Top image: USA. Louisiana. Pierre Part. 14 January 2017 / photography by Mark Power
“I began – although I may not have realised it at the time – to subconsciously search for the America which lived in my imagination, the one generated during childhood, the one that had probably never existed at all.” A baby boomer of the 1960s, Mark Power experienced first-hand the effects of globalisation in its embryonic stages. Much of his refreshingly transparent work, particularly of Good Morning, America, seeks to interrogate the US according to his British childhood understanding informed by the 60s stolons of American culture.
As such, Power is particularly interested in the distinction between fact and fantasy; one that he plans to continue investigating through until 2022, and which will conclude his decade-long project. Expertly captured is the uneasy marriage between America’s desire for progression and the sporadic inability to do so; with particular attention to the increasingly turbulent political backdrop. In an age of notably divisive politics, Power employs photography to hone in on the everyday moments that are often overshadowed; inverting the norm to make the supposedly insignificant the focus of his frame.
Stevie Cannell: What was the starting point for the project? Was it in answer to any one question, or did you begin with a particular stance?
Mark Power: The project began in 2012 as part of Postcards from America, an initiative begun by a small group of photographers within Magnum which grew to involve many members, as well as a few others from outside the agency. My first trip was in 2012, to Florida, just before Obama’s second election. I’d never really photographed America ‘seriously’ before so, on that trip, it was a matter of tentatively feeling my way and working out what I wanted to do.
SC: Did you find that the project emerged into something other than what you had originally planned in light of the recent period of political and cultural change in the US?
MP: Obviously back in 2012 no one saw the likes of Trump on the horizon. While I abhor many of his policies, and can hardly bear to watch the man stumble through another speech or offend yet another person or group, his election has nevertheless added a fascinating layer to anyone looking critically at America today. In many ways, I’m reminded of the Thatcher years in the UK; she was the catalyst for so much angry, acerbic and ultimately wonderful work from so many British photographers… the likes of Martin Parr, Paul Reas, Anna Fox and Paul Graham and many others. Documentary photographers thrive on having something to get angry about, and within these terms, Trump is a gift of gargantuan proportions. Let’s face it, America is more divided now than it’s been for decades and, though this is tragic, it’s also fascinating, especially when viewed from the outside…
“Documentary photographers thrive on having something to get angry about, and in these terms Trump is a gift of gargantuan proportions.”
SC: How did you find that Trump’s election campaign and victory affected the atmosphere and communities of the places that you visited?
MP: Trump and his election is just a part of the project’s story, but I can say that while I was travelling in some of the former coal mine towns of Kentucky and West Virginia, before the last election, it was evident that they saw Trump has their saviour. However, thus far he has failed to deliver on his promises.
SC: Being a Brit in America, do you feel that this has an impact on a project such as this? If so, could you tell us a little bit about that dynamic?
MP: I used to be very suspicious of photographers who claimed they could get under the skin of another country by spending enough time there. I’ve never tried to do that, even though I’ve committed to spending a total of eighteen months in America over a ten year period. In many ways, I’m replicating what I did in Poland from 2004-09, when I made a project called The Sound of Two Songs. I use a camera and lens combination that ‘sees’ with more clarity than our eyes possibly can, which allows
me to stand back and look at America from a respectful, but somewhat
dispassionate distance. My pictures are all about layers of information as well as detail. I make pictures which are in sharp focus right across the picture plain, so beyond the framing I impose I’m not dictating what the viewer should look at. Therefore, one can come to the pictures carrying the baggage of one’s own prejudices or, indeed, personal interests. You might call them democratic photographs. All I’m trying to do is to show what is happening in front of me as factually as I possibly can.
“You might call them democratic photographs. All I’m trying to do is to show what is happening in front of me as factually as I possibly can.”
SC: How would you describe your own personal relationship with America? How often have you been there and photographed the country?
MP: Well, I’d been to the States many times before I began the project but, as I said, it was rarely with the intention of making photographs (except once, in 1984, when I spent three weeks in New York and had a little exhibition in Leicester, where I grew up, of thirty pictures from that trip). I have a love/hate relationship with the place. Much of this is driven by the cultural imperialism of American TV, film and music which invaded Britain during my childhood in the 1960s while living in a sprawling
suburbia. My work in America today is driven by preconceptions of what America was like, founded in my imagination during those formative years. While I often find myself in awe of the grandeur of the landscape (and I’ve met some wonderful people on both sides of the political divide), on some days I can’t help but feel inwardly disappointed that the most powerful nation on earth, with all its so-called freedom and opportunity, has come only to this. Then, on other days, I love it here. It’s complicated.
SC: Many of your images feature man-made structures juxtaposed against natural landscapes; at times both elements, however, are united by their derelict and barren condition.
MP: I’m not searching for what might be called ‘ruin porn’. That’s too easy. It’s simply that looking at much of America today, as the critic David Chandler wrote in a piece about my project in the Financial Times, it’s like watching history in reverse.
SC: Contrary to the hyper-capitalist stereotype of America, your images appear to favour an entirely different perception of the US – one that is distinctly quiet, even neglected. What draws you to this side of America?
MP: Quite simply, life is quiet most of the time, or at least mine is! I make quiet (some might say boring) pictures of everyday things because that’s the world I see in front of me. It isn’t a succession of decisive moments, or metaphorical bangs and whistles. I try to see the poignancy and beauty in the everyday and, by trying to photograph and print these moments as perfectly as I possibly can, it might, if I’m lucky, lead folk to question why I photograph this or that. We should celebrate those moments in between which are otherwise so easily ignored or forgotten.
Pre-order Mark Power’s Good Morning, America here.