How Mark Peterson Stays Inspired and How He’s Fueled His Long Career

October 5, 2016

By David Walker

Thirty-five years into his career, Mark Peterson is surging again. His new project, called “Political Theater,” with its stark black-and-white photographs inspired by the classics of film noir, lacerates the pretense, egos, and stage-managed “optics” of presidential politics. Peterson will turn the groundbreaking project into a book this fall. And it is bringing him plenty of assignment work, covering the 2016 presidential campaign for various clients.

But Peterson has kept clients calling for years with his versatility, experience and pictures “that always feel distinctive,” says Kathy Ryan, director of photography at The New York Times Magazine, a client since the early ’90s. “He doesn’t repeat himself [and] his work never looks dated…You can count on him to get something wonderful and surprising.”

Peterson was last riding a career peak in 2005 with the publication of his project called Acts of Charity, a sharp, colorful critique of the money and privilege on parade at high society charity events. Like a street photographer, “I would let the events unfold in front of me,” he says of that project. “With [“Political Theater”], I went out purposely to make certain photos. It’s a much more methodical approach.”

Redux CEO Marcel Saba, who has represented Peterson for nearly 30 years, says that one key to Peterson’s enduring career is that he’s constantly experimenting. “Editors are always looking for a new look, and Mark is always re-thinking his subjects, his composition, his lighting, the way he moves around.”

He’s carried along by his tireless enthusiasm. Peterson still feels the rush of anticipation every time the phone rings. He appreciates the emerging photographers nipping at his heels, because their work inspires him. And he still can’t believe his luck at having stumbled into a photography career in the first place, never mind surviving all these years. “I get to the end of every year, and I go, ‘Wow! I made it another year,’” he says.

Peterson says he doesn’t take anything for granted, and he doesn’t dare relax. But he measures his success by the progress of personal projects, not the money. “At the end of the year, you can look and say: ‘That was a good year. I made five pictures for that project and I’m halfway through it,’ or: ‘I just started and I’m missing this.’ You can look ahead to the next year and kind of say, ‘This is what I’m going for.’” (Personal projects dating back to the beginning of his career are on his website, and reflect his evolution as a photographer.)

He has had his struggles. He enjoyed a long prosperous stretch from the early ’90s, just after he moved to New York from Minneapolis, until just after the publication of Acts of Charity. Then magazines began folding, or scaling back on the documentary work he specializes in. At the same time, he struggled to translate his visual voice from film to digital photography.

© Mark Peterson

Mark Peterson documented charity fundraisers like a street photographer for his work in Acts of Charity. For his “Political Theater” project, “I went out purposely to make certain photos. It’s a much more methodical approach,” he says. © Mark Peterson

“From 2005 to 2008 or 2009, I felt my work really suffered, and a lot of it just wasn’t very good,” he says. “I felt like I was in quicksand. Every time I took a step I felt like I was sinking deeper, and wondering if I had it in me to keep making pictures.”

With a mortgage and two kids, he soldiered on. He had enough assignment work to stay afloat, and the perseverance to keep asking: “What can I do different? How can I move forward?” He eventually found his way again through his personal work.

Peterson has always been interested in photographing politics, and the political right in particular. When the Tea Party gained momentum after 2008, Peterson found it irresistible. “It was like your grandma sitting in a lawn chair yelling the most awful, nasty things. I really wanted to capture that. That’s what motivates me: trying to explain the strange, crazy world we live in.”

It took him a few years to find the stylistic voice that distinguishes his “Political Theater” project. An important stepping stone was an assignment from GQ to cover the 2012 political conventions with nothing but an iPhone. The lightened load of gear, the snapshot esthetic, and the psychedelic colors of the Hipstamatic app got Peterson thinking afterwards: “Why couldn’t I do that with all my work?”

He had a breakthrough in 2013 after photographing a Tea Party protest against the Affordable Care Act. Peterson was struck by how choreographed it was. But when he looked at his pictures afterward, nothing conveyed what he’d felt, and the images looked flat, he says. So he put them on his iPhone and started manipulating them with every 99-cent app that he had. “And finally there was one that I liked.”

At the same time, he was trying to capture the essence of the public persona, if not the actual character, of his subjects. One of the first photos that did that successfully—and helped define the “Political Theater” project—was a tight shot of Chris Christie’s mouth, taken as the New Jersey governor (and erstwhile presidential candidate) shouted down a questioner at a town hall meeting. The photograph is a commentary not only on Christie’s reputation as a combative bully, but on the current atmosphere of national politics.

Without false modesty, Peterson is quick to deflect credit for his success to people who inexplicably (by his reckoning) took chances on him: the UPI bureau chief who gave him his first job, mentors, his many loyal clients, and his agent. “So much of my career has been that a door opens, and I’m lucky enough to walk through,” he says.

His parting advice for photographers hoping to sustain a long career is to do what he does, and what most successful photographers do: “Find a project that you care about, that isn’t about [trying] to get work, and that you’re doing because you honestly want to show people something. That’s the most important thing.”

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