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.
The 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