Mark Power (UK) is a Magnum photographer and Professor of Photography at the University of Brighton. In the run up to his second appearance at Photobook Bristol he talks to Jessa Fairbrother about how he defines success in a photobook…and having the best job in the world.
Over your career you have made several photobooks. Lets start with the easy questions….Can you tell us what led you to make your first?
from The Shipping Forecast
My first book was The Shipping Forecast, published in 1996. Along with the exhibition the book was the culmination of a four-year trek around the coast of Western Europe. Its story is an interesting one… About three-quarters of the way through the project I approached a major publisher, based in London, to show them the pictures and a proposed book design. Their reaction was almost entirely negative: they weren’t interested in publishing because the work was (in their words) too parochial and, it continued, they wouldn’t dream of making a book with a black-and-white photograph of the sea on the cover. If they were to publish it (which they weren’t) they would ask me to go out and photograph, er, let’s see… a man in a yellow souwester taking a weather reading. In colour, of course.
I was extremely depressed at the end of the meeting, but at the same time fervently believed the book-buying public weren’t that stupid. Surely they could appreciate, and understand, a book which demanded just a little more effort to ‘read’ properly. It dawned on me that the only way I could get the book I wanted was to put my own money into it, but I didn’t have much and the little I did have was being put towards making the photographs. I applied to the Arts Council but failed dismally to get a grant; black and white documentary work wasn’t very fashionable in 1995. As a last straw I applied to the Mosaic Foundation in Luxembourg and promptly forgot all about it, until one Monday morning I received a call telling me I’d been awarded a grant of US$25,000. Suddenly everything was possible: I was able to travel to some of the more far-flung places I had yet to visit, produce a rather lavish exhibition and put a considerable amount into publishing a book. I approached Zelda Cheatle, who was representing me for print sales at the time, and she agreed to publish the book under her imprint.
It was made, primarily, as a catalogue for the exhibition, but when The Observer made it their ‘Book of the Week’ the entire first edition of 2,000 copies sold out within ten days. We went to a second printing and then a third, and they sold out as well – a total of 10,000 books altogether, quite remarkable for a first book by a largely unknown photographer. Cleary it had managed to wriggle out of the photo-ghetto to reach another audience altogether – Radio 4 listeners, sailors – and to this day I meet many who tell me they bought the book for their parents. Rarely do I meet anyone who bought it for themselves, but there are plenty of elderly mums and dads out there who must have a copy.
You have gone on to make many subsequent photobooks – can you tell us something about the process of working with a designer – how that helps your work breathe as a photobook? Can you tell us, for example, of any particularly stressful episodes – or things you wish you had done differently?
I’m very lucky in that each and every experience I’ve had working with a designer has been very positive. My latest book, Destroying the Laboratory for the Sake of the Experiment, a collaboration with the poet Daniel Cockrill and the designer Dominic Brookman, is enormously complicated, but was a joy to work on. I’ve made eight books now, with four designers. All are/were very different, but in each case I began the process fairly clear about the sort of book I wanted. There’s always a dialogue, and I like to think I remain open to new ideas, but I always start with a kind of picture in my head of what the book should be like.
The process of bringing a book out is time-consuming. Can you tell us about how you manage this?
Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it’s time I love to spend and in the end it’s well worth it. I’ve never shirked on this and I think it’s one of the reasons why I’ve not made a book I’m (in retrospect) embarrassed by. Far be it for me to say, but I think they all stand up as pretty decent books, and I can’t wish for more than that. Managing my time is difficult, what with trying to pursue my own projects, doing the odd commissions, teaching, and everything else (not to mention my family) but somehow or other I manage to get everything done.
Your photobook Mass (2013) is a very interactive high-production value book with fold-outs. How was making that book different in process to other, less physically complex works? Did it take significantly longer to do?
I’m very proud of Mass, although it’s been a difficult book to sell. I worked with Stuart Smith on that one, and from the outset I suggested I wanted a small book with large pictures inside… a tricky conundrum. As luck would have it Stu had a book from his shelf he’d been keeping for just the right moment. As I remember, it was an advertising brochure for a perfume company. Its design principle was the genesis of Mass.
The next problem was trying to find a printer able to make such a thing. Stuart soon realised it was almost impossible to describe what we wanted without sending out a tiny dummy as an example. He made several and posted them out. Most printers either ignored us or told us straight that it was impossible to do. There was one printer in Belgium who wanted an astronomical amount to make each copy by hand. And then, at the very last moment, Graphicom in Verona phoned to say they thought they could do it.
While it may be a complicated book design, it’s surprisingly simple in content; once the folding mechanism had been designed the pictures just slotted into place. We didn’t need to spend time agonising over sequencing or anything like that. There aren’t many pictures in it.
The Shipping Forecast (1996) is specifically allied to a well-known written text, spoken twice a day across the world, creating an underpinning narrative structure of the work. The London A-Z – which informed 26 Different Endings also relies on a pre-determined structure to make meaning, while Mass points to the presence of ‘a script’ in which we can project meaning onto the images. Could you maybe discuss your interest in the written / spoken text as a power structure?
Actually I would suggest instead that both The Shipping Forecast and 26 Different Endings take as their starting points (a) a map, and (b) a familiar British institution – a radio broadcast and a popular street atlas. The idea for Mass was born while making my previous book in Poland, The Sound of Two Songs, and has more to do with a reaction to the Catholic Church (I was raised a strict Catholic but have since wandered from the flock). Laboratory is the book which relies most on a spoken and written text because of the collaboration with Dan. The designer, Dom, played with all kinds of innovative ways of using image and text together. We gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted and most ideas he suggested were greeted by us with great excitement.
from Die Mauer ist Weg
You described in a lecture I read that you didn’t know where ideas came from, that you didn’t know how to explain that – it was an intuitive approach. I was interested in reading that and wondered if the serendipity you encountered at the Berlin wall, which became your book Die Mauer ist Weg! was a metaphor for your approach to making work – a chance encounter, a followed path, a drift into form out of chaos.
What I was trying to say was that ideas can come from anywhere and it’s just a matter of being able to recognise one when it’s staring you in the face. While some of my projects have been conceptually tight, like 26 Different Endings, I’m always happiest when I’m allowed to wander and photograph anything I like. I’m very careful to leave enough time at the end of the process to edit and sequence my ‘collection’ of pictures very carefully. Over the years I’ve realised this is at least as important as making the work in the first place. As for my Berlin work, that was just a lucky break. To paraphrase Withnail, I was in Berlin by mistake.
from 26 Different Endings
You incorporate your own soul-searching in your work with essays that reveal a lot about your life; then in one of your books – 26 Different Endings – David Chandler wrote an autobiographical essay. I wonder, then, how you see a ‘self’ as a character in the narratives of others? Does the book form help you do this or is it through the written word that this becomes explicit?
David’s essay in 26 Different Endings is the best autobiographical piece I’ve ever read in a photo book. I’m very fortunate it’s in there and because of it, really, the book is as much David’s as it is mine. We’ve been friends for many years (we lived together as students in the late 1970s) and I think we recognise kindred spirits in each other. Neither of us are afraid to open up emotionally, although in my case (and I think in David’s too) I find it easier to do so through my work than in spoken conversation.
You have previously said: “It took me a long time to get to this point. I still don’t have any money because I plough it into new projects, but that’s what I want to spend my money on. That’s the attitude you need to have. You either do it properly or not at all, because if you do it half-heartedly you won’t have success or at least it won’t last – you’ve got to want it right to the core of your bones.” Can you tell us something about this dilemma?
It’s true that for many years I led a hand-to-mouth existence and ploughed everything I had into various projects. But my work is also my pleasure; I can’t imagine not doing it, so it’s never an issue. In every case I’ve managed to get my money back eventually, through books sales, although some titles have taken longer to recoup the ‘investment’ than others. I consider myself extremely fortunate to do what I do. My daughter told me recently she thought I had the best job in the world and I think she might be right.
Success means different things to all of us…how do YOU define success of your photobooks?
A successful photobook does justice to the work inside it, and to the time and effort you put into it. It’s not necessarily about sales.
From the outside it could seem that someone who has got to the point you have – part of Magnum, with a successful career in photography – that the financial issues around producing a photobook would be more manageable. Can you explain why this might not be the case?
I can assure you that being a member of Magnum doesn’t come hand-in-hand with great personal wealth! That said, with the exception of Superstructure and The Treasury Project I’ve put my own money into each and every one of my books because I want to maintain a level of control. When I work with publishers they are always small and I trust them implicitly (Zelda Cheatle, Photoworks and GOST) but my two most recent books, Die Mauer ist Weg! and Laboratory, were self-published. This meant I had to pay for everything myself, which wasn’t easy, but Die Mauer actually made a decent profit and it’s that, indirectly, which has gone into making Destroying the Laboratory. But be under no illusions, photobook publishing isn’t a sensible business model. While Die Mauer may have made a profit, the amount of time that goes into self-publishing, not to mention wrapping and posting every single copy myself (I freely admit I’m a control freak) shouldn’t be underestimated. You can forget the minimum wage.
You are launching your latest book Destroying the Laboratory for the Sake of the Experiment at Photobook Bristol. What can we expect from the launch – and the book? We hear it’s going to be quite an event!
The project is a collaboration between the poet Daniel Cockrill, designer Dominic Brookman, and myself. Between 2006 and 2010 Dan and I travelled together, whenever time allowed, to different parts of England. The themes of collaboration and experiment were (and still are) important factors. In effect we were two artists using different media sharing the same ‘landscapes’. It soon became clear that each of us had our own hierarchy of what we considered interesting and important, and that’s what the project became about.
In 2010 we had the small show of the work at the Atlas Gallery in London. It was an intentionally messy experiment, but quite successful in spite of the fact that we didn’t sell a single thing! At the same time we made a dummy book, printed on an Indigo Press, in an edition of just five copies. That forms the basis of the so-called ‘trade edition’, which will be launched at the Bristol Photobook Festival in June, although this later incarnation takes even more risks. It’s taken a while to get it published, I know, but the gestation period has been useful. Among other things we made the decision not to date or caption anything in the book because it really didn’t seem important.
The third member of our team is undoubtedly Dominic Brookman who, coincidently, lives in Bristol. He designed the book and created a number of ‘treatments’ of the poems, often integrating these with my photographs. These have, in turn, become images in themselves and form a key part of the book.
We go on press next week (May 2016), so I’m a little nervous about getting too excited until I’ve seen the final product. At the Bristol event the three of us will do a presentation which will of course include a poetry performance by Dan. And this will be the only time we’ll all be together to sign the books…