The dream springs eternal. Hit the highway (preferably along fabled Route 66) and discover America. Jack Kerouac did it, so did Robert Frank . . . Wait, I already opened a review with those three sentences, writing about She Dances on Jackson by Vanessa Winship, and not that long ago.
Well, evidently the dream does spring eternal, for here we go again. This time it’s a book by Magnum photographer Mark Power called Good Morning, America, Volume One, from GOST Books, in which he courses the highways and byways of the U.S., circa 2012 to early 2018. That is: America today.
Or at least one version. That’s the thing with calling a book Good Morning, America; you’re pretty much announcing that you’re setting out to take in the whole broad country in your fifty-seven photos. Inevitably you find certain aspects of America, which you depict instead of the vast number of other possible takes. And more, you set yourself a nearly (post–Robert Frank) impossible task. So what does this photographer think America is? What’s he trying to say?
With Frank’s Americans, it’s not clear he’s trying to say anything other than: I spent two years driving the country with my wife and children on a Guggenheim grant, there are all kinds of people in America, and here are eighty-three amazing photographs of them. With Power (and Winship, and other chroniclers), it’s not always clear what the photographer is trying to say, though at least the underlying feeling is that Power is trying to say something.
One photo to consider for this is … well, side note first: The book is big, each page 9.5 by 12.5 inches. Photos are often stretched across both pages, and a number of them fold open with a leaf to be approximately 12 by 20 inches. These are nearly gallery-sized photos.
The shot I’m going to first is a two-pager, a suburban road in Memphis. Looming large in its center is a worn, rusted sign for METRO SHOPPING PLAZA. The neon that once lit up the letters is gone. Lower down on the same sign is a straightforward THINK GOD! To the sign’s left is a brand-new-looking ACE LOANS/CHECKS CASHED/DEBIT CARDS/PAY BILLS sign. That’s basically what this photo seems intent on showing us; its raison d’être. America is falling apart, religion-addled, and nearly bankrupt. But is that all there is? Well, down the road is a thriving Checkers fast food joint and other suburban establishments, and right across the street is a new-looking elementary school. With its stripes of red brick and stone, it actually looks like a school you might be happy your kids go to. But in Power’s composition of the photograph, Larose Elementary School looks like something that just happens to be in the picture. It’s hard not to focus on the bankrupt shopping plaza, the Bible Belt sentiment, and the quick loans for people drowning in debt … ah, America.
How bad are things in Power’s vision of the nation? Well, how about the dead cat in a plastic Western Family grocery bag left to rot in a clearly polluted stream. How about prickly bramble bushes rushing up to and nearly swallowing a yellow house most notable for the fact every window in it is busted out. How about a water-warped hymnal cast out in fall leaves, open to the song “Holy, Holy, Holy.” How about a vinyl Stars and Stripes flag twisting above a shadowy green background.
All these photos are in Good Morning, America. And they all contribute to its tone of quiet despair. But there are certainly many other types of shots. Power seems intrigued by the range of flora throughout the States, and in truth it’s difficult to ascribe intention to photos simply of trees and bushes. So maybe the photographer just likes his out-and-out country shots. Weeping willows in Louisiana. A scatter of rotting oranges inside an orange barn. A scraggly, barren tree in Oklahoma. And, more interesting, an actual pine tree in front of a wall-sized mural depicting a forest of pines and other trees.
In its play of actual and depicted, that last picture has an understated wit about it—a wit that’s apparent in some of the other shots too. There’s a photograph of a prominent sign proclaiming SI LOS AMAS DEJA DE FUMAR (Quit Smoking for the Ones You Love!). Guess what: it only takes a few moments to find, among the four people waiting for a bus, the one stocky guy drawing on a cigarette. And one of my favorites: a Loan Max store high atop a maze of climbing white stairways so intimidating as to make you consider eviction rather than CASH LOANS ON CAR TITLES, as the sign atop the building offers.
Then there’s the opening photo, which looms symbolically over the book: a picture of train tracks in another thick forest, the tracks forking left and right, directly before us. Is Power suggesting that America itself is at a critical historical fork, having to choose one direction or another? Well, just read the news every day and answer that one for yourself.
Which means that politics as practiced in the Trump years is not absent from Good Morning, America. There’s a photo of a sign attached to a trailer that reads “One Bad Ass Mistake America … Repeal Obama Care.” Two photos down we have an office building door under a window professionally painted with the words “Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder”—as in, what the hell kind of business is this? Perhaps one run by whoever lives in the one-story foundationless home in the middle of nowhere with the Confederate flag covering a window. Nope, no shots of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in this volume.
But here a question presents itself about the book’s title. Is the British-born Power playing on the ABC network morning show, “Good Morning, America,” ironically, suggesting that there are few good mornings left for this country? Or are we in fact expected to see actual hope rising amidst the sweep of despair in his book (like the silver-embossed sun wedge on the cover)?
There are strong photos in the book, no question, but I’m not sure how many will stick with me. Here’s what I mean. I’ve probably looked at Stephen Shore’s famous Chevron station in L.A. at Beverly and La Brea a hundred times in books or at the MOMA show last spring … and I’ve never gotten tired of it, nor felt I’d even half-begun to understand what makes the photograph so endlessly intriguing. So I’m looking right now at Power’s photo of a nondescript street corner in Milwaukee. It’s an overcast day, rain on the ground. A prominent street light is green; the red number of seconds left to walk across the street is at thirteen. There’s a man waiting at the corner to cross the street, another walking toward us fifty feet back, and a gray car parked behind a bus stop to our right. That’s about it. The photo may reward a longer look, but I’m not sure how often I’ll want to come back to it. What makes the Shore photo timeless is that everything in it feels exactly right, as in: How did Shore capture this banal street corner at that exact moment when every part of the picture suddenly belongs together? Power’s street corner doesn’t capture that unexpected sense of accord. Indeed, I just put my finger over the guy standing at the corner, or the parked car, and arguably it’s a better photo.
There are photos I like better, though. One has another thick forest, a tall telephone pole dead center, and stuck onto it are seven stuffed animals. Right there in the middle of nowhere. Some odd back-country rite? Something to scare away actual animals? Or???
Another nice one, with some historical reference: a shot of the flat front of a shut-down shop, newspapers taped to the window, and next to it a wide-open barber shop, a man shadowed in the doorway checking his phone. At the exact juncture of the two shops is an American flag; to the right, on the other side of the door, is a red-white-and-blue barber pole. And in front of the closed-up shop are four modernist plastic chairs, topped with bird’s feet, incongruous furniture in shades of strawberry, orange, lemon, and lime. This picture has a Walker Evans Depression-era storefront purity, as well as the Robert Frank Stars and Stripes (nicely harmonized by the barber pole). A classic shot subtly redolent of earlier journeys in search of America, yet true to our time.
Then there’s the final photo in the book: a white ranch-style home billowing a thick gray smoke that has already erased its roof. A house on fire? A vision of destruction? The final end of the journey that one (or both) of the two train tracks in the book’s first photo has brought us to?
All possible, and certainly more evidence that we should take Good Morning, America as a book that does tell a story about the nation, though to its credit not a literal or too obvious one. A photobook like this is all about its cumulative power, about the larger vision (this America) that rises almost inchoately from it. The more time I spend with Power’s book, the stronger it feels. As I read it, I feel I’m sinking into something hard and true about our country in the twenty-tens. I’m not sure what all these harsh truths are about—just as I’m not sure how hopelessly lost as a democratic enterprise the U.S. is, both as depicted in Power’s book and as reported daily in the news. I’m not sure Power knows, either.
Which is a good thing about his book. It engenders deep thought, profound questions. I’m glad it’s here—not glad enough, I think, to purchase the volumes to come, but glad enough to give them a look, in the same spirit in which every day I devour The New York Times and watch the news: I’m eager, desperate, to know what our odd, crazed, unhinged time truly means—and where we’re all headed.