Michael Mitchell: Photographer. Writer. Sailor. Kayaker. Born Nov. 3, 1943, in Hamilton; died May 18, 2020, in Hamilton, of Hodgkin’s lymphoma; aged 76.
Michael Mitchell loved multicoloured striped scarves, bright playful socks and down vests. He layered those on top of black T-shirts and jeans; Red Camper brand shoes were for occasions. As a younger man he had a mass of dark curly hair and a big prehipster beard; as he aged he took to wearing hats.
It was easy to make Michael happy: suggest lunch around the corner at the local bistro or a coffee in Kensington Market. He liked drinking from beer mugs in dive bars and stemware at elegant tables. His broad taste, knowledgeable and eclectic, extended to friends, music and art. He was irreverent, often blunt, mischievous for sure. A flirt.
Endlessly curious, he said photography gave him licence to stare. That close observation fed his storytelling. His sons always said they had to divide by two when listening to one of his tales, and he confessed to some embroidery, but he did it for effect, never to deceive.
Michael wrote the stories down. Beautifully. Essays and articles for magazines and journals, some published with his photographs. A book about his collection of 19th-century studio photographs of carnival “freaks” established a new field of study. And there were two memoirs: the first The Molly Fire, about his difficult father and adored artist mother, was a finalist for major literary prizes. Final Fire, about his life as a Canadian photographer, launched just days before he was hospitalized. Michael found it hard to talk about his emotions, avoided conflict and hid his hurts. But he wrote with an open heart.
As a kid, Michael’s hobbies included months spent grinding a parabolic mirror for a telescope to see the stars. He rebuilt a car with a friend (before he was old enough to drive) and finished it off with a stolen motor. He would become an anthropologist, spending formative years on archeological fieldwork in Mexico. But he wanted an unpredictable career and went back to school to study photography. Michael’s commitment to photography in the 1970s helped define that art form in Toronto. Working with the photography community, he was instrumental in the birth of several lasting photography institutions and planted the seeds for a photography department at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
By now he was married to Annick, with whom he had two sons, Jacob and Ben. As the family grew, he put much of his art practice aside to work as an assignment photographer. That took him around the world – hard work spiked with adventure – but it kept him away from home. Michael was so proud of his sons – their curiosity and resilience, talents and accomplishments. He was awed to meet his granddaughter for the first time, just months before he died.
Michael always had projects. When he moved from Toronto to Hamilton with his partner, Sheila, he spent much of the 2018-19 winter photographing and filming the city. Ill health was finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma and throughout endless months of hospitalization, he maintained remarkable equilibrium. He celebrated the passage of light and sky outside his window every day. His project became really seeing, and he reminded Sheila to stop and look.
Anyone travelling with Michael knew how happy he was when he swept his outboard, full throttle, into the harbour of his remote little Georgian Bay island and floated to a practised stop at the dock. This was where he replenished his soul. “I love this landscape,” he wrote, “but I can’t photograph it. I don’t have the need. I know it.”
Sheila Murray is Michael’s partner of 20 years.
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