When I first looked at Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings in March 2015 (here and here) I was primarily interested in how he approached composition and looking back now I realise how much I took from the way in which he gives the viewer space to enter and explore his photographs. Allowing the audience that space is a common feature of many of the gentler documentarists whose work interests me. It reminds me of a comment by Stephen Shore:
“(There) can be one of a number of points of interest, so that the viewer, instead of being directed, is given a small world in which they can explore …. which is so much better than my saying ‘look at it’ “” (1)
The idea of each photograph being a small world waiting to be explored is an apt description of 26 Different Endings (2) and particularly appropriate given this series is an explorer’s visual diary. In Spring 2003 Power was idly looking at his copy of the London A-Z whilst picnicking at Hampton Court when he realised that the field he was sitting in was just included in that atlas whereas the next field was not. Somewhat surprisingly this is a arbitrary delineation of London, each year the publisher decides the overall scope of the atlas so these marginal places drift in and out of, what many would see as, the definitive map of London. Interestingly Power sees this as being judgemental, inclusion being a prize, exclusion creating an “unfortunate place”, a non place perhaps. (4)
Over the course of three years Power made day trips to the fifty-six pages that represent the edges of the map’s coverage and photographed what lay beyond, “those places unlucky enough to fall just off the edge” (3) finally editing them into series of twenty-six (there’s that number again).
The Oxford Dictionary defines a suburb as the residential areas of a city so if the London A-Z delineates that city these twenty-six places are beyond suburbia, the fringe of the fringe where London finally peters out and some other place begins; what Power has recorded suggests that beyond the map there is often an urban desert. Sometimes the residential streets continue to push out into the home counties but the houses are not just soulless but apparently dormant, their occupants hidden from view or absent, perhaps somewhere inside London’s perimeter. In many cases he found the edge-lands, dead spaces where cars are dumped or where mysterious light industrial units spring up, sites that are home to strange businesses whose purpose is obscure, perfect sets for a remake of the Sweeney where police cars can comfortably chase around deserted vehicle parks.
Power describes these locations:
“There was a palpable tragedy in those places I photographed. A bleak landscape of grey-brick, mud, tarmac, skin- a mind numbing blandness” (3)
Any document of this nature is highly subjective, the photographer’s selection of light, subject and frame dictating the meanings we are likely to find in the work. Power chose to work on grey days with flat even light, the inference being that the sun never shines in these marginal places; there are no people despite every landscape being dominated by their presence and the spaces are often desolate and deserted, the function of the man-made structures not just obscure but redundant. His approach is unlikely to have misrepresented these places but it has ensured the message of their blandness is not lost on the viewer.
I share Power’s interest in how two dimensional maps translates into a three dimensional landscapes, I too can only make sense of a place after studying its representation on a map but more than this maps of un-visted places are exciting; I read and interpret the cartographer’s symbols in the hope of discovering unique landscapes, architectural treasures, a secret forest or hidden lake. Give me a map and I become an explorer planning an expedition to fill in the blank spaces with new information.
Britain is so well mapped by the remarkable Ordnance Survey and now by Google Earth with its robot-eyed Street View apparently revealing every nook and cranny of our islands that the opportunity to find blank spaces, unrecorded details, exciting new information seems a fruitless task.
However, as Power shows, the world is full of details beyond the reach of Street View, of fluid and ever changing information that escapes the cartographer’s notes, postdates the satellite’s pass and places that the Google Car will never visit. In this series, on the fringes of Britain’s biggest city Power finds what David Chandler calls “functional landscapes”, “areas of piecemeal planning, free from architectural invention” (2); this is true but it is also a landscape of broken dreams, of events that never lived up to expectations.
The fixtures and fitting of a house, once a home, unceremoniously crammed into a lockup garage, a bath, kitchen hob, oven and cupboards mixed with anonymous bags and boxes filed with once treasured possessions now cascade from the open mouth of the garage onto the deserted tarmac parking area. The garage itself is one of four, the others boarded up and abandoned, the trees behind slowly being swallowed by a rampaging climber whose dense web of tendrils catches expanded polystyrene that has tried to escape the scene.
How many shattered or forgotten dreams does this scene record? The garages constructed from pebble dashed concrete, prefabricated for council estates in the fifties and sixties to house Ford Prefects and Anglias speak of an optimistic age when people who had never travelled far, unless it was to war, could now own a car so estates built with no drives or lay-bys added these ugly concrete boxes with their up-and-over metal doors on the fringes of the housing, a location that, as times changed became vulnerable to vandals or graffiti artists and now fly-tippers.
A deserted and semi-derelict tennis court, a scrap yard pilled with the evidence of crashes and pile-ups, retired buses parked beneath towers of shipping containers suggesting that the number 6 is now destined for the third-world rather than Willesden, a field of tyres and rusted car wrecks and a housing estate with boarded-up homes protected by official signs and a rusted gate. Each picture documents the end-game, the last rites for yet another great idea, the court built to bring the privileged sport of lawn tennis to the aspirational suburbs, the homes built for heroes, the industrial buildings that offered employment now fading back into the landscape.
Hidden amongst this narrative of abandoned futures are hints of hopeful people, little statements of individuality in a landscape of grey monotony. The shiny, crystal clean caravans parked in a sad, rundown, suburban cul-de-sac hint of weekends away, escapes to green fields and meaningful landscapes with fresh un-pasteurised milk purchased from the farmer’s door. The soulless and brutal brick blocks of flats decorated with a waterfall of petunias transforming their faceless and anonymous facades into a statement of optimism expressed in shades of purple and red.
As Power himself points out, studies of the edge lands that surround our cities are not unusual, but the unique aspect of this series is the sense of a place petering out, of London running out of energy as it seeps further and further from Marble Arch. The depressing thought is that in a decade or less Power’s twenty-six endings will have be subsumed into a re-energised urban sprawl and the margins will have been pushed further towards the M25 and beyond.
(2) Power, Mark (2007) 26 Different Endings. Manchester: Photoworks
(1) Ryan, Meg (2016) The Venerable Stephen Shore Shares Wisdom Through The Lens of His Latest Project (accessed at American Photo 18.5.16) – http://www.americanphotomag.com/venerable-stephen-shore-shares-wisdom-through-lens-his-latest-project
(3) Power, Mark (2014) Mark Power: 26 Different Endings (accessed at Bleek Magazine 13.8.16) – http://bleek-magazine.com/stories/mark-power/
(4) Power, Mark (2007) 26 Different Endings. Manchester (accessed at the Photograoher’s website 13.8.16) – http://www.markpower.co.uk/projects/26-DIFFERENT-ENDINGS