Warszawa, OPctober 2006 (c) Mark Power/Magnum Photos.
Mark Power first discovered Poland in 1989 while on a short holiday with his new girlfriend, not long after a career-changing trip to Berlin had made him an expert on Eastern Europe in the eyes of the British media. Fifteen years later, he returned as one of 10 Magnum photographers working on a group project on the new accession states to the European Union, the beginning of a love affair with the country that he admits has “no logical explanation”.
In the forward to his new book, The Sound of Two Songs, five years and 25 visits in the making, Power describes his fascination with Poland’s visual contradictions. “It’s like listening to several melodies at once, to the point where it is almost impossible to hear anything clearly,” he writes. “I believe the musical term for this is contrapuntal. The results are strangely compelling.”
Like many of his earlier projects, – such as 26 Different Endings, for which he photographed the “unmapped” landscapes on the outer edges of the A to Z London street atlas, or The Shipping Forecast, shot around the 31 coastal locations that make up BBC4’s daily weather reports – he was drawn to the peripheries, although this time using less of a tight framework. Having begun his EU work in 2004 by concentrating on the contrast between Poland’s fast-evolving urban metropolises and the towns and villages where little appeared to have changed, he shifted focus. “I started to redirect my gaze to the sorts of things I enjoyed looking at: messy little corners, the beautiful, everyday, ordinary, bland – call them what you will – spaces that reverberated with character and history.”
Now he has gone to live in Krakow for six months, along with Jo, the girlfriend he first travelled to Poland with 21 years ago, together with their two children.
Simon Bainbridge You’ve written about your “love affair” with Poland in the book’s introduction, and this summer you’ve moved to Krakow for six months with your family. Is it possible to describe your attraction to the place?
Mark Power This is so difficult to explain. As a photographic subject this “love” is more logical; working in Poland reminds me of how it used to be in the UK. Generally speaking, there is little aggression towards the camera (give or take the odd ex-secret police guard now charged with looking after a piece of waste ground), and it’s still possible to get access virtually anywhere, as long as you know how. I was lucky that I had a great “assistant”, Konrad Pustola, to help me open some of those doors. Emotionally, however, this is more difficult for me to pin down.
S.B. Did Two Songs start out as a kind of survey, or as something more casual – the urge to photograph there? How much was the Magnum Photos commission for the EU in 2004 the initial impetus?
M.P. If it hadn’t been for the initial Magnum commission (10 photographers, one to each of the 10 new European Union member countries that joined in 2004), I would never have gone to Poland in the first place. However, after that initial month, the seeds were sewn – I knew, without doubt, that I wanted to produce a more substantial body of work. And yes, the term “survey” was in my head, simply because I discovered very quickly that no Polish photographers were trying to do this, or indeed had tried for decades, even at such a fascinating period in their country’s history.
It began to dawn on me why this might be: it’s very difficult to undertake a survey of your own country, simply because you understand it too well, and therefore you tend to get bogged down in details. On the other hand, this gave me the confidence to believe that someone from the outside might be able to offer a worthwhile vision, simply because it was hard for me to make sense of anything at all.
But believe me – despite all the work I’ve made abroad over the years - I’ve always been deeply sceptical about the chase for “the exotic’. Yet Poland was exactly that (and still is) to me, while at the same time it was strangely familiar; very “European”. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I felt I could benefit from this naïveté, as long as I always acknowledged this and kept a respectful distance throughout.
S.B. Are you very strategic in the way you go about your projects, or do they emerge from the process of making images and editing them as you go?
M.P. Sometimes – as with 26 Different Endings, and to a certain extent The Shipping Forecast – but in Poland I was determined not to have a strategy. I didn’t want to “prove” any preconceptions I might have, since there would be a danger of only seeing what I wanted to see, whatever it was that might fit this thesis.
I knew instead that I had to remain open-minded, willing to change my opinions of what I thought about this or that on an almost daily basis. While that might sound woolly, I do believe that it was 25 years of experience that gave me the confidence that I could pull this off, that I could trust my instincts, and that it was acceptable not to know what the final product would be until I got there.
S.B. As with System of Edges, you seem to be drawn to peripheral zones – places that fall outside of schemes and ideologies, but perhaps they reveal something of the “truth” of a place?
M.P. I am attracted to edges, to peripheries. Initially, when I was trying deal with visual manifestations of EU membership, and the opportunities it thus offered, it was clear that this could most easily be done by contrasting the major cities – where changes were immediate and radical, with massive building projects and endless renovation projects – with those scruffier little towns or villages where nothing was happening. Or at least nothing appeared to be happening - and probably wouldn’t for generations.
But after a while, when I realised that I was far from qualified to make these sort of economic assessments, and that, anyway, the term “opportunity” is more about a state of mind than what a place looks like, I started to redirect my gaze to the sorts of things I enjoyed looking at. Messy little corners, beautiful, everyday, ordinary, bland (call them what you will) spaces that reverberated with character and history.
Lublin, April 2004 (c) Mark Power/Magnum Photos.
S.B. The title, I assume, refers to this idea of visual contradiction you found in Poland. But there’s also this sense of generation divide that runs through the book – not just in your images of people, but in the architecture – of before and after communism. Twenty years after its demise, the vernacular of the communist era is still very much apparent, even if it’s crumbling. And I guess that’s what gives Poland this ugly/beautiful appeal. And then you have the new, such as the construction pictures, or those that contrast Poland’s shabby, grand aesthetic with billboard advertising. Can you tell me about this process of creating a kind of polyphonic score with two melodies. What did you look for? Did you go in search of particular contrasts. What was uppermost in your thoughts when you put together the edit?
M.P. The title comes from a branch of philosophy that is best described as the sound of many melodies playing together, which not only creates an ungodly racket but also means that it’s impossible to hear any one tune clearly. Reading this some time ago it struck me that Poland looked like that sounded. In fact, of course, the project should be called the sound of many songs, but that’s not such a lyrical title.
So there are these distinct political doctrines clashing together – the old and the new – but it’s not as simple as that, since one inevitably taints the other. This manifests itself not only in the architecture but also in the people that live there. I met many young people who were extremely conservative in their views, mistrusting of “the new”, while others from an older generation had abandoned their past almost as if it didn’t exist, in order to grasp the new opportunities with some relish. So it’s a mixed up, a wonderfully complex and untidy place; beautiful, ugly and everything in between. Maybe that’s why I love it.
S.B. You made around 25 visits. At what point did you feel it coming together – was there a point at which you felt you’d cracked it? And what did you go in search of in the latter visits? How do you know when to leave a subject like this alone?
M.P. As with any long term project, much of the “stronger” work – I’m talking of a very basic visual language here – is made during the early stages, when everything is new, and the pictures just flow effortlessly. As time went on, however, I found my progress became slower and slower. I would turn my back on situations I might previously have photographed, simply because I already had a picture of something like it and there seemed little point in repeating myself. The sheer cost of working with a 5x4 camera contributes to this of course; if it costs £8 every time you press the shutter and this really does concentrate the mind. It means that the majority of the editing process is done on the ground rather than later, in front of a computer screen.
As for knowing when the project was “finished”, it was the realisation that I’d said enough, that I had enough work, and that if I didn’t stop then I might as well carry on for the rest of my life going round and round in circles. There was no book deal, no exhibition to impose a deadline; I purposefully hadn’t gone in search of either until I knew I was ready. Yet I was well aware that making more and more pictures with each visit was the easy bit, and that the real task would be in the editing, when I tried to make sense of all this “stuff”. Of course, during the five years I spent making the work I was constantly editing and sequencing anyway, and bits still worked pretty well and were kept, but it was bringing these segments together that was the tricky part.
S.B. You have a flat in Krakow, so one assumes you’ll continue making work there… Do you have any plans or ideas about what you’d like to focus on?
M.P. We are shortly moving to Krakow, as a family, for six months [the photographer relocated in August 2010], and I will be making some new work out there. But this will be an altogether different approach, more intimate, more about our family, our adventure, and my new “home” – that being where I lay my hat for those few precious months.
Our 12-year-old daughter will write a diary, our younger son will draw and paint the things he sees, and my partner will make sculptures from things she finds on the street or in the woods. Somehow I hope to bring this all together in some sort of publication at the end. Yes, it all sounds very self-indulgent, but the time feels right to be exactly that.
S.B. Visually, the work echoes painterly references from the 19th century landscape tradition, but it’s also very much part of the Magnum ethos and, I guess, the American photographers of the 1970s. And there’s something in common with the work of people like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld in that they were photographing America on the turn, with the emergence of new shopping malls and hyper consumerism. Can you tell me something about your influences, and where you think we’re at in 2010 in terms of this tradition? In his essay in the book, Gerry Badger talks about this same tendency apparent in European photographers, particularly since the fall of communism, and I wonder if you concur with that?
M.P. Gerry is right – there is a real interest among Western European photographers to go out and discover our new neighbours. We’ve been a little slow off the mark, I guess, certainly when compared to the Americans, who sought to understand the enormity and disparity of their country. But I’m sure Sternfeld, Shore et al found parts of America every bit as exotic as I took Poland to be. Take a Greyhound bus from New York to LA and my guess is that what you see through the window would be every bit as varied as the view from a National Express coach going from London to Sophia.
These Americans were a huge influence, of course, as were more contemporary figures such as Bertien van Manen, my fellow Magnumites Alec Soth, Jim Goldberg and Jonas Bendiksen, along with many others.
The beauty of documentary photography is that it’s positioned in the present, in the now; and while everything might have been “done before”, the world around us is in constant flux. So I can’t make a picture like Stephen Shore even if I wanted to because the things themselves are not there any more.
S.B. Can you talk a little about the influence of the war, and the Holocaust, on Poland’s history, and how you tackled that, especially given you didn’t include images of Auschwitz.
M.P. Poland’s often terrible and almost always traumatic history were of course a part of my attraction to the place. It is a country – one cannot deny this – where things happen. Even during my short project, Poland joined the European Union, Pope John Paul II passed away, and President Kaczynski, along with his wife and dozens of high-ranking officials, were killed in the Smolensk plane crash, on route to the anniversary of the Katyn massacre.
History lies before you everywhere you go in Poland – you can’t (and shouldn’t) escape it. Go in a bookshop in Warsaw and you’ll find a hundred picture books about the holocaust. An industry has been built around it. In Krakow you’ll see placards offering trips to the salt mines, to the mountains, to Oskar Schindler’s factory or to Auschwitz Birkenau. It’s all part of the same highly developed tourist trail.
Gdansk, November 2004 (c) Mark Power/Magnum Photos.
I knew I wanted to deal with this in some way, but without offering pictures of the camps. And then, while in the shipyard in Gdansk, I happened upon a pile of grey tubes (above), neatly swept into a corner. It reminded me of the piles of spectacles, shoes, or hair that you see in the Auschwitz museum. And even if you haven’t seen the real thing you would surely know the photographs. So my picture of those tubes became my picture about the holocaust. It’s followed, in the book, by hundreds of passport photos seen through a photographer’s shop window (below). The link here is obvious… and so on throughout a short sequence. So I do try and deal with it, but I also expect the reader to work a little to get there.
Krakow, May 2006 (c) Mark Power/Magnum Photos.
S.B. What’s been the reception to your pictures in Poland?
M.P. The response has been very good. In particular ,what pleases me is their appreciation of those more shabby, offbeat places I’ve photographed. The exhibition prints, big and glossy, nicely framed in either black or white (according to content) lend an importance - a significance - to these spaces, and it seems that this is appreciated. I was told, many times, that my pictures helped them recognise the beauty of places they would normally take for granted. I know that’s hardly radical, but believe me, it’s very nice when it happens.
Of course, it goes without saying that a Pole is going to see something very different in these pictures than a foreigner does. I sit somewhere in between, in that I had to be there to push the button, so I do inevitably understand at least something of the context.
S.B. We were drinking together in Krakow recently [during Photomonth, which is where Two Songs had its premiere], and you told me the remarkable story about your career-changing trip to Berlin in 1989, and how you came to be an “expert” on eastern Europe. Would you mind retelling it here?
M.P. In 1989, I was struggling – and failing – to make a living as a photographer. At the time I was working on generally left-wing, left-field projects that no one outside of the photographic press (who didn’t pay reproduction fees) wanted to publish. It was a bad time for me. So I enrolled on a carpentry course, intent on following a new career, and demoting photography to nothing more than a hobby.
And then, out of the blue, came a gift of £200 cash from the picture editor of a major national newspaper, who had formerly been the editor of one of those photographic journals. His belief in my work was immensely flattering so I bought a ticket to Berlin, intent on getting into the East (somehow) and to have an adventure.
I arrived on 09 November, booked into the Youth Hostel, and went out for a walk. Checkpoint Charlie, which I’d never seen before, was busy; it seemed as if something was going to happen. “We think the Wall might come down tonight”, someone said. So I rushed back to the hostel, got all my gear, and ran back.
By then it was very busy, but my friend George (already a carpenter) and I pushed our way to the front. And then, bang on midnight, the door in front of us opened, a bewildered East German was pushed through, and promptly gave George a bear hug. We were then shoved through ourselves, but in the opposite direction, into a kind of no-man’s-land, and for the next four hours we watched an emotionally-charged line of people stumble past us, and out through the door.
Those pictures, sent home on a plane later that night, rescued my career, got Barclaycard off my back, and put me on a path I had never expected to be on. Suddenly I was seen as the photographer with his finger on the pulse of what was going on in Eastern Europe because I’d been smart enough to have forseen the fall of the Wall and had gone to Berlin to witness it.
But of course, it was all a mistake, a wonderful, chaotic, completely unprofessional mistake. But for the next three years I made a reasonable living from British magazines, until I left, disillusioned with the media, to start teaching and to pursue my own projects.
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