Adam Harrison Levy | Slideshows

Cars R Us

Woman waiting to proceed south at Sunset and Highland boulevards, LA, at approximately 11:59 a.m. one day in February 1997, photo by Andrew Bush

Seen in the light of the near terminal collapse of the automobile industry, made especially dramatic by the recent bankruptcy of General Motors, Andrew Bush’s photographs, featured in his book Drive, and in two recent shows in New York (at the Yossi Milo Gallery and the Julie Saul Gallery) remind us just how intimate we have become with our cars. 

Yawning, talking, screaming, day-dreaming, smoking, smiling, or gazing: these are just some of the things that we do behind the wheel. We watch the road and perform thousands of infinitesimal neurological motor movements. We drive. We drive thu, we drive in, we drive by. We tell callers on our cell phones that we’re “on the road”, with all the epic grandeur that phrase connotes, even though it’s Saturday afternoon and we’re heading out to the shopping mall, the Little League field or to the pet store to pick up kibbles for the cat.

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There is poignancy here. The halcyon days are now gone, the golden age of the automobile becoming clear in retrospect (I propose 1956–2009, i.e. from the birth of Interstate highway system to the recent collapse. RIP). These images document the swan song of that era.

Rather than being a nostalgic tribute to our culture’s most characteristic cars (the Ford Mustang, the Buick Electra, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac GTO, the 1969 Dodge Charger, etc.) these photographs are about something more than technology. They are about our relationship with these machines. Photographed on the open road, using a high powered flash mounted on the door frame of a car and a medium format film camera, these images are surprising in their ability to capture our close involvement with these automobiles, how we have merged with them both physically and emotionally.

These images probe a space that has been relatively undocumented: the private/public space of the car in motion, one of the most intensely personal public spaces in our modern landscape. We can all recall moments of exhilaration, pathos, fear, sex and death experienced in the interior of our cars — the place where we often have our most meaningful conversations, our most catastrophic arguments, and our deepest insights.

These photographs remind us of just how closely connected we have become to these machines, how they have become extensions of our very sense of self (a feeling of identity that the advertising industry has been exploring for years). We have become so close, in fact, that we can hardly see them for what they are — a symbiotic melding of plastic, steel, human flesh and blood (look at the bodies of these cars — pocked and dented and lined they are almost as expressive as our faces). We have made our tools and our tools have made us. It’s been over one hundred years since the combustion engine was first invented and we now eat, drink, talk and die in our cars as naturally as we do in our domestic spaces.

Man traveling southeast at approximately 68 mph on U.S. Route 101 someplace in southern California in the winter of 1997, photo by Andrew Bush

Person driving somewhere in the last decade of the previous millennium (whereabouts unknown), photo by Andrew Bush

There is another reason to admire these portraits; they invite conjecture. We gaze at these anonymous drivers and we wonder where they are going, where they have been, what their lives are like. Unlike photographs of people on the street, or sitting in their homes or offices, there is something about the fact that these subjects have been caught in motion that makes their unresolved narratives especially compelling. They are in media res, in the middle of things, and their frozen moment is more powerful and mysterious as a result.

Have a look at Walker Evan’s Many Are Called, portraits of riders on the New York subway from the late 1930 and early 1940s, and a useful historical precedent. Here faces and bodies are constrained. Their range of emotion is limited; these people can be grim, skeptical or amused but they are in public, surrounded by other passengers and a social formality serves to limit them (in a way that actually seems intriguing).

The subjects of Andrew Bush’s photographs, on the other hand, seem freer and more expressive but they are also appear more alone and anxious. They have gained their autonomy but at what price?

Man traveling southbound at 67 mph on U.S. Route 101 near Montecito, California, at 6:31 p.m. on or around the 28th of a summer month on a Sunday in 1994, photo by Andrew Bush

We all have our personal car stories. Babies put to sleep to the sounds of Radiohead; stolen kisses; accidents miraculously averted. I once met a woman who was going through a difficult divorce. She confessed to me that the only place she felt safe enough to cry was when she was driving alone in her car and traveling at 75 miles an hour. She was very specific about the speed; it had to be at 75 miles an hour — fast enough to feel that she could stay ahead of the other cars on the road, alone and independent and not able to be seen, but not too fast where she could lose control of the car. She’d drive out to the highway, reach 75 mph and, wham, all her pent up rage and pain would come bursting out. She’d cry and weep for hours, cross state lines, and then turn around and come home again, drained and exhausted. She drove a Saab, an irony that was not lost on her.

Adam Harrison Levy is a writer and documentary film-maker. He recently worked on the upcoming BBC2 series, The Genius of Design and produced Selling the Sixties, a BBC documentary about consumerism, advertising and culture of the early 1960s.

With this essay, Design Observer is pleased to announce that Adam Harrison Levy will be joining our regular stable of contributing writers. His previous essays on Design Observer may be found here.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Photography

Comments [11]

The lady in the pink Corvette is Angelyne (I think that is the way she spells it). When I lived in LA she at one time had her picture (a HUGE picture) painted on the side of a building in downtown LA....provocatively posed on the hood of the car. She was advertising....well, herself. She was famous for being Angelyne. She came in 28th in the California governor's recall election in 2003, per Wikipedia.
Fort Worth Guy

I love cars. I don't know how this happened to me - and it's not the kind of love that has anything to do with horsepower or what's under the hood. I really do connect to the freedom and the expression and the whole "package" of the shiny facade and the implied bubble of safety charging through the universe at exciting speeds.

I was just thinking about modern cars and how cold/distant and just smooth they are (completely at odds with the photos depicted in this post). I just bought a Prius, and one thing I noticed is how many of them there are on the road and how few in variety of color, interiors, add-ons, etc...they area. I hope someone somewhere gets the big idea to tweak out and customize these kinds of cars and they can begin to integrate with our driving culture more. As we lose the relationship to the mechanical in favor of the digital, I think there is a desperate need for more texture, material and visceral bridge between person and machine. Will anyone in the future have a Prius (or other hybrid) that's all scratched up and dented for example? Will they stick around for 20 years layered and crusted with 21st Century angst and expression? Right now, I don't see it...
Jessica Gladstone

Fort Worth Guy beat me to it, but I have to comment. "Lady in Pink Corvette" is such a funny title to that photo - anybody who lived in L.A. in the 90s would immediately recognize her - Angelyne! I recently saw two younger women driving that same car and worried about Angelyne, what has happened to her? That's so L.A. of me: when she was around I found her to be a bit on the crazy Hollywood annoying side, and now that she's gone I miss her.

Another well observed study of the relationship we have to cars was nicely illustrated in Jacques Tati's film Traffic.

Angelyne is not gone, she probably just ran out of money to advertise herself. I lived in West Hollywood up until two years ago, and saw her in her pink Corvette several times. The first time, she was parked one block from my home, sitting in her car having a conversation with someone. She could see by my smile that I recognized her while walking past, and she blew me a kiss.

Through the '80s and into the '90s, there were billboards up all over L.A. with her picture on it and a phone number. She must have spent millions on these billboards.
David E.

Angelyn is still around!
she is also referenced in a funny song by a local band, MYNX, called "I'm So LA"

Only a decade+ ago and not one person on a cell phone!
Paul Pickard

Never mind Angelyne - Re: The first shot in the slide show: The fact that anyone was moving 76 mph on the 405 at anytime, day or night, is some kind of a miracle.

Nice post.

If these portraits were done today, they would illustrate a new love affair; talking and texting on the damn cell phone, while driving.

How could a BBC producer not recognize Angelyne!

Thanks, KateC. I guess I've spent too much time in London and New York and not enough in LA. She clearly has quite a following!
Adam Harrison Levy

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