Lunch With Gus Powell

Photographs ©Gus Powell

When I began shooting street in 2005 I was working a corporate job in Downtown Los Angeles. I had an hour for lunch and would typically rush and grab a sandwich or burrito, inhale it as fast as I could, then spend the rest of my alloted time speed walking the streets and alleys pointing and shooting at just about every human being or group of human beings that crossed my path.

When I returned to the office my adrenaline would be pumping and embarrassingly the sweat stains would often be visible under my arm pits and in my chest region. It didn’t matter though. Riding that creative high often made the afternoons evaporate into a haze of repetitive tasks and abstract photography thought.

When the work day was over, I’d usually head right back out to the streets and take advantage of the remaining L.A. light before heading home for the day. And when I returned home those early days, more often than not, I’d look at Gus Powell’s work on iN-PUBLiC.

Long before I became a Joel Meyerowitz sycophant, Gus Powell held the throne of most admired street photographer in my hierarchy of idols, although that wasn’t something I’d often vocalize. If asked, I’d say Winogrand. That was the safe choice. People would understand that. Gus Powell though? At first glance his photographs can be underwhelming. The compositions are complex, and often require a bit longer to read than decisive moment type photographs. He’s not a flashy street photographer but more of an acquired taste. It’s the type of work you get excited to talk about when you find a fellow admirer.

I remember staring at the above photograph and marveling at the moment, the color, the line from red shirt to pink balloon to yellow cage, and the homeless man trapped in between. It seemed perfect, and bizarre, the type of random moment that made the hours of walking around with a camera worth the effort.

Naturally as time passed, and I absorbed more street photography, this photograph became less interesting, but it’ll always be one of those photographs that trigger a certain photographic memory. It was a gateway photograph that introduced me to the harder, more complicated photographs.

I remember reading about ‘The Juggler’ on 2point8. I was intrigued by the title. Sure the photograph was interesting, but why ‘The Juggler’? I started to realize something else was going on with these pictures. They were influenced not only by photography but by words and literature. I had a hunch that there was a stronger connection between my writing background and burgeoning interest in photography than I first suspected, and Powell’s ‘Lunch Pictures started to confirm this belief. Photography didn’t need to be an escape from words, rather it could work in harmony with words.

Frank O’Hara. Quotidian street photography. Lunch Pictures.

The Lunch Pictures transformed the way I thought about street photography and forced me to think about my own work in a new light. Shooting on the street had more of a purpose.  It wasn’t just about running out and making photographs. Time, place, and philosophy started to factor into the equation. I started to look at my patterns. What time of day was I driven to make photographs? What locations energized me? How did literature and cinema influence my work?

All those hours of reading Bukowski, Henry Miller, Krishnamurti, Camus & Dostoevsky became relevant to my photography and I realized many of those ideas could be applied to my random wanderings on the street.

“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.” – Gus Powell

After figuring this out my ideas about street photography and my own photography started to evolve. If I were to take it seriously, I had to create a framework and context for what I was doing. It was no longer acceptable to believe that randomly making photographs in the flow of the street was good enough. Whether I realized it or not I was making these photographs with a purpose. The challenge became to not only understand that purpose but the context in which it existed. I’m still working on this today, and as the years go by, I’m finding it to be incredibly challenging.

But I keep going back to Gus Powell and his ‘Lunch Pictures’, trying to gain another glimpse into the synergy between photography, literature, experience and time.