See the world through a photographer’s eyes
Final Fire is a companion piece to Mitchell’s much-praised 2004 memoir, The Molly Fire, a finalist for both the Writers’ Trust Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction, and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year.
Nearly a half century ago, Mitchell abandoned a safe and secure academic career to become a “cowboy” with a camera and a keyboard. While he has always kept one foot planted firmly in the arts, as a working photographer his search for adventure took him through the Americas, into the High Arctic, across Europe, on to the Middle East, India, and the Far East. He photographed famous athletes, musicians, actors, politicians, revolutionaries, and more than a few criminals. The sum of these scary, strange, heartrending, and funny episodes is one man’s prescription for how to live in a bizarre and, best of all, never boring world.
It is also a book about loss. Mitchell reflects on the invention of photography and its transformative effect on world culture and pays tribute to fellow photographers who led remarkable and frequently obsessive lives.
One midnight forty years ago I faced a pack of wild dogs howling down the cobbled street of a small Mexican pueblo. I knew the wild dogs of Mexico well. Individually they were scrawny, sulking curs -- collectively they were brutal and brave -- canine killers. And this pack had sensed a prey -- the terrified sixty-pound jaguar that had just leaped to my shoulders. Madre de Dios! The tiger and I were in trouble once again.
I had spent several years working on an archaeological survey crew exploring the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. We were quite a mix – a bitter Cuban, a La Jolla millionaire, an aging surfer, a Carolina professor, their families and me, the solitary Canadian. We’d roll into the isolated settlements along the coastal plain, park our jeeps, show our papers to the mayores and inquire about artifacts. The villagers would show us the Pre-Columbian pot sherds and plates they’d ploughed up in their fields or stumbled on in caves. Occasionally a campesino would show up carrying a magnificent burial urn. These always bore a carefully sculpted effigy – of a god, a bird, or beast. Country people always named these urns for the creature they depicted.
In one tiny hamlet fronting an enormous brackish lagoon the news of our purpose had arrived a head of us. The locals were waiting with their string bags bulging with the handwork of history. We carefully inspected everything, identified the owners and made appointments to visit the region’s tombs and ruins that had given up the treasures. When we’d finished interviewing everyone only a small boy and his baby sister remained. He approached me shyly and whispered , “My father has a tigre.”
Now, a Oaxacan jaguar effigy urn is among the most magnificent of all pre-Columbian artifacts – and among the scarcest. This was a pot I had to see. I arranged to visit the boy’s father, a butcher, the following day.
We made many site visits after the next day’s sunrise, driving deep into the thorn forest and hiking high into the hills. It was dusk when we finally returned to our camp outside the village. While my colleagues prepared supper I set off to find the butcher and his boy. Their shop fronted a cart-track that was the hamlet’s only street. I was led behind the building to a hardpan courtyard where the tiger pot was kept. A little kitten on a rope cowered in a corner. It turned out to be the tiger.
As I crouched down to inspect that animal I realized it was no ordinary kitten. It had very heavy legs, large feet and enormous eyes set in a big square head. Much of its coat had fallen out but where it hadn’t I could see that it was spotted like a leopard. Its very long tail was ringed with stripes of gold and jet. It was potentially a spectacular little beast but clearly one that was very ill.
The butcher had recently shot its mother in the mountains. Her pelt had fetched a peso bonanza that encouraged him to return for her kits with the intention of raising them to adulthood for slaughter and sale as well. However, his shop meat was far too precious to share with small wild things so he’d fed them only water and stale tortillas. One by one the little carnivores had died of malnutrition. I was looking at the sole survivor and it was truly a mangy little tragedy.
Sometimes we put our hearts before our heads and do dumb things. I began to negotiate for that little cat and so three mescals and twenty dollars later I was the owner of a baby wild cat. And a lot of trouble.
The lagoon had been the last stop of our field season. We were soon packed and on our way up the coastal sierra and on to distant Oaxaca where we’d have real beds after months of hammocks, and beer with real dinners instead of water and endless beans with rice. As I drove our Jeep through hours of mountain switchbacks toward the city the little tigre yowled in a crate at my feet.
In town we began a season of lab work on regular office hours. At day’s end I’d walk down to Oaxaca’s enormous market and negotiate for offal and leftovers to feed my little cat. He grew quickly. His eyes brightened and his coat began to grow in. Soon I had a magnificent animal with long strong legs, a sturdy square chest and a most handsome face. And his huge dark eyes got bigger and bigger. In no time he had grown to the size of a large dog and was ready for walks with a collar and chain. If we went down into the city centre the pedestrian traffic on the wide walkways of the Zócalo would part like the Red Sea. The locals found him absolutely terrifying. “Tigre, jaguar, marguay, ocelot,” they’d whisper. I never did figure out which of a half dozen possible species he was.
Tigre lived in my apartment on a hundred feet of chain. He’d wander around the furniture, weaving in and out until he was finally jerked to a stop by the end of his tether. At this point a dog would have sat there and whimpered until its owner obligingly untangled the mess and the cycle could begin again. Tigre would simply turn around, retrace his steps and liberate the hundred feet. He was a very, very, intelligent animal.
He was also still a kitten. Sometimes I’d be walking through my living room and a yard-long furry arm would sweep out from beneath a chair and down me on the flagstone floor -- playful kitty. He also enjoyed leaping onto the kitchen counters so he could plow through the piles of dishes, cups and glasses until everything lay shattered on the floor. I bought replacements in bulk. But whenever I got so desperate that I was ready to release him in the mountains he’d crawl into bed with me, cozy up and begin a purr that came from that place way down where the daily earthquakes that shook the valley of Oaxaca were born. This was a pet with a woofer.
He was also a wild animal. He loved being outside and so when I was home I’d tie him to a tree in my courtyard so that he could explore the garden. Tigre eventually grew strong enough to sever his chain. He made a few breaks for the mountains and more than once was gone for several days. But he always returned. At night you’d hear him on the roof or calling from a tree. He was proud – he never came when you called him home but he made sure that you could see him and reach the short length of chain that remained hooked to his collar. I’d gently pull him down and he’d slip through the door ahead of me. In no time he’d join me in bed with his earthquake twenty-cycle-rumble. Once again we’d have forgiven each other.
However as Tigre got bigger life with him got harder. One day a visit to the market had yielded a whole heart from a bull. I carried it home, a heavy brown-paper-wrapped bundle the size of a volley ball. Upon entering the apartment I set it on the counter of the kitchen just outside my bedroom that had a bathroom at the back. I rushed in there to pee. When I tried to reenter the kitchen I was confronted by a jaguar, a lion and a sabre-toothed tiger. The Tigre had a kill and until it was consumed no creature was going to pass. A bull has a very large heart. The Tigre kept me prisoner in my bedroom for 24 hours. When he finally finished and fell asleep I slipped out and shortened his chain. We were finished. That midnight I led him up the cobbled road to San Filipe and freedom in the mountains. But then those wild dogs came and came and came.
As Tigre trembled on my shoulders I began pulling cut-stones from the road. When the wild dogs leapt at me I’d split their skulls to save us both. Yet even with their brains spilling from their crainial cups and eyeballs dangling those dogs kept coming, growling, leaping, tearing. However, finally their losses were greater than ours and Tigre and I were able to beat a bloodied retreat for home. Our time together was not yet over.
Some months later I returned permanently to Canada without the tiger. But cats remained central to my life. My partner loved them. At what was the nadir for me there were eighteen cats sharing our apartment. The place stank. It was insane but despite the undifferentiated kitten chaos I still managed to find some favourites. Max, a pearl gray long-hair, often kept me company. He was always dirty and disheveled but one day he begged to be admitted to my darkroom where he began to clean himself up for the very first time. As I worked a long shift making production prints Max sat under the yellow safelight washing and grooming for at least a dozen hours. Then he jumped down, nuzzled my legs and cried at the darkroom’s back door that gave out to a fire escape. He’d always been an indoor cat so I endured more than an hour of his insistence before opening the door. Max strutted out into the world in his fancy new suit. I never saw him again. I still miss him.
And the Tigre? Well, some months after that encounter with the dogs I met an American artist traveling Mexico on a Guggenheim. He’d done some drawings in Chiapas that I loved. He in turn loved the Tigre and often drew him. We finally affected a trade. I got a handful of pictures and Tigre retired to Florida, a location that I’m confident pleased him more than the icy streets of Toronto could have. When I look back I realize that the Tigretaught me an important life lesson – a wild animal is a wild animal is a wild animal.
“Following the success of The Molly Fire, Michael Mitchell proves once again that he’s as accomplished a wordsmith as he is photographer. Laced with liberal doses of wit, humour and intelligence, Final Fire chronicles the artist’s many friendships and adventures with exquisite observations woven into every page, and offers glistening reflections of a passionate and creative life fully lived. Here is a must read for anyone wondering what artists do with their lives — and in this case — a very Canadian life.” — Edward Burtynsky, photographer
“Michael Mitchell is that rare cameraman whose writing is as brilliantly descriptive as his images. Reminiscing back and forth across his improbably rich life as a working photographer, Mitchell regards various encounters and episodes with a spirit of astonishment, true irony, and profound humanism. This moving rumination on a life lived through the lens is one of the most rewarding artist’s memoirs I’ve ever read.” — Paul Roth, photography curator and Director, Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto
“This book breathes. Eloquent descriptions of contact with nature alternate with the narration of extremely varied episodes (they range from the hilarious to the profoundly sad) from the author’s life as a professional photographer. The deeply felt writing transfers the author’s private memories into a moving, unique, shareable literature that lives and will continue to live.” — Michael Snow, artist and filmmaker