Friday, 1 March 2013

On the Road Again

Cars are notoriously difficult objects to photograph.  Done professionally, it's highly specialised work, and fiercely competitive: just to be in the game, you need to have access to an enormous studio with vast overhead lighting "softboxes" costing hundreds of thousands of pounds and equally vast reflectors which can be manoeuvred into position, not to mention even vaster acreages of mobile neutral background.  It's a big, expensive job.

Apart from the obvious problems of photographing complex and highly reflective surfaces, the main problem is the same one encountered when photographing fashion or products for advertising:  real life does not look real or life-like enough.  Or rather, unfiltered, unaided reality as recorded by a camera is unconvincing and uncompelling to the human eye.  Blemishes, distortions and distractions that our brains filter out of reality when seen through the eye get foregrounded in a 2-D image.  Photographers of objects have to put a lot of work and know-how into manufacturing "eye candy".  Making yet another mid-range hatchback look distinctive is quite a challenge.

More interesting, though -- and, it seems, more difficult, or maybe simply less profitable -- is making photographs that express the reality of the experience of driving, rather than merely trying to provoke the desire to buy a new automobile.

I came late to cars -- I was 30 when I passed my driving test -- but discovered I had latent petrolhead tendencies.  I actually don't care much about cars, as such, but it turns out I'm a good, safe driver, who loves to drive, in pretty much any conditions.  Stop-start trips through town?  Emergency dashes to the railway station? Long motorway cruises at constant euro-speeds?  Narrow country lanes with oncoming tractors?  Snow, ice, rain, fog, hot sun?  It's all good driving to me.  But I don't see much photographic work that truly captures this central modern experience.

There are plenty of visual shorthands that say "road trip".  Quite a few of them were established by Robert Frank in The Americans: the witty shots in the side mirror and the rear-view mirror, the road heading relentlessly for its endlessly-postponed vanishing point, the wide-angle interior shot of the driver's rapt face with lots of wheel and dashboard ...  Frank's influence on the "road trip" genre is inescapable.  Amusing, now, to realise this work was dismissed at the time as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness".  Who knows what seminal work is currently being dismissed by the pundits?

Robert Frank

But few of these instant classics really say much about the experience of driving.  Anyone who drives -- and some mornings it can seem that everyone in the world drives -- knows that driving is not simply "sitting in a car behind the wheel".  It's a whole mindset that can include boredom, anger, meditative silence, lively conversation, one-handed eating, music, disturbing incidental noises ("What was that?"), bizarre roadside scenarios ("What was that?"), aching discomfort, and a pressing need to pee at an early opportunity.

I suppose one might as well complain that most landscape photography has little to say about the experience of walking, from the discomfort of wearing allegedly "breathable" fabrics in steady rain to chasing down windblown maps.  But, in a way, that is what divides sterile "fine art landscape photography" -- basically yawn-inducing eye-candy which is no different in impulse from commercial car photography -- from really-engaged art made in (or from) the landscape.

I like, for example, Todd Hido's use of the car windscreen as a framing and textural device in his books A Road Divided and Roaming.  It captures that feeling of distanced, open-ended discovery you get, as the landscape scrolls past like a back-projection.  Hido, unlike most of us, actually bothers to stop and take a photograph.  To get out of the car -- brushing off crumbs, straightening the back, breathing the air -- would break the spell.  Hido's habitual sense of immanent mystery (and sometimes imminent threat) is very much to my taste.

Todd Hido, A Road Divided

At the other end of the spectrum there is Martin Parr, with From A to B: tales of modern motoring, which was a BBC TV series and book in 1994.  Martin Parr is a much misunderstood one-off, not least by the romantics of photo-journalism (his admission to Magnum was bitterly opposed).  If there's another human being on the planet who is a world class photographer and a collector of watches bearing pictures of Saddam Hussein, not to mention photo-illustrated trays from Butlins, I'd be very surprised.  I had the good fortune to do a workshop with him at Duckspool in 1990.  Martin photographs what is there, not what he wishes to be there, and zeroes in on precisely those things that other photographers would exclude or be repelled by.  He often uses a macro lens and a ring-flash: there are no evocative tricks of the light in Parr-world.  He's all about showing, not telling, and what he shows us about our relationship with cars is true, if not very flattering.  But we make the choices, he simply documents them.

Then there is Lee Friedlander, whose series America by Car is a synthesis of all these approaches, with a big dose of his characteristic irony and humour. He uses the doors, mirrors and windshield of his rental car as a constant presence, so that roadside America becomes a series of tableaux framed by plastic and leatherette.  Robert Frank got there first, but had an altogether more earnest, less 21st century message to convey.

Lee Friedlander, Nebraska 1999

Of course, sometimes it's just a relief to get out of the car, even if it is very wet, windy and cold,and the mist has reduced the visibility to about ten yards.  If you can persuade everyone to get out, that is.


Graham Dew said...

The problem is, in the UK at least, where can you stop to take pictures? Our roads are either so busy or so narrow that you can't just park up anywhere. I don't know how many times I've been out in the car looking to take pictures but have been unable to stop at the interesting places. Much better to be out on foot or two wheels.

"Who knows what seminal work is currently being dismissed by the pundits?" Indeed, and how much is declared as seminal work by the pundits is in fact sloppy tosh?

Mike C. said...


I think I've said before somewhere that what I'd really like is to be driven around, fairly slowly, in an open-topped bus... There's something about the elevated view from a road (or a railway) that is special.


Kent Wiley said...

Here's my recent solution for getting a bit

Inspired by one of your recent photos, Mike.

Mike C. said...


Whoah, that is a seriously over-extended tripod!! Surely it waves from side to side like a sapling in the breeze??

I see you've found another incongruous table and chairs, with a mysterious container. Could be a new genre developing here...


Kent Wiley said...

Indeed, this set up is far from stable. But it's enough of a support to hold a camera while I use the cable release. With a hand to steady it slightly, it didn't seem too shaky.

Does a series a genre make? I don't seem to be able to take a photo without imagining a whole group like it in different locations.

But this is a kit I'm not going to be backpacking, that's for sure! 2 C stands, a 20 pound sand bag, a collapsible reflector, and an eight foot step ladder (plus a camera & lenses) is probably going to limit my range somewhat.

Zouk Delors said...

I guess if this "table-and-two-chairs-in-the-middle-of-nowhere" thing ever takes off as a genre, I'll be able to say I've witnessed a seminal moment in photographic art history!

Best recent media use of the word "seminal" was on a R4 retrospective on the Bloomsbury set referring, to huge groans of delight, to the moment when whatsisname pointed to a mark on whassername's skirts and enquired, "semen?".