View Finder is a series in which we talk to artists about how they got started, what their experiences in their field have been like and get some stories behind some of their works. Up first is Nathan Mitchell, a professional photographer who first caught our eye with his excellent series of shots from his trip to this year’s SXSW.
Who are you?
My name is Nathan Mitchell and I am a full-time wedding + event photographer from right outside Washington D.C. There’s a ton of political stuff going that all needs photography and DC is of course great for that, so I do a lot of freelancing as well. I’ve been at it for almost 6 years now.
How did you first get interested in photography?
Ever since I got a little point and shoot for Christmas in High School, I’ve been interested in photography. It had a manual shutter speed setting so I used to put it on 3 or 4 seconds and take photos of light while in the passenger seats of cars. That sounds so emo. I got a taste of light painting that way and started to understand how cameras worked. I never took classes or anything.
In December of 2007 I finished my last college exam, drove straight to Dulles airport and got on a plane to Mumbai, India with my best friend Vineet Gordhandas. He was going to visit some of his family and wanted me to come along. And he took along his new DSLR. For the next month we worked our way around the northwest part of India, staying in Mumbai, Pune, Goa and Delhi and shot the whole time with this one camera. When we got back to our room each day, we would edit the JPEGs. Looking back on it now, we didn’t know what we were doing but the photos are awesome even to this day. That whole experience really kickstarted my love for photography. I didn’t really think about it until then.
How long have you been doing photography professionally? What was your first gig?
My professional career started when another of my friends, Sam Hurd, who was my roommate and bandmate at that time, asked me if I wanted to shoot weddings with him. I think one of his co-workers was getting married and they asked him to shoot it. I had a Nikon D90 and probably like one decent lens. So that was my first gig. It was at the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia and it was a lot of fun. Ever since then I’ve enjoyed wedding photography, formed my own company, and started pulling in work of my own.
What equipment do you use?
I’m one of the original Nikon Df photographers. I’ve been shooting with it since day one. I absolutely love it and I think it’s close to a perfect camera for my needs. It takes absolutely amazing photographs and it’s got a kind of retro element to it, where you adjust shutter speed and ISO with big knobs at the top. It’s really fits my style very well. I’ve got a ton of lenses and I always carry a backup D700 with me in case of some weird problem, or like the one time that you forget a memory card or something and need to pull out a miracle. It happens! Always bring a backup!
What has been your best experience as a photographer?
Maybe it’s cliché but my best experience as a photographer is when I hear that my photographs have some kind of impact on my clients. Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re producing good work and whenever a client gives positive feedback I gotta say it’s satisfying! Honestly the overall experience of getting out there and doing something different every day, having the flexibility to kind of live life at my own pace has been great as well! It’s been a really uphill battle to like quit a job and just be out there, but in the end I wouldn’t really have it any other way.
What was your worst?
I’ve been really lucky with great clients and interesting shoots throughout the years, but sometimes I’ll be on an engagement shoot or portrait shoot or even a show and the creative juices just aren’t flowing. As an artist sometimes the inspiration just isn’t there, and in those times I have to mentally kind of reboot, and just try something totally off the wall and see what happens. Just take a deep breath, believe you can create good art, and oftentimes you will.
Tell us about your trip down to SXSW this year. Had you planned to document the trip from the start?
Sort of. I’ve been going to SXSW for the past three years. The first time I went, back in 2011, I took some photos but this year with the Nikon Df I was determined to get some better street stuff and try to blog it. The Df is a fantastic street camera because it’s super lightweight and inoffensive in terms of size; people are less intimidated by it. But oftentimes wedding photographers like myself need some release from the wedding blog rotation.
Honestly, SXSW kicked my butt this year. My friends and I drove in from VA on a straight 24-hour drive, and then on literally no sleep I partied way too hard the first night I got in! It was awesome but definitely would do it differently next time. Also, try seeing Diarrhea Planet 5 times in 4 days and you’ll be sore too! But overall I had a great time on the streets of Austin with my Df. I was really happy with some of the stuff I got.
A lot of the photos you took on this trip explore small town life and rural locations, similar to the work of Walker Evans and William Eggleston. Have you always been interested in that perspective?
Well, even though I’ve been shooting for over five years, I still feel a little shy around my subjects, so I find a candid approach to photography comes naturally to me. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing but it’s part of how I shoot. Either way, I’ve always been extremely interested in street photography and so impressed by a lot of great street photographers out there right now…Matt Stuart probably being the best of the best. I just love life and want to capture it in all its forms! I’m constantly pushing myself to be bolder in how I make street photographs– if I see a shot, I do my best to go get it instead of letting it pass by. A lot of these moments just are so fast, you can miss them if you hesitate even for a split second.
Your work is also surprisingly colorful. What’s your process for achieving that bright, colorful look in your photos?
Yep, I love color. I just think the world is colorful, so let’s capture that. When surfing through photography online, sometimes I see a lot of photographers going overboard. The trend right now is to wash out your color a little bit and give everything sort of an overall tone. I don’t really have anything against that washed-out, warm style at all, but I’ve tried it and it’s just not for me. A lot of photographers– in trying to attain a “look” to their photos, ostensibly in the name of consistency– find themselves doing what everyone else is doing. You’ve got to come up with your own style and voice. My opinion is that there’s a way to achieve great color and give your photos a bit of wash at the same time, and I think that’s what I’m going for.
I’m interested in the stories behind some of your photographs, specifically the shop with the lounging cat and the boy skating down an empty Austin street. Can you tell us more about those?
Sure. So the cat’s name is Kit Kit. We were driving through southern Virginia on our way down to SXSW and we pulled off onto a totally random exit to switch drivers. We parked in this trailer park area that turned out to have a little shop with a huge antique store attached to it. The other dudes were throwing the football around so I took my camera into the shop. When I walked in this cat was just lying in the doorway, didn’t move at all when I walked by it, which I thought was weird, so I just got close and snapped a photo. Kit Kit rules! I ended up buying a sci-fi book from 1968 for a dollar.
The kid skating was one of many interesting photographs I took while waiting in line to catch Chromeo at Fader Fort. I waited for an hour and a half. I must have taken 200 photos of weirdos passing by, people selling water and ice cream, guys trying to cut in line, and these little dudes just kept flying by on skateboards. I didn’t really think about it too much; I just grabbed one frame of that kid, and I like the movement in the shot. Also I like that his shadow looks like a robot. But that’s just me.
Your show photography also has a unique perspective in that it focuses on the crowd and venue as much as it does the performers. What draws you to that aspect of a show?
A show is as much about the audience as it is the performers. You can’t have a show without someone to show it to. I’ve been in a lot of bands throughout my life and I can tell you, you’re nothing without someone that wants to hear you. So that philosophy makes its way into my photography. I want to examine who these people are and what their life is like. Who crowdsurfs at a Diarrhea Planet show? What is the current concert attendee culture like? Do they wear the same clothes or cut their hair the same? Do all Raveonettes fans own black leather jackets? I like trying to figure people out and there’s a lot of people at SXSW. Kids from all over the country come in and get weird together, and I love that.
Also, I knew that I wouldn’t be photographing Jerimeh with a 200mm lens, so I got the best shot I could with my 50mm. I think that’s my favorite shot of the set. The stage fog and rear light coming in at this epic angle was pretty sick. It just seems like he’s in his own world.
What are you working on now? What’s on your plate for the rest of 2014?
So right now I’m in the thick of wedding season. It’s here, and I’m booked between now and June most weekends with weddings, and lots of events and stuff during the week, so I don’t have a ton of time for personal projects. However, I do have a backlog of travel photography that I’ve wanted to get around to blogging. Last year I went to Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Chile and Denver all within like three months of each other and I still haven’t been able to properly release those photos so I’m working on that. I’ll also be doing a review of the Nikon Df soon. It’s a busy time, but it’s worth it to be doing what I love.
You can reach Nathan Mitchell via e-mail or visit his site.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Stickers and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.