What if a Mars rover landed in Leeds? Peter Mitchell’s best photograph | Photography

I moved to Leeds in the early 1970s and have been photographing its dying buildings and the people associated with them ever since, making notes and observations to accompany each subject. This image appeared at the Impressions Gallery in York in 1979, as part of an exhibition I called A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission.

In the show, every photograph was bordered with a coordinate grid like the ones used by Nasa, and mounted in a tin frame painted bright red. I wanted to give the impression that the Viking Mars probes, which had been launched a few years before, had returned to Earth and their rovers were now rolling through the streets of Britain taking pictures. The shots in the show were largely of Leeds, but I also included photographs taken in London and Sheffield, as well as Nasa images of the surface of Mars.

I’d run this idea past the gallery’s director, Val Williams, and she’d been very encouraging. I got a lot of stick when the exhibition opened, though. I worked mainly in colour and, at the time, documentary photography was mostly confined to black and white. There were also objections to the way I’d framed the photographs. But a few years ago, the revived show was taken to Arles, where it went down a bomb.

I had spotted this scene on a fine, bright day when I felt the need to walk across Leeds, heading south into the coal mining areas of Beeston and Hunslet. I was making my way to a small church whose former vicar had been the Reverend Charles Jenkinson, a stalwart champion of Quarry Hill flats, the mighty art deco housing estate built in the centre of Leeds. I’d spent five years documenting their decline and demolition.

I was hoping for stained-glass windows or even a 1930s mural as a tribute to the man, but found nothing in the church. However, just across the road was a massive cinema, the Tivoli, by then running as a bingo hall. The frontage was pretty wasted, but the back was a winner. The two ladies were chatting but, as if to avoid the lamppost, or maybe to take a breather with their shopping, they stopped suddenly and noticed me with my Hasselblad, waiting for them to carry on.

“What are you doing?” they shouted. “I’m taking a picture of the cinema,” I yelled back. “Why? It’s gone.” “Because I love it as it is.” And off they went. Whenever the picture appeared in exhibitions, the caption was always: “Two anonymous ladies, Leeds, 1976.”

Fast forward to earlier this year. Rudi, my agent, gets an email from a Gloria England. She had spotted the image on Instagram. The two ladies in the photograph were her mother Doreen and her friend Sonia coming home from work. By this time, the Viking pictures had been collected in a book, which Rudi posted to Gloria. She came straight back with the revelation that I had also photographed the mill where Doreen and Sonia worked, and that the pair actually appeared in the book twice.

Kays Mail Order Warehouse on Leeds’ Marshall Street, October 1979.
Kays Mail Order Warehouse on Marshall Street, October 1979. Photograph: Peter Mitchell

For me, photography is all about coincidences. Marshall’s flax mill, AKA Temple Works and later Kays Mail Order Warehouse, was the finest building in Leeds, a colossal stone Egyptian temple built in 1840 and employing hundreds, maybe thousands, of young women. I photographed it in the late 1970s as they were all clocking off the night shift. One woman was signalling to the others to get in line and she could have been dancing just like an Egyptian. To get the whole facade, I had to back into the grim depths of the Co-op funeral parlour garage over the road and shift a couple of hearses out of the way.

The last time I looked, it was semi derelict, while the Tivoli was completely flattened a few years ago. Doreen and Sonia had a happy life and were well known in Kays Warehouse, as they now are in the art world and my archive. Photography is the only insurance against death.

Peter Mitchell’s CV

Photographer Peter Mitchell

Born: Manchester, 1943.
Trained: London College of Printing and Graphic Arts/Hornsey College of Art.
Influences: Bob Mazzer, Val Williams, Rudi Thoemmes, the city of Leeds.
High point: “My own show at Arles photography festival in 2016.”
Low point: “Losing 540 individual negatives – although I found them two years later.”
Top tip: “Travel on buses.”

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