Mark Power, documentary photographer
British, born 1959 in Harpenden, Herts. Professor of Photography at the University of Brighton. Member of Magnum Photos.
“The everyday drabness of places … where a condition of greyness has become the condition of life”
Sitting right now in the beauty of Devon in the spring, I apologise for starting my ‘Desert Island’ exploration in the drab ‘edgelands’ of London! However, I’m introducing this leading documentary photographer not because he’s my favourite, but because his work was the first to make a really big impression on me, when I was still living in the ‘condition of greyness‘ in the metropolis.
Mark Power has documented places and situations all over the world. Magnum Photos describes him as one of the foremost British documentary photographers, with ‘his complex, meticulously crafted images, usually made with a large-format camera.’ He himself says of his work:
“Now that everyone in the developed world seems to own some form of camera, a different space has opened up for documentary photography…. where it is first and foremost about ideas. Now we can all take pictures, with varying degrees of ability, it’s what we do with our cameras that counts.” [My emphasis]
I particularly responded to the idea behind his project A System of Edges/26 Different Endings (2003-6) – which explores the invisible boundaries around London, ‘where the city thins out and seems to fall away into nothingness.’ It was the first time I experienced how a series of photographs could create an effective portrait of a place, bigger than the sum of its parts. The images portray the periphery of London as defined by the A-Z map, offering a view of the landscape beyond its confines – the places ‘unlucky enough to just fall off the edge…’ The idea for the project came by chance during a picnic:
“The ‘A-Z London Street Atlas’ is the most popular map of any kind in Britain, selling over 200,000 copies a year. In the Spring of 2003 I was enjoying a picnic somewhere to the west of London. Leafing idly through my own A-Z, I noticed that the stream in front of me ran along the very edge of the atlas, and the field beyond was off the page altogether. The coverage of the map changes with each new edition. Someone somewhere decides, year by year, where it should end; which parts of the periphery of London should be included, and which should not. This project is about the unfortunate places that fall just off the edge.
“A touring exhibition, A System of Edges, included one photograph from each of the fifty-six pages meeting the edge. An edit of just twenty-six of these finally became the book 26 Different Endings.” https://www.markpower.co.uk/projects/26-DIFFERENT-ENDINGS
Mark Power grew up in a village that merged into the neighbouring city of Leicester. I myself grew up in an isolated suburban village (part-consumed by the construction of the M3) at the SW corner of the London A-Z Atlas – my street was in it, the village centre wasn’t – and I can completely relate to the sense of places falling off the map! The photographs look out away from London into a sort of Terra Nulla, ‘a melancholic emptiness where the energies of the city evaporate into a strange kind of inertia’ [from the publicity of the subsequent book]. They are often bleak and devoid of people, and the skies are always flat greyish white. But, I can see the funny/not-funny side, too, as maybe anyone else who has experienced suburban life will also understand.
The writer J G Ballard lived near us, and some of his ‘post-apocalyptic’ novels were based in this landscape. A commentator on Ballard’s work describes the area as a ‘Paradigm of Nowhere’. Mark Power’s views around my childhood home describe that atmosphere perfectly,and were possibly part of the catalyst to move to Devon! Maybe their emptiness will seem less strange during the present lockdown ….
This project is just one example of Mark Power’s wide range of work, photographing – and now videoing, too – a huge variety of locations and situations (not all so gloomy!), in a spare, truthful and often drily humorous way that I particularly enjoy. https://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects
The powerful sense of honesty was behind his first substantial commission for the Children’s Society (1985-6), to show:
“… what it was like to be growing up in specific parts of Britain – particularly areas of the midlands and the north – that had been hardest hit during the Thatcher years. Presented as a series of billboard posters throughout the UK, it was the first charity campaign in Britain to use real situations – no models, no make up, no retouching – since the infamousSheltercampaign of the 1960’s, photographed by Nick Hedges “[about whom, more later].
There are plenty of other projects on his website to enjoy, most recently Good Morning America, a portrait of all the States in the U.S.
Mark Power has said of his process:
“I keep a physical and metaphorical distance between myself and the subject, yet I remain deeply connected. One might call it an intimate distance.” Magnum Photos
An interesting lesson, perhaps, for the present time of social distancing – keeping separate but connected.