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Flashback

Gus Powell: The Lonely Ones

On view this month at Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York, Gus Powell’s poetic text-and-image series was featured in the Lit issue of Aperture magazine, which explored the relationship between pictures and words. Here’s a look back.

By Heidi Julavits

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Gus Powell, The Lonely Ones, 2014 © Gus Powell. (Scroll right to see selections from the series.)

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The Lonely Ones is not alone—it is the second of its kind. Photographer Gus Powell’s photobook The Lonely Ones is, in his own words, a “cover album” of the original, written and illustrated by William Steig in the early 1940s. Steig was a regular New Yorker illustrator and author of beloved children’s books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Spinky Sulks and Shrek (to name the ones still on my bookshelf). In The Lonely Ones, Steig paired a single sentence—“I’m no good”—with a single character of Steigian tragicomic proportions—in this case, a character wearing only his underwear and tied upside down by his ankles to a rope. Perhaps Steig’s refusal to fill to the margins his available white space (his characters float in a void on the right-hand page; the sentence settles to the bottom on the left), in addition to the inexplicability of the connections between his words and images, led Wolcott Gibbs, in the book’s foreword, to proclaim, “this book, obviously, is not for everyone. A good many people will find it obscure and, consequently, exasperating.”   

But what is the value of the book that is “for” everyone? Some books are powerful because they make you believe they were written expressly for you to find. Powell’s The Lonely Ones made me believe this; his work feels like intercepting a series of mysteriously encoded communiqués. Instead of illustrations, Powell pairs his photographs with “captions” that more resemble confessions to the self, or stern fortunes yielded by a cookie of cosmic provenance. They are messages for sure—perhaps even warnings. (“Let’s not ruin it by talking.”) Powell’s photographs are yearningly voyeuristic, as in, I want to see and understand what’s happening here. I look at his pictures and think genial aliens are spying on us and this is how, to the best of their deep-space abilities, they make sense of what they perceive. I sense a heartbreaking desire to connect with, and maybe warn against, a situation gone slightly or wildly wrong. But the desire to unambiguously communicate seems doomed to productively fail; that failure is communicated by the vast amount of white space in which Powell’s words, like Steig’s characters, float. But in this white space is where the true connection happens; this is where the viewer fills in the literal distance between the words and the image. We connect with both the visible and the implied people in these photographs by investing in them our imaginative energies. Obscurity or exasperation—of the sort Gibbs carefully cautioned against—here yields to inspiration, also a form of companionship. We befriend the lonely ones. We write their stories in the gaps.

Heidi Julavits is the founding editor of the Believer and the author, most recently, of The Folded Clock: A Diary.

This article was originally published in Aperture issue 212, Fall 2013, available for purchase or in the Aperture Digital Archive.

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