Collector of the Common

November 30, 2009

Joseph Mitchell, a staff writer for The New Yorker for almost sixty years, became famous for his captivating, carefully constructed stories about ordinary people. His keen interest in his subjects led him to explore the physical world they inhabited. Over time, Mitchell became ever more concerned with the loss of that world, and before he died in 1996, he amassed an incredible collection of artifacts that documented places and practices falling into decay or being rendered obsolete.

An exhibition running for much of September and October at the Center for Documentary Studies, "The Collector: Joseph Mitchell's Quotidian Quest," put the work of photographer Steve Featherstone on display. He photographed items from Mitchell's collection and, with writer Paul Maliszweski, offered context and meditation on the objects' contemporary meaning. 

Mitchell amassed doorknobs, nails, structural supports, and other seemingly mundane objects that he found in old buildings, flea markets, and vacant lots in New York and New Jersey. A native of eastern North Carolina, Mitchell often returned to the tobacco fields of his home state, where he found old farm implements, Native American arrowheads, and pottery shards.