The Magnum member and University of Brighton professor talks to IdeasMag about how knowing the history of the medium and embracing your influences will help you to become a better photographer...
I did a fine art degree and when I left in 1981 I went travelling for two years.
I worked my way around south-east Asia, India and China, ending up in Australia and New Zealand. I took a sketchbook with me, and a cheap £50 camera, and started taking pictures. When I came back, they were exhibited. It gave me that boost in my confidence to think, “Maybe I can do this”. I was a real rookie – and in those days I thought this was an advantage. I thought because I didn’t know what had happened in the past, photographically speaking, then I wouldn’t be influenced and could make my own work. Nowadays I see how nonsensical that is.
Don’t be afraid of being deeply influenced by others whose work you like because ultimately your own voice will come out. I often find myself trying to be Walker Evans, but it's impossible because I'm not Walker Evans, and I’m not working in ’30s America. I suppose I have a certain style, for want of a better word, but I’ve had to work to get there by borrowing from other people, understanding the history and not reinventing the wheel.
From that point of view, formal education is good because if you go to a good college then you’ll be introduced to all of this and you’ll be able to have a sense of where you fit into that continuum. If you don’t go to college, somehow or other you’ve got to do that for yourself – you’ve got to read books, go to exhibitions, you’ve got to have some grasp of some of the theory behind the practice. You should revel in the idea that you know where you fit.
When I started there were very few photography courses and galleries. There was a problem trying to exhibit your work if you were also having your pictures published in the newspaper – you were seen as commercial. It was a big moment when Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize and the next day went and shot an advert for Nike, because it made it possible that photography could be commercial and also deeply philosophical and personal.
Patience is important. The history of photography is littered with people who were successful after one project and couldn‘t deal with the pressures that came with that. I’m a photographer because first and foremost I love what I do. Any success that might come along with that is wonderful, but it’s incidental.
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.
All images © Mark Power.
Mark Power was speaking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.
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