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Northern echo: Extraordinary photographs of Leeds in the 1970s reveal a vanished world

While delivering electricals across his adopted home-town in the early 1970s, Peter Mitchell started cataloguing the decline of West Riding’s so-called ‘Motorway City’. Now, a new monograph offers a four-decade tribute to a very singular stomping ground.

When he was growing up in Catford, south London, Peter Mitchell was a keen I-Spyer. The original I-Spy… books, recently relaunched by Michelin after an eight-year hiatus, were the vital accompaniment to every long drive. You kept a sharp eye out and tried to clock as many of the cars or birds or trees or flowers or buildings listed in the pocket-size books as possible.

Mitchell and his friends used to cycle up to central London to carry on spotting. The aim was to fill the book up by spotting everything listed in it. Once completed, you sent it off to the imaginary gentleman in charge, known as Big Chief I-Spy, who sent you back a feather and a certificate of merit. With his mother, Michell once visited the office of the News Chronicle, the long-defunct daily paper which carried Big Chief I-Spy's column, hoping to present his completed books to the eminent Red Indian in person, but unfortunately he was out.

The habit of keeping a sharp eye out for the curious, the unlooked-for, the archaic or bizarre, has lasted him a lifetime. And now Mitchell has filled another book – this time a monograph of his own work, his deadpan record, over 40 years, of ordinary, extraordinary Leeds. "An ex-butcher's shop with cow tiles, cathedral windows and a coal-fired rising sun fish fryer," he writes of a chip shop in Beck Road; "so stylish and so local".

Born in 1943, Mitchell joined the Ministry of Transport as a trainee straight from school, but thought better of it and went to study art at Hornsey College of Art in north London instead, specialising in silk-screen printing. Then, in 1973, he travelled to Leeds to visit friends living in a squat in the city's northern suburb of Headingley, and chose to stay. "I set up a silk-screen studio in the basement of where I was living," he says.

He has lived in Leeds ever since, and for most of that time has been earning his living as a graphic designer. But to pay the rent in 1973, he got a job as a lorry driver with a company called Sun Electrical. For the compulsive I-Spyer, it was a dream position. "I delivered electrical items such as fridges and heaters to factories and homes all over the city," he says. "For a couple of years, every day I went all round Leeds." In place of the I-Spy books, he took his photographic equipment and a stepladder. k

In an effort to project itself into the future, Leeds had adopted the tag "Motorway City of the 70s", but there was no disguising the fact that the great West Riding city of wool and flax was in steep decline. "I was surprised at how quickly it was changing," Mitchell says. "I was amazed by the great deserts springing up in south Leeds. It was so easy to demolish the back-to-back terraces. They just wrapped a chain around them and pulled."

Aware that the city was vanishing before his eyes, he looked for the living fragments of what, it was safe to predict, would not be around much longer. In some cases, such as his celebrated photo of a newsagent's shop with half the building already gone and the surviving half apparently propped up by a ladder, the collapse might be imminent – it could even have happened as he was folding his tripod after the shoot.

In others, such as the "stylish" and "local" Robinsons' Famous Fisheries, the shop-front a dingy shade of maroon that blends with the dirty-red brick of this corner terrace, the place seems pickled in aspic, sailing blithely through a modern age it declines to notice. In others, he captures a world whose passing few would lament: Eric Massheder outside his tied cottage on the cobbles of Vulcan Street, next to the dripping refinery where he had worked for 21 years. The two-up, two-down house is literally attached to the dripping works: "If he leaves the job," Peter notes, "he loses his home."

What is singular about these pictures is the way Mitchell chose to shoot them. There is no angle to his photographs, no urge to capture the fleeing instant, to ambush his subjects, exposing their buried lusts or neuroses. Instead, he asked their permission, and got them to stand front-on to the camera at a good distance; often, like Mr and Mrs Hudson framed in the doorway of their doomed newsagent's (see cover), the pose is formal, the faces unsmiling. And their propriety contributes to the melancholy of these visions of a decent, disappearing world. Mitchell brought no attitude to Leeds, only his curiosity and his open eye. The subjects do the rest.

'Strangely Familiar', a monograph of Mitchell's work, is available from Nazraeli Press (nazraeli.com, email orders.uk@nazraeli.com), at £40