
JS: You’re ducking my question. If the thing can not survive without text, is it still valuable?
BM: I know a few artists who don’t have a lot of concept in their work – but their work is very striking, and I feel that that is just as worthy as a high-concept piece. I just feel like it’s in a different category. Maybe they’re not working on concept, but they might be putting together a beautiful image that really makes you stop in a gallery. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s the artist statement is needed or not, if I’m engaged in it.
My personal work is obviously all about process. Even when I’m starting with a concept, it’s still always back to process. And the image becomes stronger through the more labor-intensive process.
Sometimes I go too far – I’m sort of known for over-processing, and now it’s not as interesting – it’s got too much going on and it’s too busy.
JS: Your work is pretty well received, I think. I mean, you’re being asked to show. You’re being asked to go to Texas. That sounds pretty good.
BM: That was great. My fondest memory of the trip was during my lecture at Amarillo College. There’s an old timer sitting in the room, and I don’t know who he is, but it’s obvious that he’s been around. I found out later that he was a successful photographer in Aperture, Scott Hyde. I’m showing my slide show, and because it’s for a college, I focused on my whole body of work, dating back to when I was a college freshman. I was explaining why I switched from film to photography. I knew immediately that photography was something I could do myself – all me – I didn’t need a whole crew of people to follow me around. Film was hard for me because of all that. It’s so involved with other people, it’s hard to just do your own thing. With photo, you can do it right away, you can still have narrative, but with more immediate results. I just wanted to create interesting things to look at – they didn’t have to move around.
Anyway, that’s an aside. Let me get back – the first slide I show is from my really early work, this 3200 speed, super grainy shot of a woman exhaling from her cigarette. And this gentleman gasped. On the first slide.
I was like “OK, I’m done. I don’t need to show any other slides. That’s it.” I don’t even know who this guy is, but that gasp – that’s like the crescendo of my career so far. That one moment makes it all worth it. Emotional impact.
JS: Interaction with the audience is important. I think all of us often overlook the idea that photography is basically an exhibition craft. Eventually, you have to know that someone is responding. That your work is carrying, like you say, emotional impact.
BM: I mean it happens to me a lot, but I rarely gasp at a photo.
JS: What we’re all after is some sense of recognition.
BM: And it comes with trusting the source. With this guy, I could tell he’d seen a lot of photography in his life – it’s quite a validation. It just makes me wonder if I should have quit with the early work.
JS: I see a lot of early work which is great – I mean, just great. And then the person in question gets more “serious” and it all just goes to hell. What they were able to make before, just the sheer beauty, now it’s all lost in trying to figure out f5.6 or f8.
BM: I think a lot of people work much better when they’re strictly intuitive.
JS: Let’s do a bit more about Blue Mitchell, the dude. Tell me about Montana.
BM: Montana? That’s fun. I was born in Montana, but then we moved to Northern California before I could even remember, but my cousins were still in Forsyth. So I have some memories. My family’s bread and butter was iron ore, they ran a mining company. We moved back to Montana from 1st through 4th grade, and then to Idaho, and then back to California. My parents moved a lot. I didn’t actually wind up back in Montana myself until I was an adult and went to Montana State in ’97. I did, however, continually visit my family in the summers.
JS: You were in the Army.
BM: I was in the Marines for a while. Very brief – shy of two years. It was kind of weird for me – one of the hippie kids who had to have his head shaved. A proverbial path in the road – I wanted a major change, and I gave myself a couple of options. The marines seemed like the most challenging one, but also the most stable one. Getting paid and getting college money, so that was good, but it was really hard for me mentally. Pretty shocking, really – I mean, my dad was a marine, and when it shocked him, I knew it might not be my personality trait to be joining the marine corp. That said, he supported me 100%.
My experience there was pretty limited. All I really needed, Jake, was boot camp. I could have been done with it all after that. Just send me through hell on earth – boot camp – and that’s enough. For me, living in paradise and then going to the military, it was quite a shock to the system. Not hell on earth, I guess, I mean, I never saw combat, so I should check myself there. Nonetheless, the physical training was ridiculous, but it was good for me mentally – and I came out a totally different person – a new self confidence that I didn’t have before. It was hard, but I got more out of it than I lost.
I mean, I was only in there for two years, but I have so many great stories. Now, years go by and I have nothing near the stories I got from that time in my life.
JS: Your career with the marines was pretty brief.
BM: Yeah. The short story is, I got in a car wreck right after boot camp. I fell asleep at the wheel and flipped my car six times, front over back – it was pretty traumatic. I was lucky – I got ejected through the moon roof, and I lacerated my elbow, broke my wrist and pelvic bone. [Blue shows off his elbow scar.]
JS: That’s all you got? You flipped a car six times and that’s all you got?
BM: I was lucky, the only injuries incurred were from the pavement. Thrown completely clear of the car and then landed on the interstate- the car stopped in a ditch.
So I ended up, after a long period of time, getting a medical discharge. In the meantime, I was in a medical platoon. When I left, I was actually platoon leader. Which was ridiculous – this hippie kid in charge of 50 marines. This is where a lot of the stories come from. I put up a good facade of a marine. It wasn’t like an actual heroic marine. People compare me to other marines, but they had much different experiences. I mean, I never left Camp Pendleton. I didn’t go to war, I just went through the system. More of an appearance, really.
JS: What brought you to Portland?
BM: Living in Montana, I was looking for an art school. I moved to Seattle but I was having all of my fun in Portland. Much more interesting things seemed to be happening here. I kicked around with a couple of state schools, but eventually decided it was time to suck it up and just go to art school. I scraped together my portfolio, and spent three years at the Oregon College of Art & Craft. Since then, I luckily landed a graphic design job – it isn’t my degree, but I’ve been doing it more or less since high school.
JS: So, you had the day job, and time to start your projects?
BM: Yep. Started Diffusion in 2008 – the first year of publication was 2009.
JS: And there was Plates to Pixels before that. Let’s touch on that.
BM: At the time there weren’t a lot of on-line galleries. That was really my first venture into promoting other people’s work. Learning about marketing and educating myself on the photo industry. I worked at the gallery at OCAC, and I really enjoyed the gallery process – bringing it in, putting it together, hanging the work. The on-line gallery was a way for me to flex that muscle.. In reality, it was a low-risk way for me to enter into curating. I treated it like a normal gallery, and this was right at the heart of the “big dichotomy”. Digital was so big then, and then there was this resurgence of alternate process work, somewhat because digital was growing. Now we have these polarized mediums, both growing at the same time. For me, I was embracing them both. These things are both valid – it doesn’t make sense that there’s even a discussion anymore – it’s just a matter of taste and preference.
JS: So you waded into this with a brand new on-line gallery?
BM: I wanted Plates to Pixels to become the nexus between the two, or all of the above. A lot of technology-based digital work, and balanced with analog work – this became the big theme.
JS: You keep at that project.
BM: It works nicely as a side project. I keep it going because I love it. It allows me to do different things than Diffusion, and also more frequently. In the beginning it was very challenging, but I found my feet in it pretty quickly. Got it where I want it, and I’m happy. But, it’s not ultimately fulfilling – I wanted a new thing, and so now there’s Diffusion.
JS: And here we are. You got anything else?
BM: Good lord, isn’t that enough?
JS: Just say ‘uncle’.
BM: Oh, no. I can keep going.
JS: Yeah, but I’m not sure I can. Just say ‘good night’.
BM: Good night.
JS: Thank you, and good night.