Sunday, 20 April 2014

Notes towards an essay: Mark Power - The Shipping Forecast


This essay has made rather slow progress since my initial blog post about it. This has been partly due to force of circumstances – it’s been an exceptionally busy period in my life - of which more in a future post. But that is only part of the story. I’ve struggled a little with what to say and how to say it and found it difficult to make a start. In part I think this is because I know the work so well, and have known I was going to do this essay for more than a year, so in my head a bit of me feels that I’ve already done it or at least thought everything I need to think and have nothing new to think or say. It isn’t that familiarity breeds contempt – far from it – but just that it all feels, well, familiar. I could very easily go through the motions and write a fairly standard academic summary of Power’s work, key themes and impact. But that isn’t enough for me: I want to get something more from this, and to feel that I have made some real progress in my understanding as a result of the exercise. Otherwise, what’s the point?

My instinct is that I will only learn to see afresh and to understand why the work means something to me by writing about it, working through what I see and reflecting along the way, much as I make sense of the world by photographing it. Mark Power has a considerable body of work and no relatively short essay could encompass all of it, so I am planning to write about particular projects in this blog. I’ll use that writing in part to help me think and in part to allow me to cover aspects that won’t all fit into the essay but that I want to explore. I could of course just make notes on my computer and build them into a final piece, but I want to do at least some of this by way of blogs. I’m never sure who reads what I write but the discipline of pulling my thoughts into some form of coherence for my imaginary reader is one I find helpful. I worry that this could all go very wrong, and that I might end up with nothing new to say at the end of the exercise and just cobbling together bits of the blogs, but I feel I have to try.

In the course of this exploration I will also try different ways of approaching the work, from close analysis of individual pictures to wider consideration of major bodies of work.

The Shipping forecast
Power has made an audio visual of the pictures and forecast. Here is the link.

The key facts of the book can be quickly summarised. The project documents the 31 regions named in the Shipping Forecast. It took four years to complete: around 6,000 pictures were edited down to a final select of 60. Most of the areas documented have a land border, and most of the pictures were taken at that border – the seashore, subject of so much British photography in the 20th Century. David Chandler, in his introductory essay to the book, tells us that the choice of the shore is partly practical but largely artistic.
“Power’s work refers to and extends the tradition of social documentary photography in Britain and for photographers the shoreline, the beach and the seaside town have all traditionally harboured the pageant of British post-war life. Particularly in the 1960s work of the late Tony Ray-Jones (an obvious reference point for Power) the seaside often becomes a bizarre social theatre, a spectacle full of incongruities pinpointing precisely the quaint, surreal character of imperial Britain in decline. ..’darker and more disturbing elements creep into (Power’s) account of this peripheral Britain of the 1990s, at odds with Ray Jones’ images of ‘gentle madness’.” (Chandler, 1996)


Chandler’s essay covers the basic facts and structure of the book well and I won’t try to reprise that here, instead attempting a more personal reflection.

For me contradictions and contrasts abound in this work. It is in essence about the difference between the imaginary landscape conjured up by the Shipping Forecast in Power’s imagination and the places it refers to. It is a rather serious and often beautiful book, that has its origin in a tea towel. It’s austere, sometimes forbidding, yet also humorous. Children’s play on windswept beaches alternates with hauntingly minimal landscapes. The selected pictures are carefully sequenced to interact with each other: for example, one small sequence starts with a picture of a (sad/tired?) child lying on a supermarket floor, his pose echoed by a torn inflatable that looks like a fish, which is itself followed by a piece of ice shaped like a whale. The sequence ends with real dead fish by the banks of the Thames and more children, this time apparently happily gathering the fish and playing.
Boy in supermarketBloated fishIce whaleThames fish

What do we get from this sequencing? A play of ideas and associations, thoughts on waste and environmental matters, on where we get our food from. There is something also I think about how we look at things, how we make symbols of the world and see pictures in the clouds (and in ice) and by analogy, a link back to the subject of this exercise, the interaction between our imagination and the mundane world. And finally perhaps something about the sadnesses and joys of childhood – that move from a place of distraught loneliness that I think most of us have felt at some time, to joy.

The work clearly reflects the inspiration of both Hiroshi Sugimoto’s exploration of the sublime, Tony Ray-Jones’s social theatre, and the influence of grittier social documentary artists such as Chris Killip. Exploring a quintessentially British phenomenon, it’s a book of an idea, the clash between an imaginary landscape built over years of listening to the poetry of and mystery of words on the radio and what Power found when he went to those spaces.
“When I bought the tea towel back in 1990 the names, which were so familiar to me - Forties, Cromarty, Fisher, German Bight - all came to life. These were real places, and this is where they were. I wondered what they might look like. Did they correspond at all to the pictures already in my imagination, carefully constructed over all those years? And so, quite simply, I decided to find out.” (Power, 2005)
The idea, and the process of exploring an idea, is in essence the thing that attracts me to this work. Sometimes I think that the most interesting pictures exist more powerfully in the viewer’s imagination than in reality (whatever that is): these works serve to stimulate ideas and thoughts in your head, to enrich and challenge your imagination and view of the world. Pictures are so much less definite in some ways than words – they evoke ideas and sensations rather than pinning them down by precise definition, living on in some liminal part of the brain, a half-life of imagination and association. Power recognises the value of the indefinite image in this work when discussing this work in his 2005 professorial lecture.
“Given the confusing, esoteric nature of the words, the pictures which I consider to be most successful are those which are in their own way confusing, unexplainable, mysterious. You must remember that before I began The Shipping Forecast I was a magazine and occasional newspaper photographer, expected to illustrate a given text and very little else, where most pictures needed to contain as much information and be as easily digestible as possible. But now the less I offered - the more confusing the situation depicted - the more interesting it became. Imagine how exciting that was!” (Power 2005)
The work explores a number of themes in its oblique way. The front cover and first image in the formal sequence of the book is the dark image shown above – a mysterious, brooding, sublime seascape. This leads to images suggesting the lonely and often dangerous journey out to sea.  However the frontispiece picture is this one below, a Ray-Jones style surreal social comedy of the sea shore, and the darker images quickly give way to scenes of play.

Umbrella beach scene

We move through the book with images changing in a rhythmic way through a range of overlapping sequences: scenes of play alternate with pictures of loneliness, see see a range of shelters and feel the vast emptiness of the sea, we move from joy to sadness and back again. Pictures of children give way to coffins and funerals: in the midst of life we are in death. The sequence ends by reprising the first image but with a very different feeling. The sky remains dark but the play of light on the sea gives a sense of hope. As we arrive at the end of the land (Finisterre) is the storm moving away, or moving in? You decide.

Good_final pic

We begin and end with the most mysterious, sublime images, carefully constructed in the manner of Sugimoto to contain the vastness in geometric form while offering a window into the sublime, the thing we can’t touch other than in our imagination. Given Power’s refection on the impact of the most ambiguous, least clear-cut images in this work, I think it no accident that it begins and ends with the most minimal pieces, and ends in particular with one whose reading is ambiguous.

Chandler, David: Postcards from the Edge (Introduction to ‘The Shipping Forecast’. November 1996) Available from this link: (accessed 19/04/14)
Power, Mark: Between Something and Nothing; Professorial Lecture by Mark Power. University of Brighton. November 2005. Available from this link: (accessed 19/04/14)
All pictures copyright Mark Power: reproduced here with kind permission from Mr. Power.
The link below takes you to an audio visit broadcast of the Shipping Forecast which you may wish to look at.


  1. Rest assured your readers are not imaginary - although they are sometimes short of something fresh to say so read and ponder in silence :-) I like your blog posts and wish there were more as they are always interesting, regardless of subject matter, considered and well written. In this example you have seen and commented upon the sequencing of the images - "obvious" once pointed out but not obvious for some of us. Then you go on to speculate about the meanings within the work and the influences at play. It is these elements that I particularly enjoy reading.

    For me personally though this blog post, like so many of yours, shows the distance between an academic and informed reading of the subject matter and the way that I read things; I have the information but find the academic synthesising of this data difficult. It isn't about analytical skills either (I made a 34-year career on the back of my analytical skills) but about the academic skills that are I sometimes feel are assumed by tutors and therefore not actually taught. Because I am convinced they can be learnt. I am in the process of writing my "end of term" report for Landscape, it goes for assessment shortly, and I've been reflecting on this very aspect. I think you could very well offer your own short courses on understanding and interpreting images - I for one would sign up! There is a definite gap in the market particularly for those of us without an arts education background which the OCA is not meeting.

  2. You are very kind Dave. I do mean to be a more regular blogger again, but life is very hectic just now and it is hard to slow down and write. I am working on it, though.

    I am quite certain that one can learn how to write about and look at pictures. I confess I had not thought of what I'd written as particularly academic: it was more the end result of a lot of looking and thinking and reading.

  3. Thank you for introducing me to Power's work; The first photo in this thread (Plymouth) is heart wrenching. The girl seems so vulnerable and distant, the angle of the shot shoving her down into the corner of the frame; a stranger in a strange land. Also, I had the good fortune of seeing your videos on B and H; super instructive; keep 'em coming:)

  4. I am so much excited after reading your blog.