Mark L. Power, often referred to as “The Father of Washington Photography,” died Sunday, Aug. 23 at home in hospice care after a battle with lung cancer. He was 83.
Never quite comfortable with the paternal nickname, Power was at least aware of the impact he had on photography in D.C. Beginning in 1971, he began building a photography program at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, inviting Joe Cameron, and later Frank DiPerna, to develop courses and eventually a BFA program (credited to DiPerna). “We worked by consensus,” Cameron says, adding that the emphasis was on students, not egos. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it all came together while we were killing a case of Buds.”
Power was born in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 1937, to Mary, a homemaker, and Francis Power, an architect who also published the book The Encounter under the pseudonym Crawford Power. Prior to his birth, Mark’s father purchased a 170-acre farm in Loudoun County near Ashburn, Virginia, in 1930. Power’s childhood was split between the farm and Leesburg, before being sent to a Catholic boarding school in Rhode Island. Later in life, the farm would serve as the backdrop for many of his best known photographs.
Interrupted by a three year stint in the U.S. Army, his college education was split among Bowdoin College in Maine, the Art Center School in Los Angeles, and American University in D.C. His mid-1960s were spent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, photographing for various architects.
When he returned to D.C. in 1968, he opened Icon Gallery with Charles H. Tompkins Jr. It was the first gallery dedicated to photography during Washington’s post-war gallery boom. It was there he also met his wife, and sometimes muse, Virginia (although they would not marry until 1983, his third marriage). By 1969, Cameron had invited Power to join him and John Gossage at the Dupont Center, a space acquired by the Corcoran when it merged with the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Primarily occupied by the Corcoran Workshop, a printmaking studio operated by Lou Stovall, the three maintained dark rooms on the top floor along with fellow photographer Allen Appel. Power also curated photography shows out of a small room on the first floor, including a trio of “Corcoran Invitationals” focusing of mostly Washington-based photography.
Power also began teaching in 1969, first at the Madeira School in Fairfax, where he initiated a high school program in photography. By 1970 he had gotten to know Jerry Lake, who taught photography at the Corcoran, and he began working as his assistant. Amidst the tumult of changing deans and faculty dissatisfaction with Corcoran management, Lake soon departed for greener pastures at George Washington University. Under new dean Roy Slade, Power assumed responsibility for the photography courses. As needs demanded, Power brought in Cameron and DiPerna, among other faulty, and added courses and built a photography program hand over fist. He would retire from the Corcoran in 1998.
His impact was indelible. Students were inspired by and shared in Power’s enthusiasm for technique.
“He was a master printer,” says Colby Caldwell, photographer and founder of Revolve, a multi-purpose arts space in Asheville, North Carolina. “His prints were something as a student and young photographer I would use to guide where I wanted my black and white prints to go.”
John McIntosh, founding chair of Computer Art at the School of Visual Arts, New York, remembers Power’s sense of wonderment. “He would go into the darkroom, and when he would get a print fresh out of the wash, he would hold it up to admire it,” he says.
“He was an encouraging person,” says Ann Zelle, who went on to teach photography at American University. “Mark was just interested in your work. He didn’t care about your background or who you were.” She notes his support of female photographers in an otherwise male-dominated environment. The encouragement extended to colleagues as well.
“I would share prints with him and he would give me his thoughts,” says photographer Chan Chao, who currently teaches photography in George Washington University’s Corcoran School of Art and Design. In the early 1990s, he got his start working in the Corcoran’s photo lab. “He was like an older brother.”
His influence extended beyond the classroom as well. In 1977, he mounted Imaginary Stills from the Life of Rita Hayworth at The Diane Brown Gallery. Photographs of family and friends, taken on his family farm, were paired with small passages of an imagined autobiography of the actress. One image from the series, “Rima of the Jungle,” depicted his daughter perched defiantly on an ancient bow-shaped growth of vine. It’s the image that would inspire Sally Mann’s series of Family Pictures.
While his artwork has received grants from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, the Bader Fund, and the Maryland State Art Council, and has been included in numerous collections—including the Baltimore Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Menil Collection, New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum—there is a prevailing sense that his work is underappreciated. As Paul Richard once wrote of his work at The First Corcoran Invitational in 1970, “Power is a photographer of skill and freedom. Though his pictures all are valid, I found it difficult to believe that they were taken by one man… no common denominator, no overarching attitude, unifies [his] work.”
Several common denominators revealed themselves over the course of decades.
“He had a unique capability of transforming a backyard into a mythic situation,” Caldwell says.
For local artist Joe Mills, the mood of the work registered differently. “His work was so subtle and quiet at times, and so beautiful and unpretentious,” he says. “It showed with such beauty the in-between moments.”
More prevalent was a narrative Power employed to stitch photos of family and friends.
“They always had a literary aspect,” says photographer Shirley True, who nearly a decade ago introduced Power to Blurb, a website that allows users to create photobooks. He created more than a dozen under the search term “Mark L. Power,” replicating older series like that of Rita Hayworth, and newer series of family photographs interspersed with images of a family Bible, or a less narrative book celebrating his wife’s hostas. “He was a big fan of Wright Morris, who combined photography with writing.”
Like his father, Power was known to work under a pseudonym. His was Victor H. Carroll, a photographer he invented.
The written word wasn’t limited to his photographic books. Power had two stints writing art criticism for The Washington Post, once in the mid-1970s, and again in the mid-1980s. Most often writing about photography, his reviews were easy reads, steeped in the history of art and photography, and at times unflinchingly critical. He introduced one group show as a frustrating viewing experience: “If you like what you see there’s usually not enough of it; if you don’t like what you see there’s often too much.” And yet, it was with his discerning eye and wry humor, that he would try to find something within an exhibition to compliment.
His more poetic prose was written for the introduction of Nancy Rexroth’s 1977 book Iowa, a series of photographs taken in Ohio, which recalled memories of childhood summers spent in Iowa. Using a cheap Diana camera, it yielded dreamlike images in soft focus. Of the work, Power wrote, “Iowa in Ohio: in these photographs, time is always on the move, sunlight is caught in the act of creeping, dreams pause in the midst of unfolding … Her pictures evoke instead of explain.”
“He was a wonderful writer,” photographer and author Appel says, recounting that Power wrote several unpublished novels. “He has written, in the last few years, a terrific memoir of his early days in California.” He’s only read its first part, but loves the book. “Someone should publish it,” he says.
Power is survived by his wife of 37 years, Virginia; his children Nani Power of Reston, John Power of Fairfax, and Rachel Power Brown and Shelagh Power Chopra of Florida; six grandsons; and his sister Molly Power Ordway, of Vermont. He was predeceased by his brother David, and his sister Jennifer. There will be a small service at his family gravesite in Kensington, Maryland.
Through his kind and generous manner, and his enthusiasm for the craft, Power influenced several generations of D.C. artists. At his core he was a photographer’s photographer.
“He always had a camera with him,” Cameron says. “We’d go to lunch and he’d take pictures from the car to the restaurant, during lunch, and on the way back to the car. His joy and passion was pushing that button. He just did it. He never stopped.”