CLICK AND COLLECT FROM OUR BRIGHTON SHOP
FRAMING AVAILABLE IN STORE

In 2011 a group of Magnum photographers set out from Austin, Texas in an RV and took to the open roads headed for California. Together, in a photographic experiment to share ideas, experiences and imagery, they photographed the American landscapes and people, capturing a nuanced portrait of America, while challenging the notion of photography as a solitary pursuit.

Out of this first journey, Postcards From America was born. This great Magnum photographic road trip has seen eighteen photographers contribute over the last five years, and is one of the largest and most inclusive projects Magnum have ever produced. Throughout the project the photographers worked in small groups, and in doing so celebrated the past that Magnum was built on, from its simple beginnings as a small group of friends photographing subjects that interested them.

They also fully embraced Magnum’s future, posting the images in real time on their Postcards Tumblr site, making the work immediate and accessible. An acknowledgment of the world this historic photo agency now lives in. Collectively theses images demonstrate the energy still behind Magnum, seventy years on.

They Made This spoke to Magnum photographer Mark Power recently about the Postcards From America series. We chatted about his approach to the Postcards trips, playing with the supposed truth of the documentary image, embracing new ways of working, capturing the state of the US economy, his new found love of panoramas, the spirit of the Postcard series and how he is not yet finished photographing America.

Can you tell me how Postcards From America was born? I believe it was initiated by a small group of Magnum photographers ?
About five years ago a group of us were decrying the fact that good documentary commissions were increasingly difficult to find. With the demise of magazines, the concept Magnum was built on – that a publication would commission or give a guarantee to a photographer with an interesting idea – has become a thing of the past. We were all trying to think of other ways of making the work we wanted to make without it costing a fortune.

 

There’s a tendency now for documentary photographers to speculatively make work, pay for it themselves, and hope to get something back in some form or other when finished. But this isn’t a very good business model. ‘Postcards’ is one way of addressing this.

The first trip consisted of five photographers, a group of friends and colleagues from Magnum who shared common interests. They drove an RV through the south west of America before reaching Oakland, California, where they produced a pop-up show of work made along the way and sold prints (cheaply) made (cheaply) by a local chemist. This helped, at least partially, to fund the trip. It was very energised and immediate, and not at all precious, which is part of the idea. Also, that first group were keen to see if social media could be used to build momentum behind the project.

So the photographers posted images live on a ‘Postcards’ Tumblr site while the project was underway?
Yes, on all the trips we were encouraged to post pictures as we were making them. We started to build an audience and an interest in what we were doing. The idea of sharing is very important part of the project, not only with an audience but also with each other. On every trip the photographers would often live in a shared house, coming together at the end of each day to show their new work.

 

Photography is usually a solitary activity but on Postcards we are all encouraged to share our ideas and experiences while working together towards a common goal. Occasionally we’d experiment by literally working together. Actually, that’s the key word; the whole thing is an experiment.

It feels like you and the other photographers were to some extent mourning the past while at the same time embracing the future.
Absolutely. That’s very perceptive; we were looking back while moving forward at the same time. We should never dismiss the past, otherwise we are constantly reinventing the wheel.

 

By the time Postcards is over, which will be very soon, about eighteen photographers from Magnum would have been involved, making it (I believe) the largest and most inclusive project the co-operative has ever produced. Some members have had a greater role than others but the range of photographers who’ve been involved is notable. I believe this is important for Magnum too.

In 2017 Magnum will celebrate its 70th birthday. With such a rich history, and an archive of photographs of major world events that is second-to-none, it’s perhaps even more important that we’re seen to be embracing new working methods and moving forward, rather than simply sitting on our laurels and living in the past. Because, make no mistake, Magnum is alive and kicking. We want to remain relevant for a young audience, and the (almost) 2 million followers Magnum has across Facebook, twitter and Instagram is, I think, testament to this. The last thing we want to be is elitist.

We’re lucky because there’ll be an exhibition and a book at the end of the Postcards journey, but there’ll also be community events happening outside the gallery. This is important to us because we don’t want to only appeal to a cultural elite. The work needs to reach as many of the people in our pictures as possible, which has been the spirit of the project right the way through.

One of the things I loved about your own Postcards series is your use of panoramas, particularly on your last two trips. Can you tell us a bit about this progression in your work ?
During the first Postcards trip I did, to Florida, I worked on my trusty large format 5 x 4 inch plate camera, something I’ve used for almost twenty years. But then I bought myself a state-of-the-art digital equivalent and I used that on my other two trips, to Milwaukee and Oklahoma/the Inland Empire. My new camera allows me to take two pictures side-by-side without moving it. I then choose the best ‘left’ and the best ‘right’ and stitch them together in Photoshop. I’m intentionally playing with the supposed veracity of the documentary image; my panoramas are made up of two separate moments brought together as one. In other words, what we see on both sides of the picture happened, but not necessarily at the same time. The scope of the images, which are without any distortion, perfectly suited the vast desert landscapes of California, which is where I used the technique most.

 

The camera is quite laborious and difficult to use, so I don’t take many pictures. Much of the editing is done in front of the subject rather than later, on a screen. It’s really very similar to using, and being spare with, film.

How did the group fund a project of this scale ?
We came up with various ways of paying our expenses (none of us have received a fee) for each chapter of Postcards. As well as the pop-up show in Oakland, the first project became a whacky publication, a box with numerous items inside from books to bumper stickers. On the second trip, to Rochester, New York (the home of Kodak) each photographer in the group was asked to produce 100 pictures to create an enormous archive of 1000 images, produced in an edition of 5. This too raised some money.

 

Our third trip, the first I was directly involved with, was to Florida. At the end of that we produced a magazine we called ‘Swapshop’, which sold very well. A further chapter was the result of a commission from the Milwaukee Art Museum for a group to photograph Wisconsin. The curator, Lisa Sutcliffe, completely understood the spirit of Postcards and gave us complete freedom to do whatever we wanted. Before we’d even arrived they’d committed to purchase a number of prints from us and to create a proper museum show within eight weeks of the project ending. It was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed exhibitions the Museum have ever had; the energy of the whole experience was clear for all to see on the gallery walls.

There’ve been other increasingly innovative schemes to fund our expenses ever since.

Are you going to have a final exhibition of all the Postcards Series ?
The exhibition of the whole Postcards project will open in early 2017 at Pier 24 in San Francisco. It’s the largest photography museum in the world and we’re going to fill all seventeen galleries. Also, in Autumn 2016, Aperture will publish the book. So it’s likely that Postcards will become even bigger than it is now.
I know some have compared Postcards from America to the FSA project of the 1930s. It does follow in the tradition of a group of photographers going out to document a part of America at a very particular period of time. (The FSA was formed by a group of photographers including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Walker Evans who photographed America during the depression)
Yes, I understand the comparison, but a big difference is that we were not commissioned by the government. And neither did we have a Roy Stryker figure telling everyone where to go and what to photograph. We’ve probably covered a greater area than the FSA did too, although it’s important to understand that we weren’t trying to show the whole of America. We weren’t chasing news events either.

 

Some critics have asked where, for instance, are the pictures of the Ferguson riots. But that’s really not what the project is about; there are plenty of other photographers covering those kind of stories, after all. We are individually looking at aspects of America largely overlooked by the media, but these collectively fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to create a much bigger picture. Therefore I would say that the events in Ferguson are, indirectly, in our pictures. You can see racial and social tension bubbling away under the surface of a lot of the work the photographers have made. You don’t need to have a picture of a man running through the streets with an incendiary device in order to talk about current racial tensions in America.

Many of the photographers reinvented themselves for each Postcards trip. What was your approach to the postcard series ?
As I said, my first trip was to Florida. We purposefully went during the lead-up to the US elections since it is a key swing-state which has had, shall we say, an ‘interesting’ relationship to the election in recent history. There was, naturally, much debate about the state of the economy and I wanted to see if it was possible to photograph this, and in particular the use and ownership of land, by photographing landscapes. It’s been said that Postcards has politicised me, which is not quite true, but I can see the work I’ve done is more angry, and less objective, than I’ve made before.

 

It’s been wonderful to be part of a group of friends, who all have respect for each other, collectively working towards a common goal. So much of what I normally do is made by myself, which can often feel rather lonely, so it’s been a really positive experience for me.

Many of us involved in Postcards have begun American projects we’d like to pursue beyond the Pier 24 show, including myself. Right now I’m investigating ways to finance going back to America and continuing with much the same ideas.

Postcards from America, published by Aperture, is out in Autumn 2016. The final exhibition will open in early 2017 at Pier 24 in San Francisco, California.

Previous Article Next Article

Recently Viewed

Sign up for our newsletter
Be the first to see our latest print releases, offers and competitions. We promise not to email you that much!
No thanks