Peterson discusses January 6th, his book "Political Theater," and how he captures the grotesque nature of US politics
A few years ago I was with Joanna Milter, The New Yorker’s Director of Photography. We talked about the things photo editors talk about—who’s good, who’s green, whose work is overheated, and which photographers are at full-blown boiling point. We started listing out names of working photographers whose pictures represented America’s grinding political climate. “Mark Peterson,” I heard myself immediately blurt out. “I love him,” Milter replied. “His photographs will endure.”
By that time Peterson, a New York-based photographer, had already released his first book Political Theater, a body of work that spans the three years leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. In these photographs, candidates—Clinton, Cruz, Christie, Trump, et al.—are stripped of photogenic niceties, their fleshy presences treated with crunchy black and white tones that deliberately mash menacing film noir villainy and the mottled glory of ’70s punk DIY aesthetics, in portraits that bubble over to full absurdist revelation. For his exacting eye and trenchant documenting, his pictures have graced the pages of The New Yorker, New York, TIME, and M Le Monde (among others).
On January 6, Peterson found himself locked inside the Capitol as a fulminating crowd mounted a charge towards full-on political insurrection. He joins Document to discuss that day, how he went from Prince to politics, and why the best photographs are often mistakes.
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Alex Hodor-Lee: How did you get started taking photographs?
Mark Peterson: I grew up in the midwest, in Minneapolis. I didn’t start taking pictures until my mid-20s. I kind of failed at everything else. I just thought photography would be easy and fun. That was kind of my first mistake in photography. I lucked into a few things. I started [working] for UPI [United Press International]. I was lucky; I definitely wasn’t experienced enough to shoot for the wires—I had never shot sports or anything like that. At the same time, I lucked into a job with the alternative newspaper in Minneapolis, City Pages. This was in the ’80s and it was a great time for music in Minneapolis with Prince and The Replacements and all these other bands. The paper was very feature-oriented, so I could make a lot of mistakes and hopefully make a picture that was interesting among those. It was a really fun time.
Alex: Do you think it’s important for photographers to make mistakes?
Mark: I think my best pictures are mistakes. Then I try to recreate them. It’s like seeing a new road to walk down. To experiment. To not assume things. The mistakes have always been something I’ve embraced. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you snap a picture and you’re not really thinking about it and you’re composing other pictures and being very diligent and then you go back and see that picture, where you took one quick frame, and you go, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to explore.’
“I just thought photography would be easy and fun. That was kind of my first mistake in photography.”
Alex: I completely understand. The first camera I owned was an Olympus XA2, with a faulty film advance. So, I was constantly having to open the film back and advance the frames by hand underneath my jacket or whatever. This produced these crazy colors and light leaks, and, early on, that was sort of my style, trying to recreate that sun-drenched film look.
Mark: That’s amazing! That’s so great. Wow.
Alex: After Minneapolis and City Pages, what did you do? You mentioned sports—
Mark: I was maybe in the Guinness Book of World Records for worst sports shooter of all time. It was something I just wasn’t good at.
Alex: I ask only because I saw the awesome photos you did of Michael Jordan a while ago.
Mark: I’ve had to shoot sports at times, but it’s not something I’m good at. In 1987, I moved to New York, thinking I’d just work for a magazine, like, one day a month and that would be enough to live in New York. Within six months I’d gone through my savings, but luckily Reuters asked me to help set up their bureau in New York. So I worked for them for a couple of years.
It was a great time in New York. These insane trials! Like the Marcos trial, the Bernie Getz trial, the Milken trial. They were just these incredible theaters where there’d be hundreds of journalists and spectators chasing people down the street after they came out of the court house. It was the end of what people romanticize about New York and the East Village and the Guardian Angels and crack and that kind of stuff. It was quite a change coming from Minneapolis.
“I think my best pictures are mistakes.”
Alex: You’ve become known for your extremely artistic reportage on the political happenings of our time, but you began chiefly as a press photographer?
Mark: Yes. Of course, at the alternative newspapers I was doing feature work, but I always had to shoot news. I like news. I like following the beat of America and what’s going on. What’s changing in America. I don’t ever feel like I’m great at capturing that moment that solidifies everything for people, but maybe on the side of that moment I find something that people can relate to. So, that’s what I try to do with news.
Alex: It seems like your work now is the culmination of all of that alternative artistic feature work and that fast-paced reportage.
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Mark: In a lot of ways I try to toe the line of journalism where you’re supposed to be objective, you’re supposed to make images that allow people to be non-committal to what they are seeing. I think that, in the work Political Theater, I really divorce myself from that idea of objectivity. I’m obviously making very political points in the picture. When I photographed Governor Christie I just wanted to photograph his mouth because that was his power—to just yell at people and demean people, demean teachers that were just asking him, what are we going to do when you defund our education? And he just starts screaming at them.
“I always had to shoot news. I like news. I like following the beat of America and what’s going on. What’s changing in America.”
Alex: How did Political Theater come together?
Mark: In 2013, I went to an event at the Capitol that was run by the Tea Party. It was to try and defund the Affordable Care Act and all of these congresspeople came marching out of the Capitol and gave their one-minute speech to try and get a hit on TV about their objection to it. I photographed it and when I looked at the pictures later that day I didn’t see how much this was just a TV set-up. The next time I went out was to photograph Governor Christie, who looked like he was going to be the front-runner in the 2016 [Republican] presidential campaign. I just wanted to photograph his mouth and I kept getting closer and closer. After I took that picture I put it through my phone and started looking at different apps and different ways to process it. Now I use Photoshop but [using different apps] just freed me up to make mistakes. Luckily, at the time, MSNBC had a beautiful photo website and they brought me on board to document the campaign. At the time I wasn’t thinking of a book or anything, but just to photograph the campaign and show the raw nature of power and look behind the curtain.
Alex: Completely. Fast forward to where we are now, you were at the Capitol on January 6, correct?
Mark: I was. I was there. It was a very bad day for America.
Alex: Walk me through that day, as it became more unhinged, as a photographer and person—what was going through your mind while all of this was unraveling?
Mark: I’d love to say I knew what was going to happen, that I was prepared for what happened. But I was as surprised by the level of rage and the ability of people to get into the Capitol as most of America was. I expected there to be violence but I expected it to be later at night like the past demonstrations. In December there was a big [Trump] rally and at night five or six hundred Proud Boys and other people rampaged through DC and beat people up that they thought were Antifa or a communist or whatever. I started at the rally and I really wanted to capture all the different kinds of flags, which are very reminiscent of fascioust rallies that we have seen in the past.
“At the time I wasn’t thinking of a book or anything, but just to photograph the campaign and show the raw nature of power and look behind the curtain.”
After Trump started speaking I wanted to get to the Capitol because I wanted to photograph the ceremonial [atmosphere] of the certificates being brought from one chamber to the other to certify the election. I literally got into the Capitol five minutes before the certificates, led by Vice President Mike Pence, were marched from one chamber to the other. And then of course the objection happened and they were marched back out and within a half hour the police were running through the halls of the Capitol telling everybody to go to their offices, to lock the doors, and that the Capitol was locked down. My first [thought] was to try to get out of the Capitol to photograph that, but they wouldn’t let me out. They literally had locked the doors, so I’m sitting there and I heard this huge banging a floor down. I go down and here is one police officer, Capitol police officer Goodman, standing there with his hands up, and suddenly coming around the corner is the guy with the Q shirt and the guy with the Confederate flag. I was just in shock, basically. I’m standing right next to them and they were, like, hypnotized, they were like zombies or something. They didn’t know where they were or where they were going. Goodman led them up to a line of police and they sat there asking, ‘Where is Pence? Where is Pelosi? Where are we?’ It was all very surreal, that’s the only way to describe it. It just didn’t seem like it was really happening and you had to keep on telling yourself to just keep photographing and not to just stare at it because it was just so surreal and so mystifying.
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Alex: When you have the camera in front of you it can partially feel like a protective device, but sometimes it can also sort of distract you from the immediate physical danger that you might be in. Do you ever find yourself being like, ‘Oh shit, maybe I should get the hell out of here’ Does that go through your mind at all when you’re photographing, especially at the Capitol?
Mark: The thing I have to say that I was scared about was getting Covid, because you were just crushed among people who weren’t wearing masks and were yelling. There were times when that is what I would worry about. I’m not a brave person and violence is not… I’m not a war photographer or anything like that but I think there were legitimate reasons to be afraid because a number of journalists got very hurt by these people.
Alex: Tell me about your upcoming project.
Mark: My new project is just kind of following Political Theater. I really wanted to look at why Donald Trump was elected and the people who were listening to his speeches and the echo chamber that [they created]. I just kind of followed it through the white nationalism, the white supremacy that has always been in this country but that Trump really gave voice to. I just went from him, from The White House, to [Steve] Bannon and [Roger] Stone and Stephen Miller, and into the homes of the white nationalists. Hopefully Steidl will put it out in early summer.