Art has brought us landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes, but our generation has seen a new environment flourish: the Clubscape. Our Clubscape series aims to provide you a behind-the-scenes perspective on how rave culture is experienced, captured, and illuminated by electronic music's best photographers.
If there is one adjective out there to effectively characterize Toronto's spirited techno scene, it would be 'community'. For upwards of two decades, lensman John Mitchell has been a pillar of that community. Mitchell has been around long enough to have smelled the fresh paint on the clandestine walls of Footwork and witness its successor CODA slammed before midnight. Whether you've walked through the doors of some of the city's venerated underground institutions—be it as a local listener, homegrown artist, or visiting international talent—chances are that Mitchell was there too, clicking away.
Yet as the city's growing taste for and reputation in alternative dance music has expanded, so has Mitchell's commitment to his craft. His aspirations extend not just to himself but in support of the very same community he holds so dear, and it's a relationship that goes both ways.
Days before the official launch party of his new project Derinkuyu, THUMP sat down with the forerunner of Toronto techno photography for this installment of Clubscape.
THUMP: Can you recall your earliest days of shooting nightlife in Toronto?
John Mitchell: I had gone to a few raves in the mid-90s then stopped for a year or so. I borrowed some of the first digital cameras on the market at the time from the place I was working. I then helped start a company called Raveography in the early 2000's where we'd print your photo instantly at the party with company logos on it, the whole bit.
How did that evolve into where you are now?
We ended up buying our own equipment, did it for a couple years, made some money, but then people went on to do other things. However, I kept the camera in my hand. Back in those days you were only able to carry a couple rolls of film, so you had to really pick your shots. There was a limit. Now it's carte blanche. I can get a picture every second of the event if I so choose. It's pretty crazy when you think about it.
You've certainly seen techno in Toronto progress over the last two decades. Do you still view the scene as 'underground'?
Techno has always been the same. It's about that dark and secret place that only a few true heads actually get. When you get down to brass tacks, the underground is the underground because it is where things are born. These things—the of music, the culture—may get popular over time, but the 'underground' will remain constant because it's the birth of this movement.
Tell us about shooting names synonymous with Toronto techno like Jonny White, Kenny Glasgow, Carlo Lio, Nathan Barato, Sydney Blu, etc.
It's interesting to have been at the ground level with these folks that made it big. They haven't changed. That is why they made it big in the first place. They all had talent, but also the personalities to go with it. If you look back on some of my older photos, you can see who fits in front of the camera and who doesn't; who has that 'star' quality.
What about your longstanding collaboration with these DJs means the most to you?
We all have a long time mutual respect for one another. I think cultivating real relationships over the years has led me to be able to earn their trust. Often you'll find DJs who aren't normally comfortable in front of the camera are very much so in front of mine. It all comes down to respect. I think if you'd ask any of them, they'd tell you the same thing.
You've worked across Toronto's most famed after-hours over the years. Does it ever feel surreal to think of the shift in landscape you've been
around to witness?
I've covered so many after-hours haunts that I've almost lost count. But whether it was Industry, Boa, Sonic, Turbo, System Soundbar, Footwork or Coda… all these destinations have had a camaraderie in common. They are places to go with like-minded people to and share a special vibe when all of your other chums call it a night. Sure there has been an influx of first-timers over the years, but the true heads will always find the proper late night music. It doesn't matter if it's a group of five friends or one thousand newbies.
Tell us about your new project Derinkuyu, which undeniably expands on your passion for the concept of 'community'.
Derinkuyu is a canvas print and epoxy photo table production company. We produce, host, and sell canvas prints of photographers, graphic artists, and painters. It is community-driven and our shop intends on being the go-to destination for not only photographers shooting our city's nightlife, but people from all walks of life. It works like this: the photographer sends us some photos, we turn them into canvas prints, host them on our site, and sell them for the photographer.
Why is it so important for you and Derinkuyu to be accessible to absolutely anyone and not just industry types?
I wanted to start a community that united some of the photographers within the scene that had previously worked against each other, in order to get the respect we fully deserved. After 20 years in the game, I know what it means to put everything you have into it. The countless hours without pay, all the time spent editing done pro bono, the endless repair bills for expensive gear… I've been there. So seeing all these young kids coming up and shooting for free just to get into the party, I recognized it could be more than that. I thought more and more about how I could turn what I love into an actual living for myself. At the same time, it opened up an avenue for other photographers that otherwise may not have the opportunity.
What kind of team do you need to have in place to further this vision?
Well, over time we'd like to build an entire troupe of Derinkuyu photographers and have a network of visual artists working together, promoting each other, and learning from one another. The two cameramen already onboard are Kotsy and Ded Pixel. We also have my good pals Tom Logan and Ramak Jafarnejad, and my buddy Tommy Berket (AKA DJ Tommy Gunners) who is the Derinkuyu Records frontman. My longtime client, friend, and business partner Virgil Teixeira is also with us. The community is already here, now we will nurture it and let nature take its course.
You recently lost some of your work, equipment, and history in an apartment fire. The community really came together to help you out. To you, what did this say about the Toronto techno community?
It's sort of strange how the fire actually made me know for sure that this community means something. It's not just the party acquaintances you smile to at events then talk shit about later. There's a whole lot of good too. Going through the trauma of a fire, I think it would've turned out different for me mentally if I was just a Regular Joe. But because I've been in a position to capture the kind of energy I have for the last two decades, a lot of people had my back. It is a big reason Derinkuyu is here today.
Derinkuyu officially launches this Friday at RYZE Toronto with special guests Format:B. Click here for details.