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Sunday, 24 February 2013


Snapshots of cars

“I don't even like old cars. I'd rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake.”
J. D Salinger

“Money may not buy happiness, but I'd rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.”
Francoise Sagan

It’s no wonder people used to take so many beautiful snapshots of their cars. From the 1920s through to the 1950s a car was the most expensive possession a lot of people were likely to own and they loved them. A first car was often like a first relationship; it gave you trouble and broke your heart but years later you looked back and realized everything that came after was somehow connected to it. Technologically speaking, the car reached its zenith sometime in the late 1970s. Before then, designs changed radically within a decade and innovations like the automatic gearbox, radios and power steering changed the whole concept of driving. Post late 1970s, all we’ve had are improvements. No, GPS helps you get from point A to B but its doesn’t change driving the way the dashboard mounted automatic gearshift, disc brakes or fuel injection did. All of these photos express a love of cars, of people’s own cars, the idea of driving or the acknowledgement that without cars the world would be emptier and less engaging.
Take this photo: from Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian empire, some 30 kms outside of Baghdad. On the back the photo is dated tentatively to be 1920, but it could be earlier, when Ctesiphon was still in the Ottoman Empire. Note the men wearing fezes. We can say it is earlier than 1925. The point is however that if the men are Turkish and resident in Baghdad, to get out to the ruins in the days before cars, which was not so long before this photo was taken, they probably needed a day. Now, with the Model T in the background (I tend to assume all cars in the 1910s are Model Ts), it took a couple of hours at most and once there they could marvel at the splendours of Ancient eastern Empires, so much more civilized than the vicious and untrustworthy British one crowding in on their land. The invention of the automobile didn’t just bring the world closer, it also brought history, national identity and cultural memory into the fold.

According to the back of this snapshot – and it was written fairly recently, by a car enthusiast – this is a Durant, C1929. The Durant wasn’t just a car. William Durant cared about cars in a way Henry Ford didn’t. He thought they should be fine objects assembled from the finest components available, which were the two points Ford disagreed on. If there is another plane inhabited by visionary capitalists he is probably there now, looking down on the parlous American automobile industry and saying; ‘I saw that coming’. Durant’s vision destroyed him. He made great cars that few could afford but, being American, he was loathe to go all the way and produce a luxury car for the elite, hoping for some compromise. None appeared and Durant was bankrupted. Today, in an era of easier credit (until recently anyway) the Durant would thrive. Notice how the car has been taken off-road so to speak. I suspect the owner wanted a loving portrait of his car but if he kept it on the tarmac the shot was liable to be spoiled by other traffic. Notice too how well placed the power line is. He, or she, cared about the car and the way it should look.

What an excellent photo – of a Packard, probably the 120. It was taken somewhere in the South West USA, as is evident from the building and the man’s outfit. He looks like he could be law though I’m inclined to think he could also be some kind of guide. She definitely looks like she has come from the city. Observe the way they stand; typical of what you’d expect of two people who’d only recently met but had no reason to feel uncomfortable with each other. Look at the dust on the car too. This vehicle is not used to the backroads or the desert. Chances are, it was driven out from LA, San Francisco or Phoenix. Not sure at all what the bike is doing there.

Two Turkish people, somewhere on the French Mediterranean in the 1930s. No idea what the car is but it’s a fine example. Did they drive from Istanbul? It’s possible though I doubt it. In the 1930s that would have involved crossing Yugoslavia and the roads would have wreaked havoc on the car. My guess is they drove down from Paris or hired the car in the town. Note the sign, “John Taylor and Son” behind them. The company still exists and still specialises in real estate around Monaco. The couple are on the holiday of a lifetime. It will probably end in tears on the steps of a casino. Passing them on his way in, Graham Greene will make a mental note: ‘foreign couple, streaked mascara, car keys hanging limply from his trembling fingers’.

Montreal, or more accurately, Quebec. Again the car is a mystery but it is expensive, and she is standing in exactly the position women of particular breeding did when the chauffeur was taking the photo. Of course, it could be her husband but maybe in the not too deep recesses of her mind she sees little difference. Needlessly we point out the obvious; it is winter, she is cold but this is the age before miracle cures like Wynn’s anti-freeze, when cars were expected to deal with all kinds of weather so they did. I can’t help feeling that what the photographer loved about this photo wasn’t her – come on, she looks a little tough in her Astrakhan coat and spectacles – but the life; the car, the neighbourhood, the rare pleasures a Quebecois could afford in the 1950s.

Still in Quebec, (look at the number plate) on the 19th of August 1951. It is high summer, time to get away, though not too far out of town. I have a number of theories about this photo and why it was dated. One is that the man just bought the car it looks new and he leans on it with a certain affection. It’s the date though that matters. Whoever took this photo cared about the car only so much as it tied in with the date. He could have bought it two weeks earlier but this was the first day they went out for a drive, or no matter what he thinks or even told the photographer to do, the car isn’t the detail that makes the photo special to whoever took it.

Turkey, the land of Kool Kola Koka, and let’s be frank, the boy looks like he has had one or two bottles in his life. But that is not why the photo is great, and neither for once is the car. All the elements, from the pattern on his knitted cardigan, the sign and the car in the background and the curve of the one he rests on make this a snapshot of a boy any mother would be proud of. He knows it is good but he has no idea about the parts at work behind him. That’s what makes a snapshot great; all the elements are oblivious of each other.

The same principle but a little more mysterious. There are three main components here; the car, the sign and the two people in a kind of symmetry. What was the photographer looking at? The scene as it unfolded? This reminds me of Fred Herzog’s photos, except he was working with colour slides. It has a similar ambience and when I had cause to look at Herzog’s photos recently one question kept bothering me. When you look at his work it’s hard to say whether you are drawn in by the composition or the nostalgia. So many of his photos are full of such details as the beautiful cars that you need to remind yourself you are looking at work by someone who maybe didn’t care about those things. Or maybe he did. Maybe he thought that 1960s Cadillacs had a special way of transforming images. Maybe if you found cars and Neon a bit dull, you’d think the same about his photos. There’s so much movement in this image. Don’t you love the way Americans could think “Sav-on TV and Appliance Co.” made sense? “Let’s butcher the language: Ah, now I understand it.”


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