Art Conversations Photography The Bureau
The Bureau: Photographer Mark Power
By Aaron Schuman
Jul 13, 2022
Mark Power is one of today’s most respected and celebrated documentary photographers. Often embarking on both intensive and extensive long-term bodies of work, for nearly four decades he has explored everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the geographically-defined edges of both London and the British Isles, to the construction of the Millennium Dome and the Airbus A380 (the largest passenger plane ever built), to Poland’s transformation over the course of its first five years as a member of the European Union, and much more. He has published fourteen books, including the critically-acclaimed The Shipping Forecast (1996), 26 Different Endings (2007), The Sound of Two Songs (2010), Good Morning America (Volume I), and Good Morning America (Volume II), and has been a member of Magnum Photos since 2002. In 2012, Power began work on his most epic and ambitious project to date, Good Morning America (Volumes I-V), ‘a personal and timely exploration of both the American cultural and physical landscape, and the divergence of reality and myth’, which is ultimately intended to take the form of a five-volume set of books that together explore what has become one of the most contentious and complicated times in American history. Following the release of Good Morning America (Volume III) in December 2020, at the halfway point for the release of the series, Aaron Schuman recently spoke with Power about his artistic evolution, contemporary America from an outsider’s perspective, and the role of the photographer today.
Photography by John Spinks.
What first inspired you to seriously pursue photography, and to channel your creative ambitions and energy specifically through the camera?
My time at art school was almost exclusively spent in the life-drawing room or out in the landscape, armed with charcoal or paint. But one day, during the latter part of my third year, I visited two quite different exhibitions. Firstly, a major Mark Rothko show; I’d been taught how to look at Rothko’s paintings ‘properly’ in order to get the right effect, and I did. Afterwards I went to see a show by Don McCullin, one of only two photographers I’d heard of at that time (the other was Bill Brandt). At the McCullin exhibition I found myself alone in a room with a middle-aged woman who was clearly deeply affected by the pictures on the wall; in fact, she was in tears. Later, it struck me that in order to get full value from a painting one needed to have a certain amount of education, whereas photography seemed to communicate in a more direct way. Of course I’m taking great liberties and oversimplifying here, but I think that’s where my photo-seeds were sewn. After graduating, I travelled and worked my way through Southeast Asia and Australasia (1981-83) taking with me a sketchbook and a simple camera. It wasn’t long before I realised that I enjoyed photography more than drawing. At first, I guess it seemed ‘easier’, but as my career has developed I’ve learned that photography is every bit as difficult as any other art form, especially if you set yourself high expectations, as I do.
Early in your career, you adopted a somewhat traditional, 20thC. “documentary” aesthetic - using a hand-held camera, a wide-angle lens and generally photographing your subjects close-up and in black-and-white. But in the early 2000s, you began to go in a very different direction, employing a large-format camera fixed to a tripod, often positioning it at a distance from your subject matter so as to incorporate the wider landscape, architecture and environment of a place, and shooting in full colour. What sparked this rather dramatic shift in both your photographic approach and visual style?
At the beginning of my career I started off with 35mm, before switching to medium-format for The Shipping Forecast (1992-1996). Then, in 1998, I bought my first large-format camera, or ‘5x4’, which I used to document the construction of the Millennium Dome. I’d been looking carefully at German and American large-format photography for some time; there was something about the manner in which space was rendered that appealed to me. Once I moved to 5x4 I was hooked, and found it impossible to go back to a more fluid way of working. I loved the slow, deeply contemplative and precise process, which suits my personality. The movements on a large format camera allow a photographer to closely replicate the way we actually see the world; verticals can be kept straight (which our own brains do by instinct), a greater sense of depth is achieved, and there’s a ‘matter-of-factness’ to the pictures that I really embrace. My shift to colour also happened at about the same time; under construction, the Millennium Dome was so crazy, complex and surreal that I needed colour to better describe what was going on. In retrospect, it’s strange that colour had once felt frightening - now it comes so naturally, whereas today I struggle more with black-and-white because the rules are so different.
For nearly ten years you’ve been working on an ongoing, five-volume project - Good Morning America - which you describe as ‘a personal and timely exploration of both the American cultural and physical landscape.’ What first gave you the courage to embark on this incredibly ambitious, almost quixotic, long-term endeavour?
In the early-2010s, I was fortunate to be a part of the ‘Postcards from America’ team, a small group of Magnum photographers who were looking for new ways of funding and disseminating serious work at a time when traditional platforms for documentary photography, such as magazines, had begun their slow but inexorable decline. The work I made in America during my three ‘Postcards’ trips received considerable support from my colleagues, so when the ‘Postcards’ initiative ended in 2015 I made the simple decision to continue with my own project independently, as it seemed so timely. When I made my first trip - to Florida in 2012 - Obama was about to be elected for a second term. Then, during time spent in middle-America, I sensed a rise of extreme right-wing politics, and along came Trump to fill the void. Since then, of course, we’ve had the pandemic, the rise to prominence of the BlackLivesMatter movement, and now another new President. All this has been happening while America endeavours to protect its place in the world as the greatest of all superpowers. Of course, I’m well aware that the United States has been much photographed – some might say ‘over-photographed’ - during the past decade, and the past century. Yet, I believe that, as someone visiting regularly from ‘elsewhere’, I have a subtly different viewpoint from a person who has ‘lived’ experience - in other words someone who was born in, and continues to live in, America. I’m not saying it’s a better perspective, or an easier one to deal with, but it is different; and that’s been enough to make me believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile.
How has your own perspective and understanding of America evolved over the last decade, from volume to volume, throughout the course of making Good Morning America thus far?
The driving force behind my initial visits was a search for a fictitious America that was etched in my imagination during my formative years, particularly as a result of my obsession with so-called ‘cultural imperialism’ crossing the Atlantic in the 1960s and ‘70s. After all, my childhood was spent in a very dull, newly-built housing estate on the edge of Leicester, England; I was easy pickings for TV programmes celebrating the great American outdoors. But, as this project has progressed, I feel that I’ve moved on - I’ve exorcised all that by confirming what I probably already knew: that this was a version of America that had never existed in the first place.
Have you had any unexpected encounters during your travels there?
There were one or two instances when I didn’t have a particularly warm welcome, but these have thankfully been very rare. When I finally manage to return to the US after Covid, I’ll be interested to see if attitudes have changed in the wake of recent events. We’re told - and I think that I believe - that the pandemic has made has us kinder, wiser people. But the whole Trumpism movement has divided America to such a dreadful extent that it seems to have engendered a more distrustful society. I was beginning to see the effects of this during my most recent trips; maybe I was imagining it, but people just didn’t seem quite as friendly anymore.
Given that nearly everyone now has a camera with them at all times, what does it mean to you to be 'a photographer' today?
Firstly, I should stress that the fact that everyone now carries a camera doesn’t bother me in the least. To me, the iPhone and digital technology in general are just tools we use to express ideas. A committed photographer exploring a theme over several months or years is a very different proposition from someone who simply takes pictures for Instagram. Furthermore, I’ve always thought that ‘taking photographs’ is the easy part; making sense of what you’ve collected, and doing something meaningful with all of that material, is far more difficult.
What does photography bring to your life, and what are you hoping that your photography will provide for others?
It might be a cliché, but photography has given me an interesting, varied and immensely rewarding life. There’s not a morning when I don’t wake up and think how fortunate I am - not only to have found a profession that I love, but to have experienced some success with it as well. As I get older, I guess I think about the ‘legacy’ I’ll leave behind. I believe that each generation should be pushing our medium forward, while at the same time learning from what has already been done. This is why a photographic education, however achieved, is so crucial to one’s development. But, believe me, I don’t worry about becoming part of a photographic history taught to future generations. My methodology has always been to quietly get on with my work, to be self-critical, and to push myself to be the best I can. That’s enough for me.
Lastly, how has clothing played a role in your photographic work?
I’ve always liked to wear good quality clothes, and I’d much rather have a wardrobe of just a few well-made items that will last a very long time. Most of what I wear is practical, but I do enjoy wearing a suit and tie whenever I can. Sometimes I look at old photographs of Magnum’s Annual General Meetings in the cooperative’s early years and see how well-dressed everyone was then. So, almost single-handedly, I’m trying to bring this back. To be honest, photographers can be a terribly scruffy bunch these days.
A selection of Mark's books can be purchased here.