‘Good Morning, America’: The state of the union through the eyes of Magnum photographer Mark Power

Dallas, Texas, January 2018 (Mark Power/Magnum Photos)

The idea of a foreign photographer touring the United States to offer an outsider’s view of the country is as close as a cliche as you can get. Robert Frank set the standard with “The Americans,” which became as influential in photography as Alexis de Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America” was to political literature.

Myriad photographers have followed in Frank’s footsteps, but only a few have produced meaningful bodies of work that have captured the imagination of their peers and of a wider audience. There’s Vanessa Winship with “She Dances on Jackson,” one of the most accomplished books on America published in recent years. Her husband, George Georgiou, took a radically different approach, photographing Americans on the country’s sidewalks, witnesses to the many parades that take to the streets for Mardi Gras, the Fourth of July or Halloween. And then, there’s Mark Power of Britain, who earlier this year published the first volume of an ongoing five-book series on America.

In “Good Morning, America,” published by GOST Books, Power offers a view, somewhat pessimistic, of a country he has found deeply divided as far back as the 1980s, when he made his first visit. “Its problems seemed then (and still do, only worse) to be so vast, so deep-rooted, like an enormous ball of twine that is slowly unraveling and impossible to stop,” he told In Sight. His photos, taken during various trips in America since 2012, highlight the incongruity of a country that stands at the top of the economic chain while also being home to increasingly larger pockets of inequalities.

Here are some more questions and answers from that interview:

I’m struck by the title of the book, “Good Morning, America.” It tends to have more of a positive leaning while the work is taking a realistic look at the state of the United States today — a state that tends to be judged more negatively, no matter the political leanings of readers. Why that title?

It’s an intentionally ambiguous title. To begin, I wanted something nonspecific, since the work is not intended to be about one specific subject. Instead I wanted to be free to photograph any number of subjects, all of which affect the others. The addition of a comma in the title is to distance it a little from the bland TV show of the same name and suggests, dare I say it, a kind of gentle awaking from a deep sleep. Far be it from me, a foreigner, to suggest it’s some kind of wake-up call, but …

There’s been a lot of talk about America’s decline or of the rise of issues of racism, anti-Semitism, class warfare, as if the country had suddenly changed, gone off-course. I feel that narrative of decline is wrong and that instead, large parts of the country are still stuck in the past in terms of societal beliefs or even economic beliefs. Is it something that you agree with?

Completely. It seems to me the decline has been going on for decades. While I’m clearly not an advocate of [President] Trump and his draconian policies, I believe it would be unfair to lay the blame entirely at his feet.

Although I began my project back in 2012, I’ve been visiting the States for all sorts of reasons since making my first trip in 1984. I can remember thinking, even in the ’80s, how divided America seemed and what a seemingly impossible task it would be for any president to be able to change the country for the better.

As a British photographer, how do you approach this country? Where do you start? What informs your choices?

The driving force behind the work is the cultural imperialism America exercised on the U.K. during, and in particular, the 1960s and ’70s. I was born in 1959, 60 years ago, and much of what I watched on television as a child — albeit fuzzy and in black-and-white — were American programs. I did so happily, of course. I believe my obsession with the country began then and there, and it’s never left me. The sweeping plains of the westerns, in particular, had a particular effect on me, and it’s a search for this clearly fictitious America which drives me forward. Inevitably I’m faced with a series of disappointments when I go looking.

The locations for my trips — during the last three years I’ve been making four every 12 months — are chosen for a variety of reasons. However, to generalize, they tend to be revolve around places that already evoke a vivid image in my imagination, through songs, books, television or films.

For instance, I recently began a trip in Fargo, N.D., simply because I love the Coen brothers film of the same name. Four weeks later it ended in Rapid City, S.D., close to Mount Rushmore, where I could imagine myself on the set of Hitchcock‘s “North by Northwest,” another touchstone for me. However, I found a Fargo without snow and a Mount Rushmore a fraction of the size I thought it would be.

Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself, endlessly shattering these romantic, imaginary images that exist happily in my head. But so much of my work, throughout my career, has been in a similar vein; the clash between fact and fiction, real and imaginary.

This is the first in a five-volume series. Why such a commitment?

It wasn’t meant to be such an ambitious project. It began in quite a noncommittal way, when I was part of Magnum’s “Postcards from America.” But when that group initiative came to an end, I realized the work I was making was filling a void in my life; it seemed as if it was what I was always meant to do. So I left teaching two or three years ago to give me more time — my most precious commodity — to devote to the work. My children are older now, as well, and don’t need me to be around as much. And I have the most wonderfully supportive partner in Jo, who encourages me daily and gives me absolute freedom to make my work. I’m very lucky.

The project seems to gather momentum the longer I spend on it. Sometime ago I decided the project should span a decade, meaning it’ll be completed in 2022. At least, that’s the plan. It’s an interesting conundrum to think about when a project that could otherwise roll on and on, is actually finished, complete. To impose a deadline upon myself, I’m now starting to look for suitable venues for a big exhibition to coincide with the publication of the fifth and final book. Then it simply has to come to an end.

The idea behind the five books GOST are publishing is a simple one: I can’t imagine making one single volume that would do justice to 10 years of work (or, to be more precise, the year and a half I’ll be spending in America during that decade, working every single day). The last thing I want to make is a pompous kind of coffee-table book. . . . that simply isn’t my thing. However, the idea of publishing books as the project progresses, literally as works-in-progress, is really appealing (if perhaps rather foolish). I have the sense that I’m creating a complicated and enormous jigsaw puzzle with no idea what the final picture will be.

One other thing . . . I recently added up the states I’d been to, and they now number 37. I am at heart a collector (name me a photographer who isn’t!) and so now, for the first time, I’m reconciled to the pursuit of all 50. I mean, now that I’m so close it would seem ridiculous not to try to get the full set, wouldn’t it? My next trip will be to Alaska, somewhere I’ve always dreamed of visiting. . . .

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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