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.