Even if you have never lived in America, you will nonetheless likely have a strong image of the country in your mind. This comes from movies and television of course, which have done a sterling job of delivering everything from America’s metropolises to its great plains to the imagination of the world, but also through its long history of photography. Via this medium we have been given visions of its landscapes and its street life, but also of its details: the food its citizens eat, and the hotel rooms they might sleep in.
The latest contribution to this photographic history comes from Magnum Photos’ Mark Power, who next month will publish the first of what will become a five-volume set of photobooks documenting scenes that he has captured in the country since 2012. Describing the influence America has had on him since childhood, Power writes in the book:
“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, High Chaparral, The Virginian and in particular Casey Jones, the adventures of a middle-aged railroad driver putting the world to rights.”
The opportunity to do a big project in the US first came about when Power was invited to join Postcards from America, an idea generated by a group of photographers in Magnum. “The idea was to travel and work together and explore new ways of funding serious documentary work,” he explains via email. “It was an exciting time; we did pop-up shows and produced a number of different publications, all of which raised a little money to allow us to continue. We had a lot of fun along the way too.
“My involvement in Postcards lasted for nearly three years,” he continues, “during which time I made four trips to the States. The seed was thus born for me to continue, and since then I’ve ramped up the number of visits I make to three or four a year (I’m writing this in rural Montana).”
The idea of turning the work he was creating into a series of books came about five years in, when Power also made the unusual decision to begin publishing them while still working on the project. “The idea for a series of books came to me about a year ago,” he says. “I was looking at all the work I’d amassed while working in America and, considering I want to cover a decade and work here until 2022, I realised that if I didn’t make a series I’d be faced with making one enormous tome at the end of it all … which was the last thing I wanted to do.
“There is something exciting, though possibly foolhardy, about publishing work-in-progress,” he says. “I’m not sure it’s been done before. It means, of course, that each volume cannot deal with a specific subject, or be from a particular part of the country. Everything is mixed up together, simply because I haven’t finished yet, yet there’s something exhilarating about this. But I’m not trying to deal with just one subject anyway. America is far too complex for that.
“I should explain that the publication of each book doesn’t ‘kill’ all the work I’ve made previously. In other words, each of the five volumes can draw on pictures right back to the beginning of the project, while at the same time I’m constantly making new work. It may be that I even use the same picture twice over the course of the five books, but in different sequences, each to suggest something different. We’ll see.”
If Power continues to spend the same amount of time in the US that he has so far for the project, he will have spent approximately 18 months of the decade in the country. Despite this, he stresses that he remains “resolutely someone from the outside”. “I think the ability to look at the social landscape of America with relative dispassion is a useful tool to have,” he explains.
The images in this first volume give a sense of the sheer vastness of America, as well as containing a certain sense of foreboding, decay and despair. While Power has been documenting the country through a period of dramatic political change, it is the pop cultural history of the country that has led him to visit certain places, more than current affairs. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, the realities he has found in the country have often differed starkly from the America of the movies.
“I’ve been choosing locations because of something in my past which draws me to them,” he explains. “For instance, on this trip I started in Fargo, North Dakota (one of my favourite films) and will end in Rapid City South Dakota, the setting for much of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, another of my favourites. It seems as good a reason as any to choose where to go.
“Naturally the America I see is very different from the one that existed in my imagination, but it’s very difficult to remember what that was now I’m so familiar with this new landscape. However, I am surprised by the depth of problems here. It seems utterly overwhelming, and, much as I’d like to, I realise it’s far too simplistic to blame everything on Trump.”
As to the weight of the photographic legacy attached to the US – this is the country that produced Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, and Dorothea Lange, to name but a few – he wears this pretty lightly.
“I was the Professor of Photography at the University of Brighton for almost 25 years and so I think I have a good understanding of the history of photography in America,” he says. “I carry this around with me everywhere. While some might see this as a burden – I’m so often reminded, when I look at the image on my ground-glass screen, of the work of someone else – but I’ve learned to embrace this and often find myself referencing others.
“It’s a little game I’m playing with myself,” he concludes. “That said, I like to believe that, ultimately, my pictures don’t really look like anyone else’s. I hope so anyway.”
Mark Power’s Good Morning America (Vol 1) is published by GOST in November; gostbooks.com