Mike Mitchell’s Beatles photos tell a tale of 50 years of friendship

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When the hammer went down, Mike Mitchell’s backlit group photo of the Beatles at their first U.S. concert sold for $68,500. All 46 of the images he shot in 1964 when he was 18 years old sold at Christie’s New York City auction-house for $362,000 last week.

It was an emotional moment for my family and me. Mike has been my close friend since I arrived in the U.S. in 1958 and photography in a way has been at the heart of our friendship for more than 50 years.

Mike Mitchell at age 18. (Courtesy of David Smith-Soto)

Mike Mitchell at age 18. (Courtesy of David Smith-Soto)

I was largely ignored when I arrived at John Hansen Junior High School in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Oxon Hill, Maryland, from tropical Costa Rica in midwinter, but snickered at when I wore my J.C. Penney’s car-coat in class.  When Mrs. Phillips said that a sock-hop was scheduled for a Friday the class broke up in a laughter uproar after I asked in my perfect schoolbook English,  “What is a sock-hop?” No wonder Mike didn’t speak to me until the last day of school when some of us brought cameras to class.

What drew his attention were my dad’s Leica and Rolleiflex cameras. My dad had taught me how to use them when I was 10 years old. Mike was shooting with a plastic Kodak Hawkeye Brownie. That summer I put one of dad’s cameras in his hands and we roamed Washington, D.C. photographing everything, developing and printing the photos in my basement. Mike soon outgunned me with a Minolta single lens reflex and, by God, a 200-millimeter lens!

Ringo Star at the Beatles first U.S. concert. (©Mike Mitchell)

Ringo Star at the Beatles first U.S. concert. (©Mike Mitchell)

In high school we both shot pictures for the school paper and the yearbook, but the fun was in the streets. We walked miles through snowdrifts in frozen feet to photograph JFK’s inaugural parade. My slides were all underexposed and ended up in the trash. Who knew that in the future digital technology would let you pull images out of seemingly useless negatives and transparencies. We were there when Martin Luther King told America that he had a dream and a year later when the Beatles came to town.

By then, Mike had already interned at the Washington Star and was a working pro, shooting for local magazines, on his way to the Rochester Institute of Technology and a successful career in commercial and fine-art photography. It’s no wonder that the photos he shot of the Beatles’ first U.S. concert are wonderful. At 18 he already had four years of experience.

Tuesday, Februay 11, 1964, was a typical workday for me breaking up boxes in the trash room at Discount Records and Books near Dupont Circle. I was on the night shift and I waited after closing late in the evening for Mike so we could grab a beer directly across Connecticut Avenue at the Old Stein. In the store’s front window one of the clerks had placed a huge coffee-table book with a cover color-photo of a beetle. Under the title “Beetles” a sign handwritten in black magic marker read,  “WELCOME.”

Lumi Gnosis 4. (©Mike Mitchell)

Lumi Gnosis 4. (©Mike Mitchell)

Mike showed up and after we finished our first mug of Lowenbrau, he said “You’re not going to believe this,” and he pulled a drumstick out of his coat. “Ringo Starr’s drumstick,” he said. After the second beer we left and in the spirit of the night, I took the mug. I still have it, although Ringo’s drumstick disappeared ages ago when Mike used it to impress a lady.

The images stayed in glassine envelopes mostly unprinted for 40 years until one night when Mike was watching a TV broadcast of an old video of the Beatles’ first concert in the U.S. and he saw himself walking across the stage. The rest of the story is on the Internet, more than a million references when last I checked.

Ever since our youthful days photo hunting in D.C., Mike has been more obsessed with light than with image. Over the years this has been an obvious quality in his excellent commercial work. He even distilled his art down to glass beads on canvas catching light in full spectrum without a camera.

His latest photographic work is as dynamic as the speed of light itself. The origins of his philosophy of light can be seen in his Beatles photos, which transcend documentary photography and excellence in craft. The historic event in pop-culture was captured by a visionary artist, which is why they sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and yet are worth so much more.

Good work, old buddy.

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  1. Good for Mike. I saw an article about the sale in a prominent place in the Wall Street Journal. Too bad I missed him at the Reunion a few years ago. Too bad I missed you.

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