Lunch hour anthropology

Guspowell3 My Valentine gave me a book today called The Company of Strangers by Gus Powell.  Pam and I had seen Powell’s photographs at the Museum of the City of New York a couple of weeks ago and we were wowed by how very good his work is. 

This book demonstrates how much anthropological work there is to be done, and that it is open to anyone prepared to engage in simple acts of observation.  Clearly Powell is extravagantly talented as a photographer but some of the power of his work comes I think from a willingness to notice what the rest of us let slip by.  That is to say, there is a Pepysian project here that invites the participation not only of the likes of a Pepys or a Powell, but anyone prepared to pick up a camera or a pen.  Lunch hour anthropology is open to everyone.

And I particularly love the constraint Powell puts in place.  After his inspiration Frank O’Hara, he asks, "what can I see in an hour?"  A constraint of this kind prevents us from being overwhelmed by everything that needs noticing "out there."  A little act of discipline makes the project manageable and this in turns makes the project possible.  I’m going to try it today: one hour, one act of noticing, one act of noticing somehow recorded.   (As it turns out, it was fun, and I have posted the result at a Ning social networking page called "Lunch Hour Anthropology."  Link below)

Powell describes his lunch hour project in the Afterward to the Company of Strangers.  Here’s what he says. 

In the mid 1950’s Frank O’Hara wrote a book called Lunch Poems.  Each day he would step out of his mid-town office, walk his way to the Olivetti typewriter showroom, and band out a poem about "the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon."  For the past few years I have worked behind a desk not far from where O’Hara once sat.  After I was given O’Hara’s book my lunch breaks started to get longer.  Sliding out of the revolving door I found myself transformed into a hungry sailor with one hour of liberty from his ship.  Some days the sidewalk offered a dramatic or romantic one act play; a pedestrian might fall, a couple might kiss…but most of the time I was looking at people who walked towards and away from me.  The quiet gestures of strangers in daylight became significant, and these photographs became my lunch pictures. G.P.


For photographs from Powell’s Lunch Pictures, go to his website here

The Gus Powell exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York is up till March 16, 2008. 

Powell, Gus.  2007.  The Company of Strangers.  Atlanta: J & L Books.  This book may be purchased from the J and L Books website here.  It is also available from here.

The Ning Social Networking page for Lunch Hour Anthropology is here