“Family car trouble,” by Gus Powell

family car trouble gus powell

by Luca Fiore

“Family Car Trouble, Gus Powell’s latest book, is a photographic novel. It is about family photos taken in the months leading up to the death of his father, Peter, in 2015. At the same time the photographer sees his daughters, Townes and Maude, as they grow up, play and learn about the world. Peter is portrayed in bed or sitting in an armchair, with the signs of a throat operation that made him dumb. The two little ones run around the house, having fun in the snow or walking in the woods. Then the family’s events intertwine with that of Jimmy, the nickname of the 1993 Volto 940 Turbo station wagon that goes in and out of the workshops for never-resolving interventions.

family car trouble gus powellThe girls sleep with their heads resting on the door, dance standing on the roof, play with a pinwheel moved by the wind coming in through the window. Peter turns off little by little, with dignity. From the pillow he seems to be looking up at the ceiling. Then, as you turn the page, his eyes seem to point to the image besides, where Townes and Maude move carefree in the living room. The light innocence of the granddaughters softens the gravity of their grandfather’s slow decline, while the red lights on the dashboard of the Volvo light up like a Christmas tree. At Lucky’s Automotive, the local garage, they do what they can with Jimmy, who has once again arrived with a tow truck.

It’s hard to linger on the funeral portrait of Peter, whose lifeless face is illuminated by the red light in the funeral parlor. Then we see the colours of a sunset from the rain-soaked windshield. Then, still through the glass, a green light. And again a road through the woods. The book closes with Powell from the driver’s seat portraying his daughters sitting on the hood looking out to sea. At a certain point the older one opens her arms and leans forward, as if she wants to embrace the world.

Powell (New York, 1973) made a name for himself in the Street Photography community in the 2010’s, participating in the In-Public collective (which included Joel Meyerowitz and Richard Kalvar, among others). His first images (collected in “The Company of Strangers”, 2003) he called them “Lunch Pictures”: he shot during his lunch break while working as photo editor for the New Yorker. Shots that fit perfectly into the genre that, par excellence, focuses on the “decisive moment”. Over the years, however, his approach to street photography has changed, becoming less narrative and more poetic, as evidenced by “The Lonely Ones”, his 2015 book.

With “Family Car Trouble” (TBW Books) Powell seems to go one step further, taking the narrative vocation out of the single image. If in Street Photography the single shot is a story in itself, here it ends up poured into the sequence of moments that take on strength as a whole. Editing, like editing in cinema, generates the story and enhances the single image by linking it to the previous and the next one.
It cannot be said that it is a photographic diary: Powell does not show his daily life. Or, at least, he doesn’t show it all: rather, he uses elements of his biography as narrative lines for an interweaving of symbolic themes (death, childhood, the unexpected). This allows the story to present itself, at the same time, as personal and universal. And Powell succeeds, inventing the image of the car that loses its shots, in a rare feat for a photographer: he knows how not to take himself too seriously.
A book, as Alec Soth described it as the best photographic volume published in 2019, “as humble, robust and adorable as his 1993 Volvo”.

Il Foglio, 6th May 2020

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“Pleasant Street,” by Judith Black

judith black pleasant street

by Luca Fiore

“Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” was the title of the exhibition with which, in 1991, Peter Galassi inaugurated the direction of the photography department of MoMA in New York. He had a heavy legacy on his shoulders: that of John Szarkowski, the most influential critic and curator of the 20th century.

judith black pleasant street 10In contemporary photography, at least until the mid-seventies, the story of public life visible along the streets had prevailed. Galassi explained that in “The Family of Men”, the historic exhibition of 1955, which Edward Steichen had always curated for Moma, few images were taken inside the houses. Over the years, however, attention had increasingly focused on the story of domestic life, where “pleasures and terrors” intertwine, often remaining invisible to classic street and documentary photography.
That exhibition, in addition to confirming some great names such as Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston or Joel Sternfeld, consecrated authors such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman. Other photographers, especially women, have struggled to stay in the spotlight. Over time, however, thanks also to the publication of quality books, artists such as Sage Sohier, Sheron Rupp, Jo Ann Walters and Mary Frey have returned to being talked about, confirming Galassi’s intuition. The last in chronological order is Judith Black who, thirty years after the MoMA exhibition and 71 years old, publishes her first monograph: “Pleasant Street” (Stanley / Barker, 2020).
Black, in the short introduction page, tells the story of the book: in 1979, a single mother of four, she moved to Cambridge (Massachusetts) to enroll in the MIT photography master, founded and directed until recently by Minor White. She quickly realizes that she could not have traveled or spent much time on the street taking pictures. Her commitments as an assistant at MIT, the courses to follow, and the housework to attend to prevented her. She writes: “Our apartment was dark, but it became my studio. Sometimes the morning light was inviting. There were occasions that asked for a photo, such as a birthday, a graduation, a holiday. Sometimes we ventured to the outdoor steps when the weather got hot. The photos have become my diary, labeled with dates, places and memories.”
Pleasant Street is the name of the street overlooked by the house rented by the photographer, in which Rob also lives, who becomes the stepfather of Laura, Johanna, Erik and Dylan. The book opens with a self-portrait taken ten years earlier, in 1968, in which Black shows herself naked, pregnant with her first-born Laura. The story, if you can call it that, proceeds above all with individual and group portraits from 1979 to 2000.
Johanna in pajamas. Dylan disheveled. Erik sulking. Laura with long hair. Laura with short hair. All blond with mom’s blue eyes. Rob has a seventies mustache, even in the eighties and nineties. Judith notes that the photo of the four children sitting on the steps of the house was taken on July 9, 1982, before leaving for the holidays. On May 29, 1984 Dylan showed Laura’s haircut. On November 6, 1988 Erik is almost 18 years old. Children grow up. Parents grow old. The last shot, which gives the book a moving circular sense, shows Laura, on May 14, 2000: she has her son Malcom in her arms and is pregnant with Cadie.

Black is not so interested in telling family life in terms of “pleasures and terrors” that are consumed within the walls of the house. Yet from the faces of her loved ones both shine through. The innocence of childhood, the restlessness of adolescence, tensions, melancholy. It is, on the one hand, a common family album where we see the passage of time change the features of the faces and the shapes of the bodies. On the other hand, the sequence has the systematic nature of the documentation projects, as well as the technical skill of the professional photographer. Add to this the grace and feminine balance, which here is also a maternal gaze, which knows how to be patient, when you need to be patient, and severe, when you need severity. Speaking of these photos, when not all of them had been taken yet, Peter Galassi wrote: “Seen together they seem to say that true tenderness begins when sentimentalism ends.”

Ilfoglio.it, 3th May 2020

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