The Blue Hour: Mitch Ridder’s Artistic Eye

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Mitch Ridder embraces the blue hour. Those rich moments of twilight, just after dusk, when the sun sits low below the horizon and the indirect light of the sky takes on a vivid blue hue. In those betwixt minutes, the world seems to hold its breath. For Mitch, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, it’s not always as serene as you might imagine.

One Sunday evening, hovering precariously above the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, only a narrow one-foot strip of cement beneath him for false protection, Mitch stands ready. Cars navigate around the blind corner of the Third Street onramp at 30 mph in the near dark, inches away from Mitch and his camera. He positions his tripod on the curb, his foot in the street, and focuses both his mind and his lens. 

“It was very similar to many shots by other photographers,” Mitch says. “The challenge I set for myself was to find a new angle.” 

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The Blue Hour: in this photo, a time to feature Mitch Ridder himself

The image is stunning. A snake of red taillights beneath him, a streak of white headlights coming toward him, the majesty of the L.A. skyline at twilight framed by palm trees whose every frond is highlighted by the backdrop of that intense blue hue.

“There are always two people in every picture,” Ansel Adams once said. “The photographer and the viewer.” Mitch’s quiet stillness behind the camera is just as visible as the rush of the freeway below. The fluorescent-lit metropolis, random sequences of sporadic light, so dense it feels lonely; and a photographer, alone with his lens, as cars whiz within inches. At least that’s what this viewer sees, standing metaphorically beside Mitch, months after the fact.

The Road (& Track) to Art

Mitch developed his appreciation for art early. Throughout his childhood Mitch’s father, a local architect, subscribed to Road & Track Magazine, which contained a significant amount of art—illustrations, drawings, photographs. Mitch was hooked. As a senior at Laguna Beach High School, he took an art class from Hal Akins. 

“[Akins] had an amazing way of analyzing and comparing my pencil drawing to the source photo,” Mitch says. “My work went from some of my best efforts to I-can’t-believe-what-I’ve-done. That set the path for art and illustration.” Akins would send Mitch back to his desk—again and again—to review, refine, and revise. 

That patience and persistence paid off. His work eventually appeared in Road & Track and, in 1998, Mitch juried into the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts for his watercolors of IndyCars.

Mitch studied commercial art at Orange Coast College before transferring to Cal State Long Beach to study illustration. He received scholarships from both the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival to complete his education. He was able to apply those skills to t-shirt graphics and apparel design for ASICS athletic wear, a sponsor for the New York City Marathon. 

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Mitch Ridder is also an accomplished marathon runner

Did I mention Mitch is also a marathon runner? Fifty of them. Including both Boston and New York, a marathon he finished in 2:59:12. Mitch started running at the age of 27, following a serious injury he suffered to his ankle playing softball. After surgery, he wanted to test the new hardware in his foot and began running. And running. And running. Like everything Mitch tackles, he didn’t do it half way. 

 

Water, Water, Everywhere

Throughout it all, Mitch was also a competitive swimmer. Beginning at age nine and continuing into college, Mitch took easily to the water. And, at 17, he started serving as a lifeguard—not just in high school and college—but for 38 years. Only recently did Mitch hang up his whistle.

All that time in the water may have worked its way into his art. Before Mitch was a photographer, he was a watercolor artist. For 24 years, Mitch produced meticulous paintings that looked like photographs. The detail is just that vivid.

“I measured my work in weeks and months,” he says. “Never in hours or days.” Mitch worked like an airbrush artist, masking off sections of work to prevent bleeding, and applying multiple layers of paint to build opacity and contrast. He harnessed the focus, perseverance and patience that are prevalent in everything he does. His watercolor work showed at the Festival of Arts from 1999-2008. After 24 years, though, painting became more work than reward. That’s when he trained his eye on the camera.

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Those medals of Mitch’s deserve a close-up

While photography had always been part of Mitch’s life, he didn’t devote full attention to it until 2008. His grandmother passed, leaving Mitch some money. She’d always been a supporter of his art, and he reflected on how best he could honor her memory. He used his inheritance to buy his first professional camera.

A Man About Our Town . . . And Others

At some point in Mitch’s photography career, he realized he had taken more pictures of Los Angeles than Laguna Beach. As a lifelong resident, Mitch felt oversaturated by the iconic images of Laguna—in galleries, on postcards, and in tourist shops—the town felt overdone. He decided to use his knowledge of Laguna to his photographic advantage. “I could see familiar landmarks in a different way,” he said. “And depict the town from a different perspective.” 

Mitch shares that intimate familiarity in every image. The cottages on Park Avenue, photographed during the blue hour, with the Hotel Laguna rising behind. Getting inside the ocean with the lifeguards during training. Laguna’s every season, angle, and mood—from celebrations to crises—caught inside his camera. Mitch creates visual love letters to our town.

He’s taken that love to Italy and, most recently, to Cuba where he captured the vivid colors, the friendly people, the rich architecture, and the dilapidated cars of Havana and Trinidad. An island outside time and technology, seen through the unique lens of Mitch’s eye. His work will be on display this summer at the Festival of Arts.

Open Doors

Doors, and windows, are prominent in Mitch’s work. Maybe it’s the architectural influences of his father. Maybe it’s Mitch’s rich subconscious always at work. He often portrays people on the precipice of coming or going, or simply standing on the threshold of the open world, and what lies intimately within. That quiet blue hour that resides in us all. Or maybe, as Ansel Adams suggests, that’s just this viewer’s perspective, looking inside Mitch’s work.

But his life feels like a testament to the power of opening oneself to the world. To let life in—artistically, athletically—however it arrives. And to capture its beauty when it does.

To learn more about Mitch, visit his website at www.mitchridderphotography.com