Photographer Jeff Mitchum reclines in a smooth, low-slung leather chair, his right ankle resting on his left knee. He’s wearing blue jeans, a light-blue button-up shirt and black dress shoes. The chair is a piece from his eponymous furniture collection, and it’s strategically placed in his eponymous fine art gallery, which opened at the Bellagio in April. His work—landscape photography with colors so luminous the subjects seem to be lit from within—hangs on every wall, drawing a steady stream of passersby into the small space with its warmth and detail.
At the moment, though, Mitchum, 52, isn’t talking photography; he’s discussing how lions eat people.
“If you are running from them they will take your hamstrings out, then get to the back of your neck and choke you out,” he says with a quick smile. “Then they will take out your intestines, take you apart piece by piece. Just like cleaning a fish. They are very surgical.”
This and other arcane tidbits—how to slide down a snow-covered mountain like a human bobsled, how to get poison oak out of your car seats—are practical field knowledge for Mitchum, who has traveled the world in pursuit of his work.
Mitchum’s photos have the surreal quality of idealized locales. Looking at his giant prints conjures memories of places you’ve never been, things you’ve never seen and landscapes you’ll only encounter in your mind. That they’re both familiar and abstract is a testament to his mastery of the medium, as he shoots predominately on film, manipulating his images before and during the shots rather than in a computer afterward.
In “Third Day,” a glowing image of Eastern Sierras hung directly in your line of vision as you walk into the gallery, the trees in the foreground are so alive with fall foliage they look like they’re on fire, while the snowcapped mountains in the background are in tack-sharp focus. He captured the image with time-tested landscape photography techniques: multiple f-stops to even out the overall exposure and add depth of field, and the patience to keep coming back to the location until the image was perfect. “That shot represents 15 years of my life,” he says. “I’d get there at peak foliage, but the sky wouldn’t be right or the winds were too high. The evening after he finally got the shot, a low came through and stripped all leaves off the trees.”
His other tool is an abiding curiosity. To get “Return From Sea,” a study in contrasts between the deep reds and oranges of a rusting Israeli freighter and the turquoise water and white sands of the Israeli shore where it’s beached, Mitchum had to swim around barbed wire. He was shooting along the coastline for his Israel Collection and spied something metal in the surf a mile away. Only when he got close did he see the shot, and realize it was near a military base.
“If I see a sign that says ‘no trespassing,’ that means, ‘Welcome Jeff,’” he says.
As befits his Bellagio location, the work doesn’t come cheap: Original photographs are priced as high as $1.2 million. Prints, sold mounted on aluminum and framed in editions of no more than 300, range from $1,750 to $15,000. Not bad for a guy who picked up a camera at age 12 after deciding he didn’t want to hunt anymore because he didn’t like the taste of wild game. “My dad threw me a camera and said, ‘Here, you can shoot with this,’” Mitchum says.