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Discussion: Gus Powell

Gus Powell, a NYC-based photographer, put out a great book of street photography a few years ago (with J&L Books) called “In the Company of Strangers“. I’m grateful that Gus was able to spend some time answering a few questions about his work, and street photography in general, to add to Discussions here. 2point8 in bold.

I admire your book, and as frustrating as it is not to find more work by you online, it’s also a pleasure. I have this great hard-bound book to thumb through. All of the photographers I’ve spoken with for 2point8 at least dabble in digital, and some are digital-only. Have you avoided the pixel rush, and how?

I am big on photo books and even though I had the benefit of growing up in New York and was able to spend a lot of time as a kid looking at the collection of photographs at the Modern and elsewhere . . . I think that almost all of my knowledge of the history of photography came from books. Though I love that there are so many pictures available to see online I still think that there is nothing like seeing a body of work in a book.

I do a lot of work with the digital camera but it’s all for editorial or commercial clients. I have tried to make my own pictures in the street with the digital camera, and continue to try to, but for whatever reason, real or imagined, I end up feeling like a pedophile. Even if I am taking a picture of a tree and a trash can I feel like a creep with a big lens and a mirror flapping away. I am sure that eventually the equipment will move on and there will be some sort of rangefinder camera that will do the job . . . and that I will be able to move past my Humbert Humbert feeling.

I enjoy the liberating quality of digital, the 400 plus slots open on the chip vs. the 38 on the roll; and also the ability to work in such low light . . . but I tend to overshoot . . . and I also feel like so much of what I learned about timing by working in the street gets thrown out the window. Rather than waiting for that one moment when things will come together and taking a single frame . . . I will tap the button four times and end up missing the moment. My favorite thing is when I come off of a few days of shooting digital for a job and return to film and do my own work. I am more willing to try and make a picture than I normally am with film and at the same time more careful than I normally am with digital.

There seem to be two strains of (peopled) street photography - the Arbus line of intimate portraits born from curiousity, interaction, and access; and the Winogrand line of composed chaos, stolen moments, and bodies in motion. Neither are mutually exclusive, and your work is in the latter camp. Did you deliberately choose that end of the see-saw, or did your interest in street work of this kind evolve over time?

I have always liked the extras in the background of movies . . . that little bit of humanity playing out in a landscape and informing what happens in the foreground. I have wanted to make pictures that are without an obvious protagonist and that become interesting as photographs while being made from insignificant moments in real time. There was a time when I had a square camera and tried to do some single protagonist environmental portraits in the street . . . there are a few pictures from that time that I am fond of, but making that sort of “bust” image has never been as exciting or pleasing for me as trying to make a picture of an entire “frieze” of people moving about. It seemed like a way of looking/describing that only photography could make possible. The idea that because all of this was stopped at this moment and because it now exists as a photograph you can look at all of these little details of gesture, fashion, and color . . . you can endlessly compare and contrast the different human beings that were only beside one another for a moment . . . that’s been something that I think I learned from Garry Winogrand (particularly his picture of the women on the bench) and later with Joel Meyerowitz.

There is the Winogrand quote: “I photograph something to see what it will look like photographed.” Which in the context of the type of images he made says a lot . . . given that the way the viewer of the print is able to read space, light, movement, and humanity in a way that it could not have been perceived at the moment the picture was made. There is always something that initially invites or seduces me to make a picture but then what follows is an effort to reject that very thing, to push it to the side of the frame and try to add more to the image or to simply compose that initial siren into a larger context.

In your afterward, you mention Frank O’Hara. Sometimes I think O’Hara’s output is less about the poems and more about Dedication to the Project. I had a friend who, when contemplating purchasing season tickets for baseball, said, “I’m going to have to go to a game on days when I don’t want to go to a game.” How are your lunchtime pictures a product of dedication to a fixed span of time & location, day after day?

The pictures I made are definitely a product of the time and space that they could be made in. Someone once noted that the fixed parameters of the project were a bit like the form of a sonnet or a specific rhyme scheme. I suspect this was brought up in part because of the project’s connection to O’Hara’s Lunch Poems . . . but I do think that I made a lot of pictures that I never would have made had I had more time and space available to me.

Almost all of the pictures were made on my lunch hours in midtown Manhattan while working a full time job. Some days I had a few hours and other days I had fifteen minutes . . . but each day I wanted to make something. This meant that my sensitivity was turned up . . . whatever that tick it is that one feels which inspires them to raise up the camera . . . it had to be sensitive to far less of an “event” than it would have been if I had all day to go out and make pictures. This directly led me to try and make pictures that were really of nothing at all. Where a “narrative event” might usually be something to want to point the camera at . . . a “light event” or “color event” might be all that the sidewalk would offer that day . . . and it would have to be enough.

I recently saw a small book (will track down name/photographer) by a young man who was so enamored with Frank’s “The Americans” that he took-off on a cross-country bus journey with his camera. In the preface, he talked about how he was advised to shoot color - that it HAD to be color. Can you say a bit about how your choice to work in color, and do you do your own color darkroom work? And is all this work 35mm?

Like most photographers who began in the pre-digital days I started in black & white and then moved to color. But I can’t say that I ever had much of a relationship to black & white. I work in color because I live in color and I am interested in making pictures that are of what I see rather than translating it an extra level by converting it to black and white. Some of my favorite photographers are black & white people (Robert Adams and Koudelka would be high on the list) and I get so much from their pictures but it’s still color that draws me to a place and to raise the camera.

All of the street work is 35mm and then there is the landscape and peopled landscape pictures (Lost & Found series) that are 120mm 6×7. I rent a color darkroom by the hour and do my own printing. The hardest thing is to try and make prints that I think reflect what I was seeing. There is a real impulse to make things more contrasty or punchy then they are in life . . . and I try to stay away from that even though it can be appealing. It’s a bit like trying to make a pie with as little sugar as possible . . . to be willing to let the fruit speak for itself.

Street photography can be a challenge, not just in its inherent difficulties, but in the sense of confrontation. You see something and the challenge is to step-up and capture it. If you miss it, you fail or get lucky. Books and gallery shows highlight the successes. Can you talk about how you work around failures or fallow periods?

I often think about how painters have the opportunity to show their sketches and that these images are judged by a different set of criteria then what their paintings are. Unfortunately photography doesn’t really have a space for that. We have good pictures and then all that other stuff. I keep trying to get people, (most of all myself) to view those pictures that are not winners as sketches. Often it’s those failures that lead directly to the success. Sometimes this has something to do with a composition you try out, or with working at a certain location at the wrong time, or often these “photographic sketches” are the important transitional picture that pushed you to move five feet to the left. There are definitely moments where a certain “bad” picture was what led me to move myself to the spot where the better picture was made. The latter could not have been made with out the former.

I think about baseball too . . . that a guy who can do something 30 percent of the time is considered a tremendous asset to the cause. The numbers are even lower for street photography . . .

And lastly it’s the act of making the pictures, the act of looking, that I like more than the rest of it . . . the editing, printing, showing, etc . . . all of that becomes a difficult and intellectual part for me . . . while the act of walking towards strangers with the light at my back . . . it’s intuitive and it makes me smile . . . and that moment is completely independent of the results . . .

“The Juggler”
GPowell_bus

This is one of those pictures that is a direct product of working within the constraints of the time and space that was available to me when I had a fulltime job. There is really nothing going on that “merits” being photographed. It was the reflected light (something I believe you call the “no flash corner”) that slowed me down and made me want to work at that spot, and then the mixture of folks who are passing through the space and others who are waiting in the wings to get onto the bus. The moment I chose is one that falls between two beats . . . where things are awkward but organized at the same time. . . and what you are able to see in the image can only be seen in the photograph. What I love about it is that there is really no obvious way to describe what is happening in the picture . . . and yet there is something about the way the information is presented that makes you keep looking at it.

“Waiting”
gpowell-waiting

This is a picture that I am not that crazy about on its own, but I do like the way it interacts with the picture of the woman that is opposite it in the book. The scale of the figure in the frame and the fact that he is all alone are both unusual for my pictures from the street and in many ways I think the image has more to do with the work that I am now doing in medium format. I like that there is something terribly specific about him, his gesture, his props, etc. and at the same time the story is incomplete. He is more representative of a type of person than a specific individual. I think this also reflects some of that interest I have in “extras” in the backgrounds of films. This is something that I have been trying to work on with in my recent work.

“Atlas”
gpowell-atlas

This picture was made directly across the street from the large statue of Atlas that is at Rockefeller Center. When I saw the seated shoeless man playing with the little blue ball it seemed like he was echoing the statue he was facing. It’s one of those images where the sidewalk has offered up something that is going be there for a little while so I enjoy trying to take advantage of that extra time and try to add something else to the picture. I pushed him to the side of the frame and waited for some other “event” to happen that I could build into the picture. In this case it was the folks greeting on another after leaving a funeral that had just ended inside the church. I often work in this way when i have “a fish in a barrel.” I have an image in the book that includes a woman passed out on the steps of the public library. On her own she was enough to make some sort of a picture of. But making that single protagonist picture is not very interesting to me. So I stuck around while she napped and eventually other “characters” walked onto the stage to make for a more interesting picture.

Thanks again to Gus. The Powell’s are winning 2-to-zip in surname discussion stats. Here’s more work by Gus, and even more.

Tag: Discussion