Mark Power, Good Morning, America (Volume One)

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover, clothbound, 136 pages including 12 foldouts, with 57 color reproductions. Includes a short text by the artist. In an edition of 1500 copies. Design by Stuart Smith and GOST. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s hard to quantify the saturating impact decades of American pop culture have had on the rest of the world. Beginning in the years after World War II, American movies, television shows, advertising, music, fashions, and countless other exports have provided an unrelenting stream of images of the good life to be found in the United States. So it’s not at all surprising that people from the all over the globe have been entranced by the noble ideals and romantic myths that lie at the heart of the grand experiment that is America. In a sense, it’s what we’ve been selling since the very beginning, and we’ve proven again and again that we’re pretty adept salespeople.

For the British photographer Mark Power, it was the TV shows of the 1960s that shaped his vision of America, particularly the Westerns, with their wide open frontiers and rugged cowboys that were so fundamentally different from life in the English suburbs. But it wasn’t really until the Postcards from America group project (that he participated in as part of his membership in Magnum Photos) that he had the opportunity to come to America and spend the time to see the country for himself. What he found was altogether more complex, and in many ways much more dispiriting, than he expected – the dream and the reality of America weren’t as tightly intertwined as he had assumed.

Power has since embarked on an ambitious project to photographically explore 21st century America – this first volume of Good Morning, America will be followed by four more, the effort ultimately reaching the length of a decade and the breadth of all 50 states. Of course, Power isn’t remotely the first outsider to take on the photographic challenge of capturing the American essence; like it or not, Robert Frank’s The Americans sets the boundaries of this playing field, on which many other worthy contemporaries have since trod. What makes Power’s effort different is the embedded British vantage point he carries with him, and the disillusionment he experiences in the mismatch between his boyhood imaginings of a certain kind of America and what he is finding on the ground today.

Power has been at this game long enough to know that the cheery facades that America shows to the outside world hide a nation filled with contradictions, and so he has largely eschewed the obvious landmarks, set pieces, and stereotypes that we might have expected to visually seduce him. Instead, he has taken to the highways and backroads of this country, soberly and patiently assessing the anonymous cities and towns that fall in between the highlights and tourist destinations.

Since Power is an outsider, his pictures don’t really tell stories about specific individuals. There are very few people in Power’s pictures, and those that do appear are universally seen as arms length bystanders – there are no portraits, connections, anecdotes, or intimate human relations to be found here of the kind we might expect a local citizen to dig into. Power has instead seen America as a series of surfaces and objects, and his observations consistently lean toward muted disappointment and pessimism. He’s found a nation that is divided, by race, by geography, by economic status, and by countless other problems and inequalities, and documented a parade of physical spaces that are depressed and declining, seemingly left behind in the mad march to the shining future.

As a physical photographic object, Good Morning, America is elegant and lush. It boasts one of the best graphic design elements I have seen on a photobook in a long time – a very simple, small semicircle in gold foil, hovering on a field of bright orange cloth. As a sliver of rising sun (or perhaps setting if you are a real pessimist), it connects back to Power’s title, and the urge to wake us up that seems rooted in the phrase. (From the many quietly grim images inside, it seems we’ve had a rough night, haven’t yet had our coffee, and might need more than an aspirin to shake off the numbness.) It is a slightly large book, just hefty enough to notice the scale, and filled with superlative color reproductions that fill the pages, often spreading across the gutter. Several foldouts expose wide panoramas that extend to three pages, which Power uses deftly to capture specific moments of expansiveness.

Our journey begins on a foggy day in a dry winter forest in Kentucky, as we follow train tracks that head directly for a rocky mountain, before splitting in two curving directions at the last moment. As a visual metaphor for the state of contemporary America, it sets the stage – we seem to be heading for destruction and the only path forward is division.

This picture and the ones that follow it make clear almost immediately that we are in the hands of an extremely controlled photographer. Power’s compositions are precisely ordered and deliberate. There is no movement, no improvisation, no snapshotting, no lucky decisive moment stuff going on – every frame is thought through, pre-arranged, and seemingly triple checked. When things are squared off, they are done so meticulously; when they are unbalanced, it has been done for a compositional reason and managed accordingly. In many ways, this kind of photographic mastery is calming; we can trust in his judgment.

Power often seems to have been drawn to back alleys, vacant spaces, empty parking lots, and areas behind rather than in front. Here electric power lines tangle in the sky like spiderwebs, dumpsters, garbage piles, and parked cars decorate the foreground, and peeling paint, boarded up or papered over windows, and other tired surfaces of decay and neglect provide the nuance. Most of these photographs are essentially careful studies in geometry and form, the placement of the camera controlling the layered dialogue of the various visual elements.

While it is very subtle and understated in his pictures, to the point of almost being overlooked, Power also clearly has clever sense of dry visual humor. His eye is repeatedly drawn to the mildly surreal, at least when noticed. A cellphone tower poorly disguised as an evergreen tree vertically interrupts the flatness of an alley scene. A painted forest mural on a brick wall is flanked by an actual tree which is partially re-framed by some wired together piping. And a man waiting for the bus smokes a cigarette near a sign encouraging us to quit smoking. It’s humor delivered with an edge of bleakness.

When Power gets closer in, the mood darkens. The dead cat wrapped in a Western Family plastic bag clogging a muddy drainage ditch is the starkest of these grim discoveries, but there are more. The impromptu shrine of sagging teddy bears tied to a telephone pole, the theater room inexplicably filled with orange balls, the dead fish stuck in the drying muck of a river, the weirdly unused playground structure, the hymnal left in the leaves, and the dirt on the thrift store clothes – they all feel bereft of hope, these leavings trying to tell us something that we can’t quite grasp.

Other images find a different vein of ominousness, with situations on the verge of something and roiled emotions nearer the surface. Two men and their dogs walk along a sandy riverbed near an overpass in something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Huge moss covered trees dwarf one story houses and makeshift lean-tos that lurk below their outstretched branches. Families are reduced to trudging toward a Subway restaurant or setting up camp in their cars near the edge of the forest. And I’m not sure which is worse – the metaphorical American house literally going up in flames and smoke, or the only light in our darkening storm provided by the glow of a store offering cash loans on car titles.

All of this might be too disheartening and dismal to bear if Power’s photographs weren’t so immaculately executed. He can make even the ugliest subject matter (a rotting above ground pool, the standing water near a concrete overpass, junked cars in the woods, the aftermath of destruction) feel controlled and even beautiful, without ever insulting us by making things look too pretty. That’s a very tough aesthetic line to walk, and he’s consistently done it with attentiveness and respect.

My conclusion is that Power likely has the talent to churn out four more volumes of exceptional photographs like these, but if he simply builds an exhaustive archive of America’s cheerless misery and wretched failure, he will start to lose our attention, and more importantly, he will have missed entirely the complexities that give the nation its charismatic energy. There is virtually no joy in Power’s America (aside from the quality of photographic craft on display), and maybe from his perspective, that’s what’s out there. This first volume in his series is certainly impressive, but I’m equally interested to see what he does next, and whether he can thoughtfully shift gears and try other angles, instead of dragging us through endless variations on deflated American gloom. Five volumes of that kind of photographic crispness might be unbearable.

Collector’s POV: Mark Power is represented by Magnum Photos (here). Power’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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