Photoeye: Book of the Week

The Lonely Ones
by Gus Powell
Published by J&L Books, 2015

This essay was originally published in Photoeye, October 2015.

Waking up this morning, I realized that few photobooks sit so fittingly on my mess of a bedside table – alongside a pile of back-issues of The New Yorker, my ten-year-old son's battered copy of There's Treasure Everywhere: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection, and a Penguin Classics edition of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (which opens with the line, "I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.") – as Gus Powell's intimate and beautifully curious The Lonely Ones, recently released by J&L Books. Taking inspiration from a 1942 publication of the same name by the celebrated cartoonist William Steig (whose work, like Powell's, was regularly featured in The New Yorker), Powell pairs and then hides each of his quizzical photographs behind a gatefold that contains a carefully matched, one-line text: "Let's not ruin it by talking", "Mistakes were made", "We've met before", "Remember?" It's rare that, when text is paired with image, it not only provides a particular window of insight for the viewer, but also reflects multiple meanings to prismatic effect, prying open already open-ended photographs even further. Yet here, seemingly simple scenes and encounters – a fluffy white cloud cresting over a desert hill; a ponytailed woman staring across a sidewalk at a chestnut-colored horse; a discarded green bottle surrounded by sharp, pale rocks; a monarch butterfly caught mid-flight; and so on – are enriched with a hint of quiet, personal poignancy, that is at once both playful and profound. Or, to quote one of my son's (and my own) favorite comic-strips:

(Calvin, holding a shovel and wearing a pith helmet, sits besides Hobbes in a freshly dug hole in the ground.)

Hobbes: What have you found?
Calvin: A few dirty rocks, a weird root, and some disgusting grubs.
Hobbes: On your first try??
Calvin: There's treasure everywhere!


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