UntitledGus Powell, photos and captions. review by Ed Barnas
How important is the caption to a photograph? In journalism, it is essential to provide the who-what-where-when needed by the viewer to place the visual information in context. And just as the photographer can skew what the viewer is shown by choice of vantage point and framing, the caption writer can skew the viewer's interpretation of the image by the selective use of text. In the realm of the art gallery, however, the viewer is expected to judge the image on its visual merits. Captions rarely appear on the wall next to photographs. Visitors must refer to a printed list with captions that run the gamut from informative to obscure, but in many cases simply say “untitled.” Only in rare cases does the caption enter into a dialog with the image. Gus Powell's series “The Lonely Ones” at the Sasha Wolf Gallery is one such instance. Each of the fifteen color photographs on display is presented with an adjacent caption card that speaks directly to it (in fact, purchase of the print includes a letterpress copy of the associated caption card).
The images are in the “modern” mode of street photography: photographed in color, horizontal format, and not strictly limited to the urban thoroughfares. The palette ranges from bold colors in bright sun to the softer shades of overcast and fog. Each caption reads like a line of dialog. Powell took his inspiration from "The Lonely Ones" by William Steig, the classic 1942 collection of simple line drawings with annotations. The tone is quiet, almost reserved, and varies from humor to pathos, at time with a bit of the surreal. (This is Powell's second series inspired by work in another medium: his Lunch Pictures series was inspired by Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems and comprise his first book, The Company of Strangers.)
In some the humor of the word-image interaction readily hits the viewer: “We are here to make you happy” is paired with the image of a foggy hilltop covered with colorful beach chairs; “I could've been an entrepreneur,” with a photo of the remains of an office chair and an old manual typewriter. In others, it is more existential: “I don't think too much about happiness” offers a car on a foggy street, the light is green but no turns are permitted; “It's not what I expected” accompanies a muted wintry scene of a blank roadside sign and bold arrow as a yellow school bus pulls away in the opposite direction. And then there are those with a bit of mystery, either obvious (“Who's there?” with a foggy view of tire tracks in the grass) or more subtle (“Ungrateful bastards,” two men, a car stuck (?) in the sand, and a blimp).
The question arises: do these captions enhance or detract from the images. I admit that I did not “get” some of the pairings and felt that several of the images could easily stand alone (“Untitled”). However, on the whole I enjoyed the show. Powell is a contributor to the New Yorker (as was Steig before him) and there is a definite New Yorker flavor to these pairings. It made me think that the Cartoon Caption Contest had embraced photography. This was best exemplified for me by “Let's not ruin it by talking,” a mid-distance view of a woman looking at a horse, in harness, standing next to a construction site.
An expanded selection from The Lonely Ones series is available in book form, printed in same 5x7-in. size as Steig's book. The designer has done an admirable job of giving primacy to the captions and yet presenting the horizontal images without mangling them across the page gutter: On each spread the reader sees a caption on the right-hand page and must lift the inner edge to reveal a foldout of the matching image. Far from the 20x24-in. prints on display, these 6.5 x 8-in. reproductions are more than adequate in the book's setting.
Gus Powell The Lonely Ones Sasha Wolf 70 Orchard St. Lower Manhattan - East Map 212 925 0025 sashawolf.com Jan 13 through Sat, Feb 27, 2016 Hours: Tue-Sat, 12 to 6