I’m not really sure what to make of this book. Perhaps my mistake was to start at the back where Power has a short essay.
‘For as long as I can remember’, he writes, ‘I’ve wanted to explore America, an ambition fuelled by a legion of TV shows that crossed the Atlantic in the 1960’s. 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 the most: Bonanza, The High Chaparral, The Virginian and in particular Casey Jones, the adventures of a middle-aged railroad driver putting the world to rights.’
I am of a similar vintage to Mark Power and I grew up on a similar diet of Americana, adding only Alias Smith and Jones, though I believe that was from the early 1970’s. These television shows evoked an imagined America for me also and perhaps I expected Power’s childhood vision to more closely match my own. Instead, turning to the photographs my impression is of a bleaker, harsher imagining of the country than these shows ever conjured up for me. (Though perhaps the contrast with my expectations renders the pictures gloomier to my eye than they might otherwise appear.)
Part of the difficulty of assessing this book is that it is only the first of five planned volumes so the images gathered here are only a fragment of the whole. The pictures in this volume were taken across the country between 2012 and 2018. The challenge for Power, as for any photographer who trains his or her lens on the US, is that the ‘decline of America visually expressed’ genre is heavily oversubscribed and even more heavily clichéd. On first glance, not a few of Power’s images seem to fall into this genre and clichés are largely unavoidable. Of course, this is just my reading of the images for Power himself does not seem entirely clear what his project is about.
I never begin a project with a thesis I want to prove; if I did that I’d surely limit myself denying myself all sorts of opportunities. I try to remain open-minded and, certainly, the longer I spend in America the more I learn…but the more confused I get as well.
Elsewhere, though, Power is much more explicit about the thinking behind the project. In an interview with In Sight published in the Washington Post Power described the work as ‘endlessly shattering these romantic, imaginary images that exist happily in my head.’ So, not so much in search of that imagined America of his youth, but more in search of its dissolution. Power also explicitly connects the work to the ‘decline of America’ genre, but argues that ‘the decline has been going on for decades’. This is a thesis, and while Power may not be intent on his photographs proving that thesis, clearly the choice of subject and the choice of images for the books is going to illustrate that thesis.
There are good photographs in here and as I have returned to the book I have found certain images revealing more than I saw at first glance. However, there are still too many that leave me cold. Perhaps if this had been a one off book rather than one of a five-part series the picture selection might have been more rigorous. Or perhaps I’m just missing something.
Power’s biggest challenge is that in producing a book that aims to represent the American everyday in colour he is following in the footsteps of the likes of Joel Sternfeld, William Egglestone and, above all, Stephen Shore. Interviewed by the Guardian in 2007 Shore said,
To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what I am interested in.
Power is trying to see the photographic possibilities in the ordinary but anything less that a truly exceptional image or project is always going to fall short when set alongside Egglestone or Shore, no matter how provocative the thesis.
I’m still undecided whether I should persevere with the series. The second volume has already been released and I go back and forth over buying it, though today I am leaning towards doing so. The book itself is of very high quality. Unfortunately many of the images are printed across two pages and the book does not lay flat. There are also quite a few panoramic images that are spread across two pages plus a third fold out page.
I will finish with a comment on Amazon. I try not to buy photobooks from Amazon but sometimes the prices are unbeatable as was the case for this book. True to form the book came packed in a totally inadequate way with no protection for the corners which were bent. I could have sent it back, but I tend to treat Amazon like a second-hand book retailer these days. If it’s cheap enough I’ll look on it as a used book and not worry about superficial damage. I did contact them to point out the problem but they clearly could not care less.
- Publishing Information: GOST
- Mark Power: website
- Review: ASX (lots of sample images)
- Where to buy: Volume I is now out of print though new copies are still available at Photobookstore in the UK at £85. In the US you will need to check with Alibris on Abe Books where you can expect to pay upwards of $100.