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Mark Power: “America continues to enthrall and to disappoint in equal measure”

Mark Power: “America continues to enthrall and to disappoint in equal measure”

In 2012, Mark Power embarked on an ambition journey: Good Morning America, a visual narrative of the United States, spanning over five books and ten years. One way to undertake such a project would be to follow thematic or geographical patterns, but the British photographer refuses to cluster his photos along these lines, inviting us instead on an unpredictable ride through America’s immense scenery. But how do you photograph a country that has been so mythified through photography and film?

Blind talked to Mark Power on the occasion of the launch of the third book of his series.

What do you find the most fascinating about America?

It’s no accident that America is the most photographed country in the world. The reasons why are obvious, but personally I’m not interested in the beauty or grandeur of its scenery. My concern is with American society, how it functions, and most importantly how this manifests itself visually in the landscape, a term I’m using in its broadest possible sense. Let’s face it, if we only consider politics – the shift from Obama (who was elected for a second term shortly after I began working in the States in 2012) to Trump and on to Biden – this is more than enough reason to be fascinated by this period of US history. 

Rumford, Maine 11.2019 © Mark Power / Magnum Photos 

How did you approach the country?

I’m well aware that, especially over the last decade, many photographers have been working in the States. But my position as an outsider – as someone from somewhere else, making regular visits to America but spending time away from it – gives me a different viewpoint from the lived experience of someone born, raised and still living there. Understanding and embracing this continues to drive me through the project, determined to see it through to at its end. Ultimately I hope I can add something worthwhile to the already extraordinary canon of American photography.

What is the hardest part about photographing a childhood myth? 

Quite simply because the myth I’ve been searching for never existed in the first place. I was raised on American cultural imperialism – the import of movies, music and – most importantly in my case – TV shows; as a boy growing up in a 1960s housing estate on the edge of Leicester I gorged on stories of what appeared to be a fully formed, already perfect country out there and waiting for me. Of course, before I even set out to find it, I already knew it wasn’t there, but nevertheless it was a good place to start.

Manchester, New Hampshire © Mark Power / Magnum Photos 

How did America change over the course of your project?

That’s such a difficult question to answer, and I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. I can only talk about my personal experience. I’ll be interested, when it’s safe to return, to see if attitudes have changed in the wake of recent events. We’re told, and I think, that the pandemic has made us kinder, wiser people, but the whole Trumpism movement has divided the US to such an extent that it seems to have engendered, as a result, a more mistrusting 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.

Why have you chosen to not organize the book by geography or theme?

Because I’m publishing the five books as a ‘work in progress’. If you think about it in those terms then it’s impossible to define each book by location simply because I haven’t finished travelling to the south-west, the north-east or the middle (etc). Likewise, I’ve absolutely no interest in making one book about landscape, another about industry, still another about people, and so on. I see the world as an interconnected web, not a series of short stories. Therefore I collect pictures of all sorts of places and things that a sixth sense tells me are important and somehow all affect each other.

Print Hachita, New Mexico 01.2020 © Mark Power / Magnum Photos 

The difficulty comes later when trying to make sense of my ‘collection’, editing and sequencing the work in order to address a myriad of themes that will run through the five volumes, and are often repeated. It’s actually an exciting way to work, but a little stressful too, simply because I don’t know where the books are ultimately going to lead us. But that is to suggest that I need to come up with a specific conclusion, and the more I think about this the more I wonder if that’s necessary since, of course, America and the rest of the world will continue to evolve well beyond the end of my project.

What does your training as a painter bring to your work as a photographer? 

My art school background gave me a precious training in how to look, how to concentrate, and how to arrange a random set of marks upon a rectangle of paper that works. I’ve carried this forward into my current practice, and after 35 years I can make aesthetic decisions quickly and confidently because they are informed by experience. More difficult is to ensure that I don’t repeat myself endlessly,  that I don’t rely on a formula that I know to make a picture ‘work’. I’m constantly pushing myself to go further, to be better, and to come out with something new, at least on a personal level.

Aftermath of the Tubbs fire. Journey’s End Mobile Home Park, Santa Rosa, California 01.2018 © Mark Power / Magnum Photos 

How has your view of America shifted while working on this 5-book project? 

I have a peculiar grasp of American geography. On the one hand the scale of the place appears overwhelming, but on the other it seems manageable when, almost by accident, I pass through a town or city that I’ve visited before on a previous trip. In other words, many of the small circuits I’m making are starting to link up. 

America continues to enthral and to disappoint in equal measure; sometimes I think I’d love to live there, other times most definitely not. My head and heart are full of contradictions about the place – probably a good thing since this suggests I’m remaining open-minded, without a thesis I’m trying to prove. I think my attitude towards America is more evident in the pictures that I make than the words I say, or write, could ever be. It’s why I’m a photographer.

Interview by Joy Majdalani

Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based editor and Lebanese content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.

Good Morning America (Volume III), Mark Power, 
Available here

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