By Robin van den Maagdenberg
The menu proudly proclaims: Raising New York’s Cholesterol since 1929. Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop is a New York diner that’s been in business for the better part of a century. It is here that street photographer Gus Powell has invited me to meet him. Behind the counter, the cooks stand in a row flipping burgers, frying bacon and preparing sandwiches. Sweat and grease shine on their foreheads in the heat emanating from the grills. ‘This is one of the few remaining authentic New York diners,’ says Powell after seating himself and tucking his long legs under the table with some difficulty. Twice he became sick after eating here, but that hasn’t kept him from returning.
A markedly tall man, dressed plainly in sand-colored jeans and a denim shirt, an outfit that is part of his city disguise, as he explains later. He orders Matzo ball soup, his favourite Jewish comfort food, which he will barely eat as he is busy talking.
The city has changed and Powell witnessed these changes through his lens. New York was Google before Google existed. Whatever you wanted to do, everything you were interested in, you could look it up in the phone book and find it. Any field, the top ten people were probably in this city. In the meantime project developers bought up the centre of the city, like in all big cities, to build expensive offices and luxury apartments. There’s more of the same. A big part of life happens outside of the city center and there’s no more space to experiment.
Ten years ago his main enemy was a store called Duane Reade, a drugstore that was everywhere. ‘Either a store was in the background of a picture or someone was carrying a Duane Reade bag.’ His enemies have changed. These days, multinational chain stores are even more pervasive and most of all, mobile phones are everywhere.
Powell quotes Jonathan Franzen: ‘We’ve shifted from a nicotine culture to a cellular culture.’ Whereas in most pictures by 20th century street photographers such as Winogrand, Friedlander and Arbus a lot of people are smoking, in Powell’s photo’s smokers are hard to find. ‘When I look at all the gestures of smoking, there’s a lightness and there’s thought, people look up, and the cell phone is all closed and inside, all the gestures are so withdrawn. That changed the way people move in public space, everyone is a zombie.’
Born and raised in New York, Powell began to collect bits and pieces of the city at a young age. At home he had a chest with three drawers; in the top drawer were his clothes, in the middle one his hats and in the bottom drawer he kept his collection of found objects. ‘I loved things that got flat. A worker’s glove that a car had run over, stuck in a gesture, or a perfectly squashed tin can.’
‘My mother was very supportive, but at a certain point she was like, it’s okay that you collect things, but you have to know how to curate. You gotta pick the best things. Before I had a camera I was pointing my finger—look at this. For me the camera was an extension of that.
Taking Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems as an inspiration, Powell began to take street photographs during his own lunch hour, while working a full time job as photo editor at The New Yorker. Walking up or down a few blocks, he would aim his camera at anything that caught his attention—a group of people, chewing gum stuck on the pavement, a discarded cigarette box or stray plastic bag.
Yet the photographs are not mere registrations of objects encountered, but rather attempts to make a connection between those disparate elements. He rarely singles out one protagonist, more often his interest is in a number of pedestrians, who seem unaware of their connection. The space shared by people, traversed by each of them, appears to be as important in his photographs as the people themselves.
He sees the negative space as the cities connective tissue. That’s the thing he’s most interested in. ‘The city can be a very lonely place. That’s why I want to talk about that space between us that we share, and that energy. Everybody moving together, thinking together, not always talking together. If you can feel that undercurrent, New York’s your city. Otherwise you’ll get out real quick.’
He picks up his camera: ‘Let’s go. Everyone’s out today.’
It’s a cold but sunny day. Just as surfers will rush to the beach on a day when wind conditions are ideal, so Powell says street photographers wait for days like this, when the light is perfect for taking pictures. We walk up a few blocks from Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop. Without any hurry we cross a street, but suddenly he stops mid-sentence. He’s onto something. At once his legs appear to become elastic. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz once remarked in admiration of his colleague Robert Frank that he walked the streets with the grace of a ballet dancer. In Powell’s case the transformation is instantaneous as soon as his eye is caught by something he can frame with the camera. He describes himself ‘an athlete that doesn’t have a ball—you’re constantly paying attention to what’s behind, and what’s ahead, what’s around the corner, what will happen next.’ He ducks, zigzags through the crowd, then stands very close to an Asian girl who is making a selfie, towering above her to capture the exact image he’s after. The girl looks up in surprise, as if she were just too late to notice a pickpocket. Powell points at her shopping bag and asks whether she bought a pair of glasses. The girl laughs distractedly, unaware of the fact that she has been immortalized in an image, together with a street vendor and a voluptuously dressed lady in the background.
It has become more and more of a challenge for Powell to capture an interesting image. There are more people on the streets than ever, but most of them are distracted and absent. ‘I do try to look at people being present in some type of moment. I search for those moments in which the city and the people in it merge. Moments that occur less and less. It absolutely requires awareness on my part.’
‘In photography they talk about ISO, how sensitive the film is. For me, making those pictures was about turning my own ISO, my own sensitivity up very very high. How little of something can I be prepared for, and take a photograph of?’
On Madison Square an old man stands in front of a wooden sculpture, taking off a glove to feel the wood. Powell is just seconds too late with his camera. The moment has passed. He does approach the man however, making me wonder whether he’ll ask him to repeat the gesture—but no, Powell never directs his subjects.
The right moment is important for a street photographer, but if he sees someone scratching his back while the frame isn’t just right, he waits. ‘People repeat themselves. If you see a gesture, and you miss it, wait—the itch doesn’t go away.’ He seems less concerned with waiting for something to happen than tracking it down and finding it. ‘Every day I decide to make pictures, things are happening. Everywhere. Even though I’m just going out with a camera I feel like the author of everything that’s in the frame.’
Whereas most photographers control the light and the subjects of their photos, Powell submits himself to the moods of the city. The main thing he controls is the four corners of a photo. He decides where the picture begins and ends. And that’s his biggest power.
In many of his pictures not much seems to be happening at first glance, only a closer look will reveal ‘the fragment of an untold story.’ A woman holding an umbrella with a floral print in one hand, hiding a bunch of flowers behind her back with the other—the repetition of visual elements creates a pleasant rhythm and an awareness of someone else’s proximity. Still we’ll never know whether the other person shows up. Or a man in a raincoat, his head bowed, passing a window where a plastic flower peeps through the curtains; the man appears to be pursued by the shadow of a lamp-post. The sadness of the man’s posture is reinforced by the lamp-post’s shadow. Little moments that quickly pass you by in the chaos of the whole, but which bring a city back to human proportions.
Characterizing and ironizing people are familiar approaches in photography, Diane Arbus comes to mind, but that isn’t Powell’s interest. ‘I have a lot of affection for the human experience. I do believe that we have more in common than we have not in common.
The corner of 6th Avenue and 34th Street is known as New York’s Paradise for street photographers. Sunlight falls exactly between the skyscrapers and at the intersection all the pedestrian crossing lights turn green simultaneously, resulting in a square of walking people. Four young photographers speak to Powell, hastily, looking about, not wanting to miss anything. A female colleague is in pursuit of a homeless man with her camera, clicking away.
With the rise of the smartphone, everybody is a photographer. Every moment pictures might be taken of you, either by cell phones or surveillance cameras. Wherever we are, there’s always an extra eye spying on us. ‘We have a different way of relating to the ‘self’ nowadays. Much more self-conscious.’ Cameras are used more and more to focus the perspective on ourselves, instead of on the world around us. We see ourselves more often, but do we see ourselves more truly? We get to know our self as an image, as a picture we can manipulate and retouch, pictures which have less and less to do with who we really are.
‘It’s harder and harder to make a picture without having someone in the picture who’s aware of it.’ The distance between the subject and his camera is increasing, as he wants to catch his subjects in an unguarded moment.
Powell often seems like a Dutch tourist, tall and affable as he is, dressed in kaki-pants. ‘Sometimes they can’t believe it’s me taking a picture of them. If someone’s paying attention you pretend you’re photographing something behind them.’
At the next intersection, three girls in pink outfits and high heels pretend to be eating slices of pizza. They are being photographed and instructed to repeat the same movements. Powell registers the scene. A guy on a skateboard stops to take a picture of Powell. A passerby takes a picture of that. Powell takes another picture. All responding to one another with the click of a camera. Powell then shows me the image on his screen: a scene where everyone’s taking pictures of everyone else—except the girls are left outside the frame. ‘Sometimes you just cut out the catastrophe.’