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Discussion: Mark Alor Powell

I don’t know how best to introduce this next interview, other than to say, if you appreciate photography, you should be glad a digital camera made it into the hands of Mark Alor Powell (website / flickrstream). Mark makes photographs of Detroit and Mexico City, and his work has widened my eyes considerably over the last few years.

Mark’s photos prove there are still new ways to address concerns that have engaged photographers since the beginning. When. How. Why. What for. His pictures are street photos and stoop photos and photos inside where-the-heck-am-I places. They’re honest recordings of people in the kinds of hidden spaces that exist behind rundown buildings, down paths you haven’t yet taken — somewhere near the crossroads of access and insight. I’m glad I got the chance to pose a few questions to Mark, and am grateful for the time he took in crafting his response. 2point8 in bold.

Detroit vs. Mexico City. Your photographs from both places are remarkably similar. Planet Powell, almost. The pictures are a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, regardless of whether they’re from the States or Mexico. Can you talk a bit about what each place means to your eye?

Detroit has so much imaginary space, most everything has been ravaged, stripped down in such a way that it is great to just be there and fill in these places that are looked upon as failures by most Americans, and photograph successfully on my own terms — using my imagination. For me Detroit is exotically dysfunctional. I love it and accept it for what it is.

There really isn’t any crowd to speak of in Detroit, so finding people and seeing them usually means they are contrasted heavily against backgrounds that are like nothing else one finds in normal “successful” US cities. Detroit’s space appeals to my own aesthetic of a person who grew up watching and loving apocalyptic films like Rollerball, Omega Man, West World, Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run. I really like to find myself in places that allow me to fantasize and let people move me to see their own expectations of themselves, within their reality, normal everyday things, then in turn creating new illusions and perspectives within an act of photography. Detroit makes this easy really, it gives me the feeling of “what happened here,” with its own lucid causes and effects of how the city has come to its current state. The city gives you a direct line to imagine it and see it–lots of useful “if onlys” and “what ifs” come to mind. It really appeals to my desire of seeing things otherworldly and fictional, a little like living inside an imaginary force field because once you cross Eight Mile, the city you feel and know as Detroit goes away.

Detroit really taught me to see things and people as temporary — eventually everything passes, becomes a ruin. Detroit is everywhere.

Mexico City is the polar opposite in terms of crowds, it is always full of people, so many personal realities mingling together can be rather confusing, hard to focus, yet certain scenarios, “the way I am seeing” patterns are always emerging for me and I like to see people the way they fall into place in terms of how I may be feeling on any given day. Wandering through Mexico City, its vastness of humanity and extremely dense scenes, is not unlike destinies of paths crossed between subject and photographer; it feels a lot like consciousness itself the way the city flows and presents itself to you.

My mood tends to manifest itself here more, turn outward — Mexico City can match any thought and offer it up anytime for examination and contemplation photographically — right in front of you really, you’ve just got to see it and feel it and be in touch with it internally. So really it is a lot more about receptive choice in Mexico City. Lots of options, just like picking bright oranges.

Disco ball man. Blue tarp man with the hat. Very Important bra woman. Your portraits are portraits not only because they’re often close-ups of faces, but because of what surrounds the subject; their environment. Do you pass-up photographing people who aren’t in intriguing settings?

I like to think that a setting becomes intriguing after the fact and seeing it later as a picture. When I pass up something it is usually because I’m not seeing it or feeling it or just plain have missed it.

The Very Important Bra woman photo is a lady that used to hang out behind the metal shop I worked at in Detroit. The bushes and trees in the background were places where she would have sex with people for money — she was the neighborhood whore. There are all these abandoned lots in Detroit; nature has reclaimed them, New Edens in abundant patches are reclaiming the city. The idea that she was having sex behind the shop was a little bizarre and I liked the setting for what it could offer as a photograph and commentary. I went out there to talk to her one day and she wanted to show me her goods, I didn’t really want her to go all the way because the picture would have become a little too obvious in her nudity, I liked the out of context result of seeing her in the black bra. It keeps the picture wider open for interpretation.

Disco Ball picture is of a gardener in Coyoacan — I see him often, and he and I are pretty good friends. In the garden, there just happens to be a lot of disco balls lying around because his boss produces events and puts on a lot of parties. One day we were talking about how he keeps in such great shape, he started showing me his exercises and I couldn’t resist having him show me near the disco balls. I like that the woodpile where the ball rests seems a little crushed, as if the ball came crashing down from the sky. It answers some compositional questions for me. The photo also has some very folkloric religious styling, yet without the prerequisite Virgin of Guadalupe you see in a lot of Mexican documentary photography. At the time I was using my canon G2 doing a lot of shots while not looking at how the picture was composed inside the screen, trying to discover interesting accidents.

The Blur Tarp Man was as simple as seeing him walking along from across the street. It just started to rain and I went running behind him, I got lucky with all the blue in the setting. I like that it is from behind, he becomes universal and can represent all the campesinos coming into the city to work or beg. A kind of country-meets-city super hero.

What I appreciate most about your images is that they’re decidedly “of the street” but they don’t look like they’re hit and runs; you’re clearly spending time with people. In fact, many of the portraits are indoors, as if you’ve been welcomed inside by these fantastic subjects into these remarkable interiors. There’s a layer of visible trust in the photos. Can you talk a bit about how you go about creating this?

I try to make people feel good about themselves. I like to tell little white lies to get into situations, using compliments and stuff. I just try to make people feel comfortable. I use anything to keep the focus off being photographed. I’ll tell people that I love their necklace or their shirt, or the painting on their wall, or say I got a pet just like theirs, or tell them about my uncle back home, I got to take a picture for my uncle, please, he has to see this. I’ve found that when a picture is meant for someone else, people seem to think it is all right for you to take it. Recently, I’ve been answering ads in classified listings and pretending to buy whatever they are selling, just to get inside places that would be impossible to discover otherwise. If I can’t make an impression right off, I suppose I could fall on traditional approaches, introduce myself, take no pictures, ask formal permission. I could always go back. People are always happier to see you a second time, right? Surprisingly I rarely go back, it just wasn’t meant to be. Though, if I can make a picture the first time, I like to go back and explore more. I really try not to force matters and just go with the flow.

Last year, Bob Dylan said he doesn’t give away his secrets. All of us have particular ways of working, and some of those we keep close to our chests. Your images stand out because they’re so different from ninety-nine percent of what’s out there. What do you think you’re doing differently from everyone else?

I don’t think I have any secrets, but what I do have is passion and a craving curiosity for adventure. I think the kind of photography I’m doing is fueled by my own personality. It becomes less about technique and more about expression and experiences. Everybody has their own deep choices they make while photographing.

This photo was taken in Iztacalco, Mexico City. I was visiting a friend, and on his street in front of his house, I noticed this taxi driver in a towel. It was in the middle afternoon so it was quite odd to see him there. This shot had no interaction on my part, in fact I had to be quick, so I took a hip shot. I saw the KISS t-shirt, but didn’t see the man with a handcart until afterwards. Iztacalco is one of those places that seem like everybody is sleeping inside their apartments, taking long siestas, not a lot of people on the streets, so situations really stand out over there.

This is from a series of photos I did showing American ex-pats living in Mexico City and who I had met through American Benevolent Society. Adam was battling schizophrenia and had a mouth full of bad teeth. We played pool together every Thursday and I volunteered to keep him company and talk with him. I helped organize a dentist for him to get dentures and went with him several times, held his hand until he was comfortable with the final painful procedure when the dentist pulled out some really black stumps. The photograph is from his last appointment when he finally got his teeth–it is really about him being reborn, seeing himself with a proper smile for the first time in fifteen years. I like this photo because it is ominous with the red reflected two-sided mirror, kind of him confronting his demons — he was often delusional about “lights, words, photographs” as he would call it. The police were spying on him; words would appear on his apartment walls, people were photographing him with bright flashes while he was sleeping. He told me he trusted me only because I was an American.

I met John in my neighborhood one day; he was doing odd jobs, mowing laws and stuff. I actually had quit smoking for a few months, he offered me a nice Kool menthol, I took it, he started to tell me he wanted to kill his girlfriend, strangle her, she had kicked him out of the house down in Alabama and he then worked his way back up to Detroit where is mom was living. He was pretty heartbroken. After our meeting, I really never wanted to see him again; he kind of spooked me out with his talk of murder. Well, it didn’t turn out that way, I continued to see him around and I found he was just a chronic liar and a drama queen with really fucked up stories to tell, he just needed some attention and maybe someone to listen to him.

I was really fascinated with his stories, he’d tell me these amazing fabrications, for instance, how he was the only white guy in the Mexican Latin Counts gang in Detroit, or if I wanted anybody knocked off, he’d help me, or how he shot his brother’s leg off because he found out he was raping his stepdaughter — that was true I found out later. He also told me he found his brother dead of a heroin overdose and dumped the body in the Detroit River. Never found out if that was true or not.

One day he knocked on my door and asked me if I could help him with a photograph. He wanted a picture of himself dressed as Rambo in order to advertise his new business that he wanted to call Rambo Constructions, with the byline—”Discount for Teachers”. The introduction was all I needed to start photographing him.

I eventually began to trust him as a friend and invited him to live in my shed behind my house for a while, that’s where I kept some chickens and they made good company and some great photos. We used to barbecue together and drink beers in my backyard late at night. I’d say goodnight and he’d go back inside the shed until morning came when he’d knock on my backdoor to let me know he was up. He started bringing all this stuff to the shed that he’d found in the streets and inside abandoned buildings. He had a pretty large collection of stuff — old lawn mowers, dishes, rakes, broken flashlights, and started making a home out there.

John loved to be photographed and he was someone who cried and laughed a lot, got drunk a lot, made dramas. He especially liked to listen to that song “I Want to Know What Love Is”, and sang it like a sick Romeo, a real performer who wore his heart on his sleeve in front of the camera. He eventually moved into my unfinished kitchen, set up a little cot and then later moved upstairs into an extra room for around four months.

John took me to his mom’s apartment one day on Detroit’s Southwest side, they argued the whole time they were together. She listened to John with her hand in the air, directly in front of John’s face to block her view of him. Yet, I could tell John really loved his mom and his mom loved him. Saying goodbye, they gave each other a warm hug, then John reached into his bag and gave her a gold rimmed plate he found that week.

The photo was taken inside the elevator going down to the lobby, on the day I first met John’s mom.

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