Gus Powell, Family Car Trouble

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by TBW Books (here). Hardcover, 128 pages, with 74 color reproductions. In an edition of 940 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A relationship triangle lies at the heart of Gus Powell’s new photobook Family Car Trouble, but it isn’t a typical story of adult romantic entanglements. Powell’s triangle is instead drawn between his young daughters, his aging father, and his broken-down 1993 Volvo station wagon, and his gently intimate visual narrative intertwines this unlikely trio into an integrated whole filled with honest warmth and emotion. This is a photobook with a vital beating heart, one that feels close, personal, and authentically touching.

Unlike many photobooks that attempt to craft a sense of narrative from a series of disconnected images, Powell’s narrative is almost novelistic in its linearity – the story begins, time passes and events take place, and the story ends, in a relatively straight line progression. So the ordering and sequencing of the photographs pushes the story forward, the rhythms of those choices creating the links between the three protagonists.

Thematically, Family Car Trouble wrestles with the balance of simultaneous opposites: beginnings and ends, or more starkly, life and death. We follow along as Powell’s two young daughters and his elderly father pass their days, the girls with dolls, dancing, and various forms of improvised play, the sick grandfather with a slow slip toward the end of his life, the two opposing trajectories (up and down) subtly, and often poetically interleaved.

This deliberate mixing of narrative arcs is most apparent in spreads that pair two images together, and Powell consistently finds grace and tenderness in his inspired combinations. He sees parallels in spiky hair on the backs of heads, caring for injuries, penetrating stares, introspective moments, the enveloping whiteness of snowfall and bedding, the watery streams of a cooler and a catheter, and the geometric patterns of a bedframe (and cast shadows) and a walker. He even arranges one spread to create the appearance of the grandfather attentively watching as the younger girl climbs precariously on the stairs, even though the two moments are unrelated. These pairings compellingly knit the generations together, the notes of love and care reaching in both directions.

This isn’t to say that Powell’s single images are any less poignant or memorable. Many catch fleeting details – a rainbow cast under his daughter’s eyelashes, faint sleep lines imprinted on skin, the breezy wisps of his wife’s hair at the beach, and the undulations of a blue blanket stretched thin. In the context of the story, perhaps the saddest image is one where one of the daughters reaches into the sky, trying to grasp a tiny parachuter floating far off over the water; the next image shows her grandfather (no longer living) at his wake, so it’s as if his spirit was flying away at that exact moment she was reaching for (or waving to) him.

In the first two thirds of Family Car Trouble, the Volvo is the most unreliable of the three main characters in the story. Even though it is also clearly loved (the girls play on its roof and write their names on its fogged windows), it gets hauled away on a flatbed truck, is worked on in one garage and then another, and flashes a blinding red array of warning lights. But just as it is needed most, at the moment of the grandfather’s death, it seems to rise to the challenge of being supportive. Most of Powell’s pictures after the wake use the car as a framing device, as if it has wrapped its protective arms around the family. Wet streaks and rainy mists cloud the windshield like tears, and the car sits stoically nearby at the burial. We then see Powell’s wife in its shadows, the daughters resting against its doors, and a touchingly optimistic pinwheel draped out the window, the story ending with the girls perched on the hood, looking out at the endlessness of the bright sea. The grandfather may be gone, and the life cycle may continue, but that stubborn car is sill there.

Like Phillip Toledano’s Days with My Father (which charts somewhat adjacent emotional terrain), Family Car Trouble is life affirming, even when the end comes. Powell has made the vulnerabilities and small moments of his family feel universal, their emotional balancing act not so different from our own.

Collector’s POV: Gus Powell is represented by Sasha Wolf Projects (here) and Lee Marks Fine Art (here). Powell’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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