Photojournalist Deborah Gray Mitchell

Who she is: Tennessee-born, Miami, Florida-based photojournalist with a passion for portraits.

What she does: Throughout her 30-year career, Mitchell has taken photos for advertising, editorial, and corporate clients — shooting subjects as diverse as Supreme Court justices, million-dollar sports fields, food, pregnant women, opera, and a year-long newspaper series on a trained cat. Her personal work includes a large body of work on Southern people and food, a series shot underwater in swimming pools, and images from her world travels.

Why she does it: “Sometimes I’ll take a portrait and remember why I became a photographer,” Mitchell says. “It wasn’t just to make money. It was to create something special out of something ordinary.”


By Hope Katz Gibbs

In the image (right), meet Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” performed at the Florida Grand Opera in April 2009 by Chinese opera singer Xiuying Li. Photographer Deborah Gray Mitchell shot the portrait, and says it’s the simplicity of the picture that makes it one of her favorites.

“I like the graphic elements of the cherry blossoms above her head,” Mitchell explains. “Opera sets are often so busy that it’s difficult to get a clean background — unlike the set design for this production. After Xiuying Li saw the image, she wrote me a note that said: ‘Thank you so much for your wonderful work. All of the beautiful photos you took will be remembered for the rest of my life.’ I can almost hear her beautiful voice singing when I look at this image, and I think most opera lovers would agree.”

As long as she can remember, Mitchell has loved looking at photographs and been interested in taking them. Her dad’s cousin was a small-town, part-time photographer whose photos of car accidents sometimes made the big city newspaper — complete with a credit line.

That must have meant he was someone important, she thought. At age 5, she was photographed holding the family Brownie, but in those days, her folks would only let her hold it, not actually shoot with it.

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Mitchell used the family camera often, but studied business in her brief time in college. She obtained her first 35mm camera in the mid 1970s and began learning the darkroom while working as a purchasing clerk at Vanderbilt University. She eventually headed to Miami to pursue photography.

She landed work as a photo assistant and stylist and found her ultimate mentor in the man she married in 1981, Bill Schlesinger. He worked for Eastern Airlines and, recognizing a raw talent waiting to be developed, he began showing her the world.

She exhibited her images in local art shows for several years, winning numerous awards and selling many fine-art prints. Mitchell began shooting assignments for a theatre company and for the local bar associations. As her client base grew, she dropped the art shows for the world of commercial photography.

Mitchell became active in the South Florida chapter of ASMP, the American Society of Media Photographers, and was elected as the first (and only) woman president of the chapter in 1992 and chaired the ASMP Chapter Presidents’ Meeting in 1994. She is a past lay member of a Florida Bar Association Grievance Committee, and was president of the Miami Alumnae Association of Alpha Xi Delta Fraternity. She is also a member of North Miami’s Business Development Board.

In 2001, she and her husband, along with photographer Paul Morris and his wife Jillen Lippincott, bought a run-down 6,200 square foot commercial building in North Miami, Florida, and fully renovated it. It is now home for their studio and offices, with additional room for a couple of tenants. See some of her work below.

Sister Rose: King Maya, a Haitian musician and actor living in Miami, asked Mitchell to shoot some photos of his pregnant sister-in-law, Rose, in February 2010. Mitchell readily agreed, but once Rose arrived she realized she would have to get creative.

Mitchell says: “I suggested that Rose bring several changes of clothes, but she only brought the one black dress she was wearing. It zipped up the back and I couldn’t show her baby belly, which was something we all thought was important. I had a long scarf with me in the studio, so I asked if she would consider just wearing that. Although she was 27 at the time, her brother-in-law was afraid that her father would be upset about the nudity. But Rose loved the idea, so we went for it. It was a leap for me, as well, because throughout most of my career I have only photographed people fully clothed. It has only been since I began doing portraits of expectant mothers that I’ve had the nerve to ask people to undress. I’m really glad we made that choice, because when I gave Rose a large print of this image tears welled up in her eyes. She said she felt as if she was special that day, like a real model. It wasn’t long until her baby boy was born, and the next time I saw her she was thin as a rail, and happy as can be with her beautiful son in her arms.”

The Laundry of Le Clapier: This photo was taken in June of 2004 in a little village called Le Clapier in France — about an hour and a half northwest of Montpellier.

Mitchell says: “My husband Bill and I went to France for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, then trekked around Europe before stopping to see an old friend, Angie, and her new beau, Jean-Claude, who had bought a chateau in Le Clapier. I dragged my Hasselblad along with me, and on a stroll through the town, I spotted this scene. The light was just right and the breeze was blowing the laundry. I love how the clothespins and the socks intersect, and the texture of the wall. If not for the plastic laundry basket, this image could have been shot on D-Day. Each time I look at it, the movement and the memories bring back to me of a wonderful trip with Bill and our good friends. Not all my photographs need to say something to others; some only need to speak to me.”

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And do check out Mitchell’s eHOW photo technique videos on YouTube.

Photo of Mitchell (at top) by Paul Morris, Miami.

The Women