“I Am a Town” would sound like a boast from almost anyone but photographer Mischa Richter. Modest and soft-spoken, Richter has long regarded Provincetown as his home. The subjects of his work have been old salts and eccentric personalities; fishing gear piled at the end of the pier, tempest-tossed boats, and hulls rusted blood red; scruffy back yards and the stark simplicity of the town’s remaining ungentrified structures — Richter’s lens defines a world illuminated with natural color, without tricks or gimmicks. The humblest objects are memorialized with respect and awe.
“I Am a Town” is the title of Richter’s exhibit at the Albert Merola Gallery, which opens Friday, July 3. “The show will be entirely Provincetown, a mix of old and new,” says Jim Balla, the gallery’s co-director. I Am a Town is also the title of Richter’s new documentary, which has a cast of Provincetown characters that includes writers (Roger Skillings), artists spanning several generations (Pat de Groot, Ray Nolin, Kiah Coble), mavericks (unofficial town historian George Bryant and local fixture Frederico “Freddie” Rocha Jr.), and families, both Portuguese and Caribbean. The film premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in February, as part of a documentary festival, and was slotted for the Provincetown International Film Festival in June before it was canceled. It will now be the July 16 opening night attraction of a shortened film festival that’s at the Wellfleet Drive-in and screening virtually.
Mischa is the son of Daniel Richter, who divides his time between Provincetown and the West Coast, and Jill Richter, of Brighton, England, and he’s the grandson and namesake of the celebrated New Yorker cartoonist. He was born in Windsor, England, and began spending summers in Provincetown as a toddler. By kindergarten, he had become a year-rounder, attending local schools through his early teens. Today, Richter divides his time between Provincetown, Brooklyn, and England. His younger brother, Sacha, a painter, has lived here for many years.
After high school, Richter moved back to England, attended Chelsea College of Arts and Middlesex University, and established a reputation as a high-end portrait photographer with such clients as Esquire, Vogue, and Wallpaper. A 2006 shoot of singer Amy Winehouse ended up being the cover of Back to Black, her final album. This glitzy career lasted for 20 years, he says, speaking from Provincetown, where he has been hunkered down since February, as Covid-19’s dictates opened an unanticipated space for meditating on loss and regeneration.
“I learned how to interact with an individual,” Richter says of his professional work in portraiture, which he has mostly given up. “It was not about manipulating the experience — it was about showing who they were. Every once in a while, I will do a poster for a film or television, but it has to be something I like and believe in.”
His East End cottage, shared with actor and filmmaker Dolly Wells and their two children, is in the sequestered wooded landscape of Tasha Hill. The compact house was built in 1959 and 1960 for Harry Kemp, poet of the dunes, by Rose “Sunny” Tasha and a roster of local friends. Salvaged wood and an abundance of light make the Hobbit-like dwelling the ideal haven for Richter, whose indelible images of Provincetown and its denizens celebrate a legacy of community, personal freedom, and artistic spirit, while also conveying what has been lost.
For years, several of his five-foot-plus portraits have been hanging in the second-story windows above Shalom’s Gift Shop on Commercial Street. “Each image was inspired by personal associations,” he says. “I felt this was a beautiful space, and my photographs were a physical representation of their presence. I also wanted these prints to age with time, to begin to fade.
“They all emphasize time and distance and the aging process,” Richter continues.e “I can’t help myself. Somehow, I get stuck in this nostalgia.” He’s trying to shake the spell of saudade, a Portuguese word that roughly translates to an acute yearning for a time and place that might not even have existed. Richter introduced it into the local lexicon a decade ago, with the publication, through his Land’s End Press, of Saudade, a gathering in book form of recognizable locals, landmarks, and totem-like objects. The book coincided with an exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Images from the book not shown before may be included in the Merola exhibit. They will join some of his iconic portraits, shots relating to his film, some landscapes, and what he unpretentiously refers to as “incidentals,” such as a pickup truck viewed from the rear. Whatever he does reflects his heart. As Richter says, “Maybe it’s the feeling of being at the end of the world that keeps us together as a town.”
In Search of Lost Time
The event: “I Am a Town,” an exhibit of photographs by Mischa Richter
The time: Friday, July 3, through July 22
The place: Albert Merola Gallery, 424 Commercial St.; gallery open by appointment only, Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; 508-487-4424
The cost: Free