The life aquatic: How Brisbane artist Beth Mitchell explores what lies beneath the surface 

When underwater fine art photographer Beth Mitchell won the Brisbane Portrait Prize last October, she broke down a major barrier – and it wasn’t just that she was the first woman to win the prestigious award. 

Mitchell was the first photographer to win the Brisbane Portrait Prize. Though the award is open to any two dimensional artworks, Mitchell says photography often isn’t treated with the same respect as other mediums, so her win represented something of a sea change in the fine art world. 

“Winning the Brisbane Portrait Prize put me on the map with traditional artists,” she says, “and I think photography deserves a place next to traditional artists. So from that perspective, it was so powerful. Being the first photographic artist to win the major prize felt monumental to me. And of course, being the first woman to win was also wonderful.” 

The Brisbane-based artist won the $50,000 prize with her self-portrait, ‘No Land in Sight’. The striking image captures Mitchell’s face floating above freezing waters, set against the backdrop of a moody, miserable sky. There’s an ethereal beauty to it, just as there is to virtually all of Mitchell’s aquatic imagery, but it also reflects Mitchell’s own mood at the time – a potent mixture of frustration and defiance. 

Beth Mitchell, “No Land in Sight”, 2021. 120x65cm. Winner of Brisbane Portrait Prize – awarded by Karen Quinlan, Director National Portrait Gallery
Beth Mitchell, “No Land in Sight”, 2021. 120x65cm. Winner of Brisbane Portrait Prize – awarded by Karen Quinlan, Director National Portrait Gallery

“I was stuck in Melbourne during lockdown,” she remembers. “I couldn’t get back to Brisbane. I’d been spending a lot of time having conversations with myself, and I was becoming more self-aware. I wouldn’t say it was a very creative period for me, but ‘No Land in Sight’ came about because, come hell or high water, I wanted to enter the Brisbane Portrait Prize. 

“It came from me asking myself, ‘How can I present myself in a way that is realistic, and speaks to the frame of mind I’m in, but is also quite powerful? How can I show the struggle, but show resilience as well?’ So that’s really where it was coming from.” 

The business of art 

Speaking at Brisbane Business Hub’s latest On The Couch With event, Mitchell says that competitions like the Brisbane Portrait Prize are, ultimately, just another way of putting yourself out there. 

This sort of self-promotion is a necessity for anyone who wants to avoid the ‘starving artist’ clichés, but it doesn’t come naturally to most artists, who would rather let their work speak for itself. 

“As an artist, you need to be able to put yourself in situations where you can progress your career,” Mitchell says. “To have an opportunity to win an award like this is just so powerful for your CV, and it puts you on the map in places you couldn’t reach otherwise. 

“So from that perspective, it’s been fantastic for me. It also allows the work to touch more people, to impact more people, to be related to by more people. That’s been a really wonderful thing that’s come from the prize. 

“From a financial perspective, it’s opportunities like this that keep an artist going. Because art is not strictly scaleable, at least in my experience. 

“A lot of it relies on the quality of your work, but it’s also about being in the right place at the right time, it’s about who you know, it’s about who likes your work… so to be in a situation where you can win an award like this, it just keeps you going. It keeps you going until the next year.”

Mitchell’s works are now featured in public and private collections nationally and internationally. 

“For me, the key has been not being afraid to approach galleries, or to put on a show,” she says. “That can leave you feeling vulnerable. It can be difficult to put yourself forward and to push through that fear, but it’s about making sure that your work is on the walls. 

“I’m putting in the time to get it right, technically, and I’m spending a lot of time on the craft, so I have to be fearless about where I put it. I have to pursue avenues with confidence, so I can continue to bring this dream to fruition. 

“There’s a lot of rejection that comes with this line of work. But to get comfortable with rejection and to push yourself regardless, to take that feedback and keep creating anyway, is wonderful. Pushing through that rejection is how you get good results. If you don’t push through it, you’ll never go anywhere.” 

The woman in the water 

Though it might be her most well-known work now, ‘No Land in Sight’ is somewhat atypical of Mitchell’s oeuvre, in the sense that it focuses on what’s above the waves. For the most part, her imagery explores contemporary womanhood beneath the surface of the water. 

Beth Mitchell, “Ascension” – Amy Sheppard, 2019. 100x150cm. Winner of ‘Performing Arts’ category in Brisbane Portrait Prize 2019 – awarded by Chris Saines, Director QAGOMA
Beth Mitchell, “Ascension” – Amy Sheppard, 2019. 100x150cm. Winner of ‘Performing Arts’ category in Brisbane Portrait Prize 2019 – awarded by Chris Saines, Director QAGOMA

“I love exploring feminine themes in water,” she says. “I like to present women in an almost poetic light – a Renaissance-style look. I’ve always found more beauty in poetry, as opposed to something that’s more sensual and intended for the male gaze. I like to stay away from that and present a beautiful story through the water. 

“Water provides me with an incredible amount of inspiration, in terms of how light interacts with it, and how humans move through it. The whole atmosphere of water, to me, is just very interesting from a visual perspective.

“Sometimes I like to work in the ocean, where it’s completely unpredictable, and getting the right lighting at the right time of day is very important. I do like to work with natural elements – seaweed and things like that. But other times, I like to use a pool and construct my own scene under the surface, so I can control how it’s viewed and how the subject responds to their surroundings.” 

This year, she completed perhaps her most ambitious project. Commissioned by Brisbane City Council and projected onto the cliffs at Howard Smith Wharves, ‘The Holocene’ combines still photographs with cinemagraphic collages to trace the timeline of Earth’s garden, portraying humanity as both a harmonious and destructive presence throughout. 

“I wanted to explore an environmental theme and show how nature has been impacted by humanity,” she says. “It’s looking at it from a beautiful perspective, though, because I enjoy experimenting with beauty.” 

‘The Holocene’ will sit in Brisbane City Council’s permanent outdoor digital collection.

“It’s just another example of how Brisbane is supporting the arts,” Mitchell says. “I think the arts scene here is growing, and Brisbane City Council have been big supporters of that. They want to get art out into the public realm and encourage community engagement, and I’m proud to be part of that.”

Deeper water 

Two women looking at 'No Land In Sight' by Beth Mitchell

As Mitchell looks towards her next project, she’s focusing on a skill that probably isn’t of much interest to many of her artistic contemporaries – increasing her lung capacity. 

“I want to go further with photographing the human form in natural seascapes, underwater, in different reefs around Australia,” she says. “I want to experiment more with the raw style that I’ve been getting from my self-portraiture, and extend that through to some new subjects.

“I want it to be a purely oceanic project, and that means I need to expand my lung capacity. If I’m working with a model in a pool, I’ll hold my breath as long as they can hold their breath. But the ocean… that’s a different thing. The requirements for that are very different. 

“So that’s what I’m doing at the moment – I’m training myself to stay underwater longer.”

In the meantime, her solo exhibition, ‘No Land in Sight’, will be on display at Lethbridge Gallery (136 Latrobe Terrace, Paddington) until Tuesday 20 September.

“People don’t have to be knowledgeable about the arts, but I think it’s important for people to spend some time with art in a physical space,” she says. “Go and experience a moment with the art – not just a digital experience, but an in-person experience. If people fall in love with how art makes them feel, then support for the arts will fall into place.”  

You can see more of Beth Mitchell’s work at bethmitchellfineart.com.au and follow her on Instagram.  

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