Q&A: Gus Powell on Street Photography as Poetry
July 13, 2018
“Pretzel” (2017) from Gus Powell’s ongoing series of personal street work called “Mise en Scène.” Powell tells students in his street photography classes "not to be sneaky, because you have people who are trying to shoot from the hip or be misleading, and if you get caught doing that—if you feel guilty, then you’re guilty. The most important thing for me is being open and present."
"Fire” (2017), a New York street scene from Gus Powell’s series of personal street work called “Mise en Scène.”
Gus Powell, a member of the street photography collective iN-PUBLiC, author of two monographs of street photography and frequent workshop teacher here explains the how and why of his practice. To read more about how Powell and other street photographers work, see the feature in PDN’s July issue, “Street Photographers on Success, Methods, Motivation and Overcoming Fear.”
PDN: How and when did you get interested in street photography?
GP: I’m a native New Yorker. I used to collect a lot of trash—gloves squashed on the street, hubcaps, I would bring these weird objects home, and I think of those as the first photographs I dragged home, and at some point I switched to carrying a camera. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know the history of photography. At a certain point I discovered [Garry] Winogrand’s Figments from the Real World. As a native New Yorker, part of me feels like I’m doing the indigenous photography of my village. Joel Meyerowitz was my great mentor, and [he demonstrated] that projection of joy, that projection that you are doing work that affirms something that you think is beautiful, wonderful or compelling in the world, whether it’s a person or a blue wall.
PDN: Do you have particular strategy?
GP: There’s always a prompt that gets my attention when I’m walking. It could be a piece of light hitting a corner, it could be a character wearing something. I often work at a certain spot and it’s about taking advantage of everything that’s there. When I talk about making a picture, [as opposed to taking a picture], it’s really putting myself on the hook to be accountable for everything that’s happening in the picture.
As photographers we know that those four corners, precisely where you put them, changes everything. Half an inch to the left or the right, a bend of the knee—you make all those decisions. [It’s about] pre-visualizing, imaging what you want to have happen. It shouldn’t be: That’s cool, let me point the camera and press the button. It should be: How do I put it in a context and control as many things as possible? Things I respond to could be as ephemeral as a napkin blowing in the wind, or a beautiful woman or beautiful man, and then it’s: How much could I add to that picture? Really think about yourself as the author of these pictures, as opposed to just being somebody who’s just using the camera to replicate things. Make a new idea or new thing. What is it to make something that’s compelling that doesn’t immediately reveal what it is?
I divide pictures into nouns and verbs. Most pictures are nouns: this is what the house looked like, this is what the girl looks like, these are the shoes that are for sale. There’s this idea that the great pictures are verbs, they’re alive, there’s something that happened in those four corners, that only happened there. It’s something that the photographer made, and it’s alive and ripe in the photograph, and people crave that. But it requires a different type of looking.
PDN: What are some lessons or exercises you teach students to get them to this point? From just taking a picture to making it more intentionally?
GP: I start by talking about sketching. Painters have sketches and preliminary drawings that lead up to that fully realized painting. Be willing to take the camera and grab little things, knowing that’s not going to be some great picture, but being as open as possible and have small things prompt you. And second, validate those sketches. Live with those bad pictures, where you were in the wrong spot, the light was off, you had a technical problem, or it could be just a messy frame. For any number of reasons it could be off, but there’s something in it that you could learn from. It’s about being very open about making many types of pictures. Any time you get that little tingle, something catches your eye, listen to that, and try to react as quickly as possible.
Editing is such a huge part of photography. It’s not just [about] putting it out there and seeing what people like, it’s about which of these pictures are your voice, and what is it about this sketch that didn’t come together, but still it keeps speaking to you. it could be a gesture, or location or time of day, or an idea about how do you make a picture about wind and how you would apply that to something else. It’s learning to get lessons from your bad work.
PDN: How long did it take you to find your voice?
GP: It’s still going on. This is a big part of street photography: There are eight types of pictures everybody tries to make, and once you get good enough to make them, what do you do with them? And that’s when you have to start thinking about editing and sequencing and what your voice is, and that’s when you loop back and look at the pictures you didn’t think much of before. When I did my first book, The Company of Strangers, it was inspired by Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. I had been given that book of poetry Frank O’Hara made on his lunch hour and it gave me permission to make a body of work on my lunch hour, and on my way to work. I almost finished putting the book together, and I stopped because I thought I had too many of certain types of pictures, then I went back in, looked at everything again, and found these images that were the connective issue of creating a walk and a sense of place and storytelling, rather than a repetition of a certain type of esthetic, kinetic pictures.
PDN: What are these eight types of pictures?
GP: That’s a random number, but there are a lots of visual rhymes: the advertisement [juxtaposed with a gesture or action of a passer-by], or six people all wearing blue. There’s a lot of humor, [and it’s] a lot of fun to find humor in the human condition as it’s happening on the sidewalk. Also, photography can traffic in irony pretty easily.
PDN: It can, and that gets old.
GP: It does. It’s the same joke. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make those pictures. I still do. It fits in this thing of sketching. It’s like doing scales, it keeps you limber. But it does get old. There’s this connection between skateboarding and street photography. You see some skateboard tricks, and you can tell it’s difficult, but it’s speaking to itself: it’s mastery of kick-flip and this, that an the other [trick]. But it’s somebody kind of just talking to themselves to some degree. Whereas, what does it mean to communicate something? The tropes, and certain types of pictures, it’s insider baseball: Oh, you got that. But where does it go? What are you trying to communicate? What’s your point of view of the world? What’s the question you’re trying to ask? That’s what’s exciting. It’s wonderful to see so many people making these types of pictures but the real goal is: Let’s talk about communication and put it into a poetic tradition rather than a photographic tradition. Street photography, at least for me, is kind of the poetry of photography. It’s free-form, it’s loose, it’s intimate, it’s lonely, it’s romantic, it relates to that tradition. I’m interested in that part of it.
PDN: How do you get from technical mastery to the poetry?
GP: Sharing the work is important, and I’m not just talking about single images, but bodies of work. Whether you’re trying to make a ‘zine or a book, edit it as a body of work, and really think about it as a body of work rather than a collection of your greatest pictures. The biggest challenge is moving from trying to make amazing single images to trying to make a body of work and really thinking about what you’re interested in. What’s the space between the pictures? Why am I doing this? Am I trying to make a picture that kind of looks like an Alex Webb picture? What do you do when you have a picture that kind of has that look? What do you do next?
PDN: Do you usually stand on a corner, or walk around?
GP: It’s both. When I teach street photography 101, it’s fishing and following, fishing and following. You have a corner you like and a spot, and there’s that subway entrance that every three-and-a-half minutes delivers another group of remarkable human beings for you to look at, and the light’s interesting for this passage of time, and so you keep fishing that spot, and then there’s one person who’s kind of interesting or stands out, or you see something across the street, and you follow that, or you follow the light, and then you fish somewhere else. I have this body of work called Mis en Scene, meant to be edge to edge, and everything in the picture is part of it, so for those I live in a certain spot, getting something to come together. But then you top out from that and you take a picture of somebody doing something strange with their hands, and the guy combing his hair with a plastic fork, and you know, pictures you take because they’re there, and they keep you alert.
PDN: What camera do you use?
GP: I use a Leica MP240.
PDN: Do you interact with people?
GP: I’m 6’5’’, I’m not invisible. It’s super physical work. How you move, how you project with your body, and how you interact is really important. A lot of people want to learn how you move. And do you talk or don’t you talk. The biggest thing that comes up when I’m teaching is telling people not to be sneaky, because you have people who are trying to shoot from the hip or be misleading, and if you get caught doing that—if you feel guilty, then you’re guilty. The most important thing for me is being open and present.
PDN: Do people ever challenge you?
GP: Sometimes. I haven’t been in a lot of trouble. I’m not interested in anything I would feel bad about doing. At the same time I have to feel good about everything I’m doing, so I do have to talk to people. Sometimes it’s as simple as a huge smile and saying,”You look beautiful, it’s a fantastic day.” That projection of positivity—genuine positivity, it’s not bullshit—is incredibly defusing and honest. The people I’ve got in the most trouble with are often the guy who is across the street, in his underwear, with a parrot on his shoulder, who thinks I took his picture and I didn’t even see him. It’s these people who are demanding attention of others. They give you static.
PDN: It doesn’t sound like you have any fear. A lot of people struggle with the anxiety of getting close. It’s pretty weird to point a loaded camera at people you don’t know.
GP: Right. So I have to steel up for that every day, too, and that’s part of this sketching: start by taking a picture of the plastic bag that’s blowing down the street, then work your way up. I have exercises where I force myself to make what I call five headshots: get really close, while you’re waiting or a light, and try to make those pictures, and see what happens—so close that there’s no way they could believe you’re actually taking their picture, using your body language to make them think that maybe you’re photographing the person next to them, or behind them. I move a lot, too, I’m constantly moving, that’s part of my bluffing.
PDN: I’m imagining a bunch of people standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change, and you’re facing them directly from three feet away. You’ll get that close and be that obvious?
GP: Yeah. One thing that is really powerful about staying in one spot and working is that you start to own that location. And if you literally work in that way and people are coming through, you’re going to have more people apologizing fro you or getting in your picture than you having to say sorry to them.
And that can be another way to earn a certain type of strength. I think street photographers, we’re in the same union with the guys handing out flyers, the people selling hot dogs, all these other people who use the pedestrian flow to make a living. Feeling a connection to [them], and thinking about it as your job, is really important. You do have to steel up, you know? But you can’t feel guilty or feel bad about it.
PDN: What is the market for street photography?
GP: [Clients] don’t necessarily think you can translate the skills you have or the ability you’ve used to make those personal street pictures into something that can deliver on a job. And yet, those of us who work this way and work really hard, we’re at the gym all the time: This muscle is being flexed to organize things quickly and intuitively, and some [street photographers] can really flourish [with assignments]. I’ve done a lot for magazines, fashion [clients], some advertising, book jackets, and when I show my work [to potential clients], what I talk about is that I’m a photographer of experience. I photograph life being lived in public space. That’s something I can translate into any number of other environments.
You need to talk about what your voice is. People are not going to ask you to take street pictures on 5th Avenue at 34th Street. But if you can talk about the skills that you have that go into making those pictures, and if you can talk about what your voice is and what interests you, then that’s something that [clients] can begin to imagine and use you in another context.
PDN: Is there a fine-art market for street photography?
GP: They’re tough pictures to sell [as prints]. I’ve sold some. Book making is a huge part of my practice. Most of us do this work because we don’t have a choice. It fills us up in a specific way. I think of it as scratching an itch, the part of it I love most is being out on the sunny side of the street with the light at my back and pressing the button. Sometimes I don’t even want to look at the pictures afterwards. But just trying to scoop these things up, that’s the real joy. Monetizing that is a tricky thing.
—Interview by David Walker
Street Photographers on Success, Methods, Motivation and Overcoming Fear
Photographers on What “Street Photography” Means to Them
Q&A: Alex Webb on Street Photography as Exploration and Discovery with the Camera
Street Photographers: The Gear They Carry
For more about “Based on a True Story,” Gus Powell’s upcoming workshop on street photography and bookmaking, click here.