Mark Power reveals the first dispatch from his odyssey across the US to document the towns and landscapes of a country in flux, a decade-long project rooted in the influential work of his great American forebears of the 1930s
For much of this decade, Brighton-based photographer Mark Power has been pursuing a dream, one that he recounts in a recently published book of his images. It is the first of five volumes charting his photographic explorations of the US, which will continue until at least 2022. A long roll call of photographers from almost the very beginnings of the medium – from Carleton Watkins, via Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, to name a few – have taken up the same challenge, and in the process, have made a name for themselves, so Power is in illustrious company.
It is sobering to reflect that photography is almost as old as the American republic itself. The earliest surviving urban daguerreotype photographs of any note date from early 1840, only six decades after the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, the process was being used in the US in 1839, within a month or two of it being announced in Paris. A new nation was being photographed even as it was taking on its modern form.
Power’s 10-year project began in 2012, though its roots reach back much further and into his early childhood memories: “For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to explore America, an ambition fuelled by a legion of TV shows that crossed the Atlantic in the 1960s. As a young and impressionable child I devoured The Man from UNCLE and The Fugitive, but it was the westerns, evoking a landscape altogether removed from the congested English suburbs surrounding me, that I loved most – Bonanza, The High Chaparral, The Virginian and in particular Casey Jones, the adventures of a middle-aged railroad driver putting the world to rights.”
Power’s early work, and especially The Shipping Forecast he worked on from 1993 to 1996, laid down a fresh approach to documentary photography, and initiated a series of well-regarded long-term projects that when published and exhibited brought him recognition as a leading figure in British photography. Much of this work is allusive, involving a dialogue between real and imagined space, The Shipping Forecast being “a quest to discover if the reality of a place, of a landscape, bore any resemblance to the landscapes of my imagination, formed by many years of listening to the forecast almost by accident”. More recently, with 26 Different Endings (published in 2007), Power’s focus was on what the places that lie at the edges of the London A-Z map look like. “ e project was really about belonging, or being omitted. I was born just o the edge myself, in Hertfordshire, but Harpenden wasn’t on the A-Z we had at home. e coverage of the A-Z is decided, year by year, in an office in London; it can move north, south, east or west according to urban developments. Whether one belongs or not becomes quite arbitrary out there in the hinterlands.”
He already had considerable experience as a photojournalist – notably from being in Berlin as communism was collapsing at the end of the 1980s, and as a member of Network, a cooperative that at its height could fairly claim to be the leading British photo agency with an emphasis on social issues. He later joined Magnum, and also taught for 25 years part-time as professor of photography at the University of Brighton. His de grasp of the culture and history of photography is backed up by a personal library of over 3000 photobooks.
Power also developed considerable expertise on new architectural projects, such as the Millennium Dome – in that case persuading the firms involved to commission him, partly by “bombarding them” with photocopies of Victorian progress photographs of major buildings, “because one photographer typically followed the build of a great public building from beginning to end”. He is keen to emphasise that, “I make pictures inspired by a building, not of a building. Without wishing to sound pretentious, in each case I see myself more of an ‘artist in residence’. This aspect of my career feels like something quite new and innovative, even though it grew out of a 19th-century initiative. I’m as proud of the work I make on construction sites, or in factories, as anything I might do which is self-funded or self-initiated.”
Another long-term project included one for Airbus on production of its A380 airliner, the largest passenger aircraft ever built, whose components were made at factories both in the UK and throughout Europe, then brought together for final assembly at a purpose-designed facility at Toulouse-Blagnac airport. More recently he photographed the building of a new Macallan distillery in Scotland.
Industrial commissions also took him into working solely with a large format 5×4 film camera, which no doubt developed his work in a particular direction because of the intense concentration it requires in looking at the subject, and composing and focusing the image on a ground-glass screen. His more contemplative approach also typifies his work on America, although film has now been replaced by a Phase One digital back on an Alpa technical camera, with similar movements available to those of his 5×4 Horseman, but in a smaller and more convenient package, especially for travelling. It’s a long distance physically from the 8×10-inch bellows camera that Walker Evans used for much of his own work on 1930s America for the Farm Security Administration, but conceptually similar.
The digital camera also suits Power’s approach because he is passionate about printing his images: an Epson large format printer used only to make inkjet work prints dominates his book-lined study, alongside print drawers and conservation quality print boxes containing a large body of his work. His preferred option is to make digital C-types, and these are what he releases as editioned prints – all made by Lablab in Kraków, Poland, whom he describes as “exceptional”.
When we meet he has a pile of 20×24 prints from the US project which he is working on. “When teaching I would constantly be reminding students of the importance of making prints, especially as digital files became evermore prevalent. The physicality of the negative gave us something dependable and reliable, something we could physically hold and store safely away.”
It is clear that Power’s approach to his work is based on a careful process of proofing and printing the photographs so that a composite picture begins to emerge of the entire project: “I spend a lot of time looking carefully at the work I produce; it helps me get a real sense of a project growing almost organically. It warns against making the same pictures over and over again, unless of course I feel I can do better the second time around. But, more importantly, it helps with sequencing; I’m constantly searching for pairs of pictures, the basis of longer sequences, so if I have a kind of ling cabinet in my head containing work I’ve already made, I can approach a new situation and, if appropriate, attempt to make a partner for a previous image, or construct a bridge between two others. You might say I’m building a jigsaw puzzle as I go, although I don’t yet know what the final finished picture will look like.”
Surveying the landscape
Being fascinated by US popular culture from an early age, and deciding to devote a large chunk of your life to photographing it are two different things. “It’s the largest and most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken,” he says of Good Morning, America. “I began in Florida, just before Obama’s second election victory in November 2012. It feels neat and tidy to continue for a decade, until 2022. If Trump makes it through his tenure, unlikely as that might sound right now, it will cover that period too, as well as the start of whoever comes next.”
Despite its focus on contemporary America, Power’s project can also be seen as within a much longer historical tradition of ‘survey’ photography of America that goes back to the 1850s. The nascent republic commissioned groups of surveyors, assisted by photographers such as Timothy H O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, to make the sort of records with their “mammoth plate” cameras that might serve the principle of “manifest destiny” that would justify the US in expanding over the whole North American continent – and arguably began the traditional imagery of the West to which the young Mark Power had responded in the 1960s. His brief participation in the Postcards project was the beginning of what would be the 10-year odyssey designed to produce five published volumes of his photographs. The first, available in January 2019, comes in part from his work on Postcards: “I began – although I may not have realised it at the time – to search for the America which lived in my imagination, the one generated during childhood, the one that had probably never existed at all.”
His excursions to the US are periodic but regular, and o en involve visits to places that Power has found some connection to from a film or a book. “Where I go is o en driven by a genuine desire to see a place I think I know from popular culture,” he says. “As an example, a trip last October began in Fargo, because I love the movie of the same name – I saw the original wood-chipper in the local museum! – and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota, near Mount Rushmore, where much of North by Northwest is set – another touchstone for me. It goes without saying that a place never looks as seductive as it does in a movie… It wasn’t even snowing in Fargo, which wasn’t a good start. In many ways, the process I’m going through reminds me of making e Shipping Forecast; invariably, then as now, I’d be surprised by a place simply because it was never the same as the landscapes that existed in my imagination. But that’s the fuel in my tank these days; the more ‘ordinary’ or even ‘boring’ a place is, the more I like it.”
So how does Power work while photographing: does he wander through America alone, for instance? “I sometimes meet up with a young photographer from Nashville – Dean Berner – whom I met in London at a Magnum workshop in 2015,” he reveals. “I asked him then if he’d be interested in travelling with me because, for a start, America is vast and complex, and can be a lonely place. I’m not very gregarious; I don’t make friends easily and I’m certainly not the kind of person who would go into a bar alone and start chatting; I’m too shy for that. So I thought it would be good to have company and it would encourage me to take a few more risks, and that’s proved to be true. In most places we’ll separate and meet up several hours later, but occasionally, if we’re in a place that feels a little tricky, a little dangerous, then we’ll walk within eyeshot of each other. There are many pictures in Volume One that I’m sure I would not have made had I been alone.
“If Dean is with me, I sit in the passenger seat. The monotony of the American landscape can easily lull me into a half-sleep and I find I can’t concentrate for hours at a time, staring at things flashing past a car window. Occasionally I might ask him to make a U-turn, but ultimately that rarely makes a picture. Whatever I’ve seen invariably ‘shouts’ a little too much, it’s very obvious, and probably a little too ‘Americana’ for my tastes. Instead I prefer to walk, following long, ambling routes through town after town after town. Pictures collected on foot are naturally more subtle, and tend to interest me for longer. This is exactly why I prefer not to use the term ‘road trips’, because that’s not really what I’m doing. I prefer to say I’m making a series of urban hikes.” In turn, Berner, an MFA student, has written about Power as a teacher, in terms which are also revealing about his approach to such a big subject: “Mark Power told us that photography can be a lot like fishing, where you have to find the right spot to cast, and then it becomes about patience and perseverance.”
Good Morning, America has been underway for over six years
at present and is a huge enterprise, but Power has shown time and again that such major undertakings are within his scope. “I’ve always thought the easiest part is collecting pictures. Much more difficult is knowing what I want to do with them, what I want to say about my experience, about what I’ve seen, about what I think,” he says.
“This is made doubly difficult because I don’t have a simple, single subject. I never know exactly what I’m looking for. Something I’ve learned during the 35 years I’ve been a photographer is that the world around us cannot easily be packaged in such a simplistic way. My project is instead multifaceted, about many subjects at once, which are all interconnected. I’m also publishing the work in progress – it’s not yet finished – and I don’t really know where it’s going. While on the one hand this may be extremely foolish, on the other it’s very compelling. I hope readers will join me on the journey.” Discovering where that journey leads is probably the whole point of the trip. As Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously said: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”