Picturing Place With Mark Power
The Magnum photographer shares a pragmatic and comprehensive guide to building a sustainable career in photography in his new online course.
One November, crippled by debt and about to abandon all hopes of a further career in photography, a 30-year-old Mark Power boards a plane to Berlin. In his pocket, he has what’s left of the £200 gifted to him by a picture editor of a British magazine who has caught wind of his decision to retrain to be a carpenter. It is a ‘final shot’ at being a photographer. The year is 1989.
Power decides to use the money to cross the Iron Curtain and work on a magazine piece about what life was like for families living in East Germany at the time. When the plane touches down in the gray, gloomy capital, the first thing that he does after checking into a cheap hostel is to head over to Checkpoint Charlie, where he finds groups of people milling around, and a murmur of anticipation in the air.
It just so happened that the day he arrived was November 9. The day the Berlin Wall fell. Power was one of the only photographers present that night as the Wall opened and, for the first time in 28 years, citizens were allowed to cross freely between East and West. “And so entirely by accident,” Power recounts, “I found myself right at the forefront of a major news event.” The photographs he took during one night helped clear his debt and he was once again, a photographer.
The story of how he ended up at the Berlin Wall, and how his career was seemingly saved by a series of very fortunate events, is one of the many tales that Power, an engaging storyteller, shares in his new online course, Picturing Place.
And yet, contrary to the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the success of Power’s 40-year career in photography is not solely down to chance, or being in the right place at the right time. Far from it. “You don’t become a so-called ‘good photographer,’ whatever that means, overnight,” he states. “Photography is easy on the surface, but to do it well or to do it with any kind of meaning is actually much more difficult than it would appear.”
The course, composed of 18 chapters and over six-and-a-half hours of footage, starts in Power’s studio in Brighton, on England’s south coast. Here — surrounded by his colossal photobook collection and archives dating back to prints made in his makeshift darkroom in the early 1980s — the photographer opens up about his career to date, from his education in fine art and transition to photography, to balancing long-term personal projects with other aspects of life over the years.
And the word that seems to drive all of his stories is ‘perseverance’ — the commitment that it takes, and the practicalities of sustaining a career as a photographer. As though talking to a close friend, Power turns a daunting subject for many into a helpful and realistic account of how to find purpose in your practice, and the patience needed to build a sustainable career as a photographer.
"Photography forces you to be in the moment. "
For many of these projects, his purpose is driven by a sense of exploring places — whether familiar or unfamiliar — and spending time in a new location, slowly absorbing the surroundings.
“The work any photographer does is very much about concentration,” he explains. “One of the best things about photography for me is that it does force you to be in the moment. You can’t think about the past and the future.”
All of Magnum’s eight online courses have a practical element, joining the photographers on a shoot and watching how they approach subjects. With Picturing Place, participants join Power behind the scenes of his trip to Alaska for the next volume of Good Morning, America. And it is in these chapters, covering the trip and his editing process post-shoot, that all the theory, wisdom, tips, and philosophizing shared throughout the course come to life.
He discusses his continued fascination with the tension between imagination and reality, and how that plays out in the field, “going armed with certain expectations of what I think a place will be like, and then finding that it’s not what I expected,” he says. “The tension created between those two opposites can produce interesting work.”
We watch as Power puts these ideas into practice, arriving in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and one that seems to “exude an idea of romance.” To get his bearings, he heads straight to the top of a multistory parking garage for a birds-eye view of the city. We then follow him on the road, traveling both by car and on long walks around the magnificent, sometimes overwhelming, landscape of the northernmost American state.
Accompanying the shoot itself, Power also describes his editing process, conducting a first, initial edit in his hotel room at the end of every day, followed by a full review of the new material post-shoot, and then back home, the process of making prints, with the physicality of these pictures allowing him to relive the experience from a distance, with a different perspective.
Joining Power in Chapter 13 is Stuart Smith of GOST Books. The pair invite us behind the scenes as they work on the new, much-expanded edition of The Shipping Forecast, published earlier this year by GOST. Hundreds of prints are spread out over the floor as the two strive to cut this number down to 163 final photographs, before showing how pairings are formed and sequenced for the book itself to make sense from beginning to end.
“The first thing we do when we start editing a book is we put all the prints on the floor and walk all over them to cover them in footprints and crack them a little bit,” Power explains of this tradition in his typical editing process. “This way they’re not precious anymore. I may have agonized over making these beautiful inkjet prints, but they have a function.” It is one of the many insights shared throughout the course about his personal, tried-and-tested working process.
With over 25 years of experience as a teacher, Power is an engaging and meticulous tutor. Picturing Place feels like a pragmatic, intimate, and accessible session from one photographer to another, now available for audiences worldwide. Whether looking to hone editing skills, find inspiration from Power’s acclaimed personal projects, or even just listen to the master storyteller and the breadth of his experience, it is a comprehensive guide to his legacy as one of the forerunners of British photography.
Power’s course, Picturing Place, is now available online, complete with 18 chapters and 11 workbooks to be followed at your own pace from anywhere in the world. Start learning today.