Interview: Mark Powell

Interviewed from his home in Mexico City
March 3rd, 2011

Photographer Mark Powell, originally from Detroit, has been based in Mexico City the past eight years and will soon become a Mexican citizen. He has shown his images internationally, including at the Brooklyn Institute of Contemporary Art and the New Museum in New York City, the Museo Eco and the Museo Archivo de la Fotografía in Mexico City, as well as in São Paolo, Madrid, Basel, Moscow and Amersterdam. In 2006 he published a book of his photography called Very Important Person and his work was included in the recently published Street Photography Now.

Two other interviews excellently cover Mark’s background and past bodies of work: a 2006 interview on 2point8 and a 2009 interview by Ben Roberts on insig.ht.

Mark’s personal site can be found here and his Flickrstream here.

This interview largely focuses on a previously unpublished project which consists of images he has curated from the website “Sexy o No?” On this site anyone can upload his or her photograph to have it voted on publicly for its sexiness, from 1 to 10. Posters can also add text to accompany their image and make his or herself available to be contacted.

Mark Powell: This whole body of work, I’m trying to understand it myself. I just know that I’m attracted to these pictures, directly as photographs, to begin with.

The reason that I started looking at these pictures is that a friend of mine wanted me to do a picture for them for their “Sexy o No?” page. I said what’s this “Sexy o No?” thing? “Hot or Not” I guess the equivalent would be. But in “Hot or Not” there’s a different kind of visual language, I think because of the different cultures involved.

I started the last couple of years collecting these and they’re gone now [from the site]. After a while they get lost in the site’s cache, you never see them again, or the users aren’t active anymore. So you’re saving some of these pictures. There’s an interesting energy to them because they’re very personal, some of them are self-portraits, some of them are being taken by their boyfriends or...mostly they’re looking for boyfriends, I think...or their mothers or their girl friends.

I was a little exhausted from photographing, and I felt inspired by these because they’re so natural.

But you’re also looking at all these girls online and you have this perverted kind of reaction to them, like, “Why am I looking at these?” [even though] there’s another way you’re looking at them.

They’re pretty amazing. There’s been a lot of people collecting vernacular photography, but these are from now, and there’s something about them, they’re so lowbrow, but really telling. They’re better photos than I could ever take in these situations. I think they’re quite inspirational sometimes.

fototazo: I was reading an interview in which you mention Enrique Metinides. I remember your comments about his work, about its lack of self-consciousness, printing photos at Costco, blind eye to the art world. I wonder if that kind of connects with this work as an interest in its...

MP: For sure. It makes me frustrated sometimes that you really can’t turn that off as a photographer. I really admire pure 100% photographers. They’re working for newspapers, or here in Mexico we have the rojos, these gráficos, the newspapers that cover violence, blood or just pure sex, the stuff that sells papers. They’re trying to get a good shot that sells papers.

Back in the day Metinides, they call him “The Kid” because he started when he was twelve-years-old, was really into movies. You can tell it just naturally rubbed off on him. He’d go into the cinema and then take it to real life, compose things from what he’d seen.

I get frustrated, I wish I could do that better. Sometimes my self-consciousness gets in my way and I have to step away a little bit. Maybe this [project] is a way for me to do that and to make my own work better in the future, be inspired by it in a way.

f: Are you working on other bodies of images at the same time?

MP: Yeah, well right now there’s an opportunity, I’ll be working with the History Channel and I’ll have my own TV show. It’s going to be where they follow you around like a reality [show], and I’ll be working in South America. I also work commissions and I just finished a documentary as a cinematographer about Mexican vedettes, showgirls.

Again, that sort of burns you out, and I really want to go back to a personal confrontation with the world, carrying a little camera around. I did a book called VIP in 2006 [in that way] and I’ve missed that.

Being in Mexico as a photographer [from outside the country], you have this whole layering system of visually seeing and reacting to it. At first you just fall in love with it, it’s all new and then it sort of settles within you and you have to find other material to react to. I think you get to where it becomes closer to the core, which is home.

And that’s where I’m at right now. I feel it’s my home, I feel comfortable here, it’s become status quo. I [am] no different from myself in Detroit in the way I react to things. That’s a nice place to be and I think that’s another reason I’m kind of digging through “Sexy o No?” You start seeing your understanding of [another] culture; [although] there’s still a lot of mystery left.

I was very aware not to be seduced by this immediate folkloric aspect of being in a different country [when I arrived]. I also was always being reminded of things from Detroit; I like to mix that up, like you don’t know if it’s Detroit or Mexico City.

f: What’s your interest in confusing that line? I think a lot of photographers want to define something specifically, to document, whether its “documentary” work or not.

MP: Well, yeah, I, really don’t like documentary photography, it really bothers me some times.

f: Is there something about it in particular that’s bothersome?

MP: I think that’s it just it’s too direct sometimes, it’s too “I’m going to document this” and it gets in the way of more mysterious narratives. I’ve done it, I’ve done a series of gringos living in Mexico, but I stopped. The best for me is to go to a place and imagine it and react to it and let the photos imagine something that’s not. I try just to react very intuitively, from my gut.

There is some good documentary photography out there. I don’t want to totally say I don’t like it. I do a form of documentation; where you draw those lines is very ambiguous. But I don’t like direct documentary photographers. Honestly, it doesn’t fit my way of working as a photographer.

Mixing Detroit and Mexico City, maybe I’ll say where it’s from, but it’s nice if it looks like something else. You’re also playing with a lot of other things. Movies inspired me. I like when people look like a movie star or it’s like somebody I recognize, but not quite. I’m drawn towards [these situations] and it sort of sits in front of you for a while and you work with it. A lot of people think that I work really fast, but sometimes I work for maybe twenty minutes or sometimes under a minute...sometimes I go back. That’s why the Street Photography Now book was a nice surprise, because I never really considered myself a street photographer, [even though] I do work in the streets a lot. I think a lot of people, the purists in that book, wouldn’t consider what I do “street,” because of this interacting with people and strangers and getting into situations. But to me every experience in front of you is game. I don’t know how you’re going to divide experience like that, pure or not pure.

f: I think purists in the street photography world would say it has to be completely observational, you can have no interaction, you can have no hand in the scene or what’s happening; I would also say would say that’s all predicated on a falsehood that somehow photography has a possibility of being objective.

MP: Maybe if you’re doing a document, you’re too directly thinking of what you’re documenting. You have an idea, “I’m a documenteur, I’m going to do this model that I’ve learned,” and it limits you. I think you have to be more open-minded.

There’s a lot of great documentary photography out there that I really enjoy, but I do feel I fit a niche that’s kind of special, that not a lot of people are doing. I mean its kind of a little surreal maybe... I love all the surrealists. Being playful with the world, molding it, I guess a little quantum physics thrown in there, destiny...I’m sure you’ve had these experiences where this magical thing just suddenly [doesn’t] match the scene very well - it’s a very magical thing you’re playing with sometimes, playing with reality.

It’s also very meditative. If you don’t feel inspired, you just gotta pick your camera up and go start shooting and find the inspiration.

Mas preguntas son mejores que una respuesta inmediata [“More questions are better than an immediate answer”], no? The best documentary images are open-ended.

f: Is there anything else you wanted to add about your interest behind the “Sexy o No?” project?

MP: I think it’s ‘cause I reached a little dead end, inspiration-wise, and I decided, these are great, I wish I could photograph like this, basically.

When I don’t have time to do my personal work, I’ve been going on these sites, looking around at vernacular photography. I’ve also got a photo album collection that I buy in trash markets.

The [“Sexy o No?” images] are also so sad to me, especially with the situation in Mexico with the narco war going on. A lot of people are trapped in their villages. People are using their cheap little cameras this way, they’re lonely or they’re trying to find somebody or their trying to find their self-esteem and they want to be voted on.

It’s a little pathetic after awhile. But [they’re] just great photographs, there’s great narratives. I like when you can see their books or what they have in their backgrounds. I’ll never be able to get in these situations, so it’s transporting yourself, it’s almost like [being] a photographer and taking pictures. As I build a collection of these, I find they relate because I’m asserting my own voice as a photographer on to these photographs.

You go through literally thousands of them, you might go through like a thousand in a couple days, and you take maybe twenty out, and you start finding this voice that matches your way of looking at the world.

f: How do you select the women? Have you noted trends in why you select images as part of your collection?

MP: Well, I was kind of playing with this “Sexy o No?” Sometimes they’re sexy, sometimes they’re not. But also these odd narratives that come through, like the one with the girl with the balloons around her?

That’s such a sad photograph. It’s like, why is she so sad? It seems like a celebration. All these questions open up. Who’s taking the photograph? Where is she? Why is she like that [emotionally]? And aesthetically, the color, the white balloons. A lot of stuff comes out, she’s sad, she’s depressed, maybe because of her economic situation or because her boyfriend hits her.

Then some are just really funny. Like this one with this lady with the tattoos and these small kind of like hatchets behind her?

It’s also the texture of now. People are taking pictures of themselves. I think it’s a shame that we’re going to lose this if somebody doesn’t take a few out to show what photography was like in 2010, 2011 with cell phones. There’s a lot of different motivations for me, but I think the main thing is I wish I took that picture. I really feel this envy of the people that were in these situations, in these places, and I wish I was there. I’m vicariously living through them as a photographer.

f: The dream of access.

MP: I do have pretty good access, I’m pretty good, but this is virtual access, the way we interact with photography now. This is how we’re virtually connected, there’s kind of this perverse intimacy between us, with all the social networks.

We’re all photographers, we’re all taking pictures, and we’re all saying something. But there’s a certain model because of the practical use of these images. These girls want to meet people.

I’m also taking text from their announcements of who they are. A lot of illiteracy comes through, they can’t really type. You can’t read their announcements sometimes, there’s so many “k”’s in them. They sort of phonetically sound the words out, but don’t really spell them correctly. So I feel like the [photographs] are how we’re communicating. It’s funny, it’s what’s sad, it’s funny, it’s tragic. Kind of like you’d find in my own work too.

f: I was just about to ask if there were themes in this work that you feel connect with the work you’ve done previously.

MP: Yeah, the casting of interesting people, or people that I find I’m drawn to. It’s a different sort of casting, because you’re selecting someone from a photo that already exists. But the themes… a little sad and a little pathetic, [getting] the pathetic to transcend into something else. Authenticity as well, something that’s real. Fantasy. Or it reminds me of a movie. Reminds me of somebody I can’t place my finger on. Like this lady at the bus station, she’s on a cell phone with a little square right behind her, kind of reminds me of people who are on a platform in Detroit.

And memory; I don’t photograph generally for memory. But a lot of people take snapshots of where they go, or their families, or their events. I don’t, that’s not my motivation as a photographer, but I do like to collect and see other people’s [images] made for memory, because you can put new meanings on them.

They just found fifteen decapitated heads outside of a supermarket in Acapulco, so I think of all this personal propaganda [in the photographs]. You know, people being happy, but with these slight expressions like they know it’s going to collapse around them. They seem to know it, but they don’t know it. I think they communicate this collapse around them, this chaos.

Here in Mexico people are getting shot up, people are corrupt. I had the same kind of silly grin on my face too. I’m from Detroit, you just sort of ignore [the violence], but it’s always at the edges of your consciousness. I was robbed by gunpoint six months ago at a café in the middle of my neighborhood. Got a cold pistol touching the side of my head. I’ve never been robbed like that in Detroit, I mean, that was a hairy situation. I tried to stand up, they told me to sit down again. [laughs] These things affect me in a way, so maybe this is my way of rebelling against this anxiety in a certain way, through sex, through the nervousness that you see in these people.

f: You were saying earlier you were working on this idea because you had come to a dead end with your personal work. Has it been recharging? And has it had an influence?

MP: For sure. I think so. I don’t think I’ve seen the potential results from it yet, but I feel this kind of inspiration now.

Looking at pictures for me is kind of like a nice charge. I used to go to the library as a kid, when I was like sixteen, and really get inspired. You come across a photographer, looking at pictures, [it’s] like a battery touching your skin. I lost that. As you photograph, you have to recharge yourself. Maybe in a way looking at these pictures recharges me a little bit and I also go back to seeing work that really inspired me to begin with. Sometimes I’m riding the subway, the Metro here, reflecting, and I’m like, “Am I going to be a photographer next year?” “Am I still going to be able to shoot?”

Those questions go through your head, but then the next day you wake up, you feel great. “I’m going to go out and shoot now.” But those doubts…it’s scary, because I want to shoot forever, I want to until I’m old.

You can’t force it. You have to get up, you have to work to make inspiration happen. It doesn’t really come by sitting down. You have to twiddle with it, start taking a few shots and you start feeling it again.

f: Does that doubt about continuing in photography have to do with your own history, living up to what you’ve done, and feeling you’ve worked through your subjects? Or with the jump in the sheer number of photographers the last ten-fifteen years and the extensive photographic territory they are now covering? Something else?

MP: Yeah, it’s a little overwhelming at times, I mean there’s a lot of great stuff out there. But that’s great...everybody’s shooting now and saying something. What’s frustrating is searching for that motivation to shoot and it’s not there. I was a little naïve before in my approach to my motivation. I want to change, I want to do something different. So then you say, “What am I going to do?” but you don’t want to approach yourself self-consciously, you want to be natural like it was before. You want to go out, you’re excited, you’re passionate, and it’s natural. [When] self-consciousness starts entering, you feel doubt as well. I’m not really a looker of what’s going on in photography. I like to go to exhibits, of course, and see books, but when I see good photographs in a book, I close it right away. Do you do that too?

f: I definitely get the “anxiety of influence” when strong images strike close to what I’m thinking about or working on.

MP: I don’t know if it’s influence, it’s more like I don’t want to see it. Maybe influence, but it’s more like, I want to go out and do it. I want to do it, I want to go out. [laughs]

f: For me, going through very strong work that’s similar to my own work can be inspiring, but there’s another side that’s almost like looking at the sun or something, you start looking and then you avert your gaze.

For me, knowing this person did this work this way and that person did it that way and both created really impressive bodies of work can prevent me from imaging that the work could be done or approached differently, especially if my project is just getting its legs and isn’t strong yet. It becomes hard to see beyond the work of the other person.

MP: Yeah, that’s a good point. That goes back to “Sexy o No?” then, maybe I feel protected then. I can look at these pictures, there’s no photographer behind these photographs.  I’m choosing these pictures. You feel safety and maybe a faith in the machine as well - it’s really just the scene in front of it that’s most important.

Again, that self-consciousness thing is really a battle that you’re always confronted with. And these are purely not self-conscious. I think that’s why a lot of people are attracted to vernacular photography. They’re more real than ever, they say way more than the documenteurs that are trying to have a project like, “I’m going to photograph hobos on the way to Guatemala”, you know....

f: Right, well, you just stole my next project, man.

MP: [Laughs] Hobos from California going down to Guatemala, yeah.

f: I wonder if on some level that it’s a pleasure to spend time with the vernacular images because not only are they not a threat to us as photographers, but also because of the romantic vision they give us of being able to go back to the pure natural excitement and unburdened mind that we had when we started photography – or that we imagine we had.

MP: Yeah. And this goes back to Metinides and what I admire about that guy. I met him at a show the other day and I said, “Hey, how’s it going Enrique, my name’s Mark, I really like your work,” and he just said to me right away, “I got work in the MoMA.”

I thought that was so cool. “I got work in the MoMA.” He’s like trying to prove something to me - he didn’t need to prove [anything] to me, man. I know! That’s great that you got work at the MoMA. I really wish I could have work at the MoMA and just say it blatantly. When somebody comes up to me, “Nice to meet you,” and say, “Hey, I got work at the MoMA.”

f: That’s great. To take it back to the “Sexy o No?” project, I have two more questions. No men?

MP: I [photograph] a lot of men in my [own] work. I was considering putting men in [this project], but I was looking through the men selection, it’s just a whole other discourse, how men present themselves, or how they photograph themselves. Mixing [men and women] up, I wasn’t finding the same themes. I’m intrigued however by the macho, this machoness in Mexico. You approach a guy in Mexico and you want to photograph him and all this stuff comes out. That’s a very complex subject in Mexico, the macho.

When I approach men here, I feel like we’re both getting something, it’s like finding something between us. They’re uncomfortable being approached by or talking to a guy. I use that. I like when I put men on the spot, so they confront what it means to talk to another man, in a non-macho way.

You can’t break through the machoness sometimes. It’s like, hey, I just want to chill out and have a beer and talk about whatever, I don’t want to talk about the fucking Americas football team, it’s always such a superficial conversation. And the photo within five minutes can break all that down.

In a way when you have someone in front of the camera, there’s definitely that tension, men and women. All our insecurities, all our hang-ups come down, and you play with that a little bit. Those themes I’m still trying to figure out, myself, as a photographer.

f: Is there any model for this project, of other photographers that have done selection and edit-based work or presented bodies of found photography? Have you found an interest in transforming the images as part of the creation of the project, either physically or in how they’re presented?

MP: Yeah, that’s kind of the shame of it sometimes. I feel like, just putting it in a gallery...what’s that? Basically I’m just collecting these right now. Maybe in terms of thinking this would be a good fit for the gallery, if I presented it really nice...but I go to a lot of shows where you just loose the [individual] works in the show.

Usually I get really excited after I’ve taken a good photograph, and then the last element of showing it really doesn’t excite me as much as I thought it would.

Vernacular photography always excited me. I have a big collection of photo albums. In Detroit I find attics full of photographs people left behind, I have boxes and boxes of photographs, and I’m just too lazy to go through them all. The Internet’s kind of a nice, easy way of looking at work, and organizing and contemplating it. This is my first opportunity to do something that I’ve always been interested in.

Edited for length and clarity.