Capturing Moments of Complete Disorientation: Interview with Mark Powell by Todd Gross

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Mark Powell. Belle Isle Detroit, 2007

Eric’s Note: I am excited to share this interview as a collaboration between Todd Gross (Quarlo) and Mark Powell (locaburg). I first discovered Mark Powell’s work through Todd Gross- who has been a big fan. I thought it might be a great idea to have Todd interview Mark – as he knew his work far better than I did. Enjoy the interview and images below!

Todd: I’m pretty sure it was my friend, Eliot Shepard who first tipped me off to Mark Powell’s work on Flickr way back in 2004. I was immediately struck by the unique atmospherics and equally out there cast of characters present in the photos. Although I’m fairly certain Mark could point his camera at a blank wall and the resulting image would still have that “locaburg vibe”, Mark has an eye that’s finely attuned to the odd in-between moment.

I had the good fortune of meeting Mark on a couple of occasions and his personality certainly mirrors his work–vivacious, affable, inquisitive and a touch bent.

1) Can you tell us a little about your background? How you came to live in Mexico City.

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Mark Powell. Parque de Retiro, Madrid, 2009

I grew up in Bay City, Michigan, a small industrial town on the Saginaw Bay. It is also Madonna’s hometown.  Our mayor wanted to put up a statue of her downtown, that is until she called it a stinky little town in the armpit of Michigan. She blew it.

I later moved to Detroit and bought an old fixer upper house and was excited to be in the city. Soon after, I went on a 6-month trip to Mexico City to take pictures and it was there I met my future wife, Karina. I actually met her by ringing a wrong doorbell and while I was on a date with another girl. My date fell asleep and I got Karina’s number.  We soon got pregnant and made plans to have the baby settle down and live in Detroit. Before the baby came, we decided briefly to go back to Mexico City to celebrate her belly, what we didn’t realize was that her 10-year tourist visa had just expired.

When we arrived at the Detroit airport we split up along the corresponding immigration channels, I waited for her outside the terminal, but she never came out on the other side. I found out later that she had been arrested and put in jail. She spent the night in a concrete cell with a drunk Red Wings fan who had thrown a beer bottle at a hockey player. In the morning she was taken to the airport, on the way the cop stopped at a McDonald’s to get her a chocolate shake, and that quickly she was deported back to Mexico City.

I figured a bigger hand of destiny was telling me, boy, you need to get back to Mexico. It took me a couple months to scrape enough money together and I eventually made it down in time to see the birth of my son.

I feel fortunate for this because it basically has defined myself and my work in many positive ways being here in Mexico City. I have been here ten years now.

2) One of the hallmarks of your work is that unlike most street photographers, you are less concerned with candid moments and instead concentrate on portraits in one form or another. How did you arrive at this way of working?

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Mark Powell. Hotel Prim, La Juarez, Mexico City, 2010

I think early on I fell into something that fits my personality. I like meeting strangers and striking up conversations, getting invited to see otherwise hidden places. The idea of candid moments can be quite flexible and there seems to be a wide spectrum of possibilities in this way of working.  When you are in front of someone a curtain of happenstance often opens, it is unpredictable, it is that unexpected thing that can happen when being with somebody.

Early on, I took a workshop with the photographer Marc Wise while studying at the University of Michigan. He made this amazing book called “Truck Stop,” while on a Guggenheim grant. The first day of class he brought his prints to show the class, they were a rich and personalized, he told us detailed stories for each photograph and how he dropped everything to go to trucking school and just dedicate his life to taking pictures.  Marc suggested to the class that we take a field trip somewhere and I told him we should go to Flint, Michigan. We all got in a van, and just before arriving to downtown I remember asking the driver to stop in the middle of the hood. The doors slid open, I jumped out like I had a parachute on my back.

I ended up walking a few blocks and meeting some unemployed autoworkers drinking OE800 40´s on a wide wood porch.  We all started having a good time together and I began to photograph. I stayed there the whole day. This interaction sort of became a pattern for me. I wanted to bring home my own stories. With a camera you get a big foot in the door and a great pass on life and it is rather addicting.

I don’t know what ever happened to Marc Wise, he never made another book. If anyone knows, please let me know. I would love to tell him thank you.

3) You are often able to conjure an otherworldly and spontaneous feel even with set-up portraits. How do you reckon you are able to achieve the “locaburg aura”?

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Mark Powell. Temple Aragón, Mexico City, 2007

I think that it is an imaginative finesse thing, like a little english on the pool cue. You kind of go in there and feel it out and play your camera. It is a little like hammering tin around something, not be too self-conscious of what you want and just try to feel it out and let the camera do most the work– it is important later for the ability to recognize those intuitive grasps towards the subject matter and be true to your natural voice and make an edit.

I am still confused when I get in front of something. The best pictures come from those moments of complete disorientation but briefly seeing that possibility that wants to be expressed.

4) Describe a typical day of yours that’s devoted to photography.

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Mark Powell. Waiter, Acapulco, 2009

Lately, I have been focusing  on specific places. I have been recently visiting this vast and dated sculpture garden at the University here in Mexico City. It is this huge stoners paradise, where kids get off on the trippiness of the place, it is full of little oxidized piss corners and make out spots.

It is kind of a cliche and and a big draw and place that people like to photograph, but I think it hasn’t been juiced yet the way I want to see it. It can offer an opportunity to skew the sculpture garden a little out of context and kind of see it in another way and find these tight and weird stories that can be created.

I like it because it is kind of mythological and idealized place, the sculpture temporarily houses people in a weird way and I want to visit this place in my photographs. I love how Tod Papagoerge´s “Central Park” series stayed around one theme for a while, but made this whole universe of pictures that in the end exist separate from the place and everything is re-imagined and fresh.

5) From what I can tell, you’ve been posting your work online regularly for almost a decade (I urge readers to get comfortable in a nice chair with a cold tasty beverage and take a walk through Mark’s stream on Flickr), how do you keep yourself motivated? Do you have to push yourself to find new subjects and situations or is the river pretty much always flowing through Powellville?

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Mark Powell. Bus Station, Flint, Michigan, 2012

I constantly have to push myself without feeling pushed. I have been editing my second book and this is a nice timeout. To sit down and sift through work is pretty painful, especially if you are creating a 50-60 image edit. I often say to myself: Is that it? What am I doing?

But to edit really breathes new life into me as well, it is a chance to put all the work and say goodbye to old work and meet future possibilities, see things differently out in the world. There is a good dimensional shift that comes out from editing something. I really notice the weight come off and this breathes new passion.

6) How have your working methods changed over time?

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Mark Powell. Pereira, Colombia, 2011

I think when I was first starting out I had this big horizontal of potential vision in front of me, it didn’t matter where I went, I would find things and be happy with the results. Now, I have to be a little more disciplined about my choices and organized as waves of pictures come to me. I want to practice more related pictures and tie my work together, concentrate on certain places and make good group edits.

I’m also a working photographer and have to devote a great deal of time doing things for other people–I really admire photographers who carry their vision through to whatever they do, if it is a commercial job or commission it just has the same voice–this is my ultimate goal.

7) I know you sometimes make appointments with your subjects. Describe an encounter that turned out completely different from what you had expected.

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Mark Powell. Norteños, Iztapalapa, Mexico City, 2007

I once met this clandestine street fighter who confided in me that he fought people in empty swimming pools in the north of the city for large sums of money. He told me the fights would often end to the point of death. His face had these signs of scars and extreme knocks.  I had these grandiose ideas of doing some type of documentary about him. I imagined, I would go to these fights and shoot the people and make these astounding revelations about his lifestyle.

I started hanging out with him and realized the total unstable nature and how impossible the whole endeavor would be. He was a raging alcoholic and loved anything that had to do with Spiderman, plus really, there was no way I could photograph it unless I had a hidden camera.

I took some good portraits of him and became satisfied with the results without ever seeing him fight. I sort of rejected the idea of project generated photography or the grand “idea” coming before the pictures– it was too calculating and against what was most natural to me. I suppose, I kind of regret not going to those fights, though, without my camera.

8) Can you tell us a little bit about your show Fotonautas (that’s right folks–Mark hosts his own fricken photo-centric TV show!) on the History Channel America Latina? How you got involved and what you’ve learned from this experience as a photographer?

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Mark Powell. El Parque La Bombilla, Mexico City, 2007

One day out of the blue I got a call to go to a casting in Mexico City. When I arrived to the casting studio, I decided to take the video people out with me on a street photo shoot, I managed to get into this building nearby where an old eccentric lady painted gold angels on her walls with finger paint. I got some good pictures and showed them a little how I worked and how a sort of congenial collaboration could be made into a performance.

Well, the next thing I know I am on a plane to Buenos Aires to talk to producers for History Channel Latin America for a new concept within the channel called History Travel. It depicted this photographer, in reality-docu style, who collects old cameras, takes pictures, barters prices and interacts with collectors throughout Latin America. There are also these glorified TV adventures of me skydiving, doing motocross, racecar driving and even going down in the sea in a Peruvian navy submarine. Think Indiana Jones meets Henri Cartier Bresson meets Pawn Stars.

My show just got cancelled. We made two seasons. In the end, it was cheaper for History to just buy American shows and dub them in Spanish. There are fewer pure Latin American content and productions being made these days.

9) What’s the riskiest thing you’ve done to get the photo you wanted? Was it worth it?

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Mark Powell. Xolo, Iztapalapa, Mexico City, 2011

I can only think that making a TV show was a pretty big risk for me in that it took me way out of my element and I had to be this make believe character in a huge make believe world. It was a battle to let myself psychologically focus enough to get my own photography and let it play out naturally.

I think I also had this deceptive and self-conscious idea that I could get all these pictures from the experience and it could play out to a project about the absurdity of Reality TV, but in the end it was just like any other experience and I had to be gentle and sincere with my understanding of the things presented in front of me. It was confusing and exciting at the same time.

Since I have been out of TV, it has taken a little time to readjust and I think making television is kind of a war-like experience–it messes with you.  Lately, I have had to re-evaluate the steadiness of my day-to-day “normal” experiences and get back into focus, it definitely has made me take a second look and I hope I can generate good work now and be a stronger photographer.

10) How much of your time is devoted to photography? Could you use more?

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Mark Powell. Celaya, Mexico, 2011

I try to go out and photograph at least twice a week both inside and outside work. More than time, I just need the motivating wind to carry me across material. Sometimes there is no wind. I feel nothing.

But, just the act of getting out is good and I am not even concerned if I get pictures. It has been slow lately. I usually solve this with exercise or simply drinking a little mezcal, anything to knock my head a little to feel the world again.

11) What advice would you give to someone just starting to photograph, who wants to carve a unique style for themselves like you done?

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Mark Powell. Aguilas, Iztapalapa, Mexico City, 2008

I think good advice is to take risks with your photographs and be a rebel and have the ability to be aware of those seductive things photographers often fall into.

Recently, I told a student to be aware pictures that trap you, make you feel like a zombie and pull you down. The student had a lot of pictures of saturated color carousels. I made a zombie voice for him:  “Look at the pretty horses, me take picture… I like.”  We laughed and he already knew that he had to break that spell.

The first year living in Mexico, I went to a portfolio review and as I waited my turn I sat between two other photographers. I asked the photographer to my left what kind work he was doing and he proceeded to show me a giant portfolio of midgets. There were midgets eating, midgets in bathrooms, midgets in their cars with their custom boosters, midgets having sex. It was all good technically, solid work, but I couldn’t help but think how mindlessly the photographer was pulled into this project, like it was a massive Jupiter and he had no ability to resist or recognize he was being thrown into seductive and powerful gravity.

After looking at all his midgets, I turned to the other photographer to my right and ask what kind of work she was doing, she looked at me with a  deflated nod and said slowly that she was working on a project about midgets too. She kept her fingers tight against her portfolio and didn’t even bother showing me.

Huge thanks to Todd Gross for conducting this interview with Mark! See some of Todd’s work on Tumblr and Flickr. Also follow him on Twitter

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Also huge congratulations to Mark Powell for winning the Ibero-American RM Editorial Fotolibro Competition for his new book, “Open at Noon“!

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