Parisian photo exhibition on cars: womb of steel and glass

The charm of badly patched cars: the Fondation Cartier is showing a survey of the interplay between photography and the car.

William Eggleston, Los Alamos series, 1974 Photo: Fondation Cartier

In the middle of the last century, the rich and beautiful liked to drive around in a convertible when the sun was shining on the Côte d’Azur, in Nice, Saint-Tropez, or Antibes. And when they then backed out of the car, photographers had a wonderful opportunity to catch them very close and undisguised. Because then Alain Delon at the wheel of his Ferrari Spider and Jane Fonda as a passenger or in the same constellation Sacha Distel and Brigitte Bardot looked directly into the camera of Edward Quinn, who had set up behind the car.

Quinn’s enchanting paparazzo photos from a time when there were still movie stars instead of celebrities are part of what is probably the most comprehensive survey to date of the interplay between photography and cars. Together with photographer and filmmaker Philippe Seclier, publisher, photographer and curator Xavier Barral undertook this project for the Fondation Cartier in Paris, with Seclier, former editor-in-chief of AUTOhebdo, taking the initiative. The fact that the latter – who comes from a magazine decidedly devoted to automobile racing – answered a colleague’s question about what car he drove with "none" and confessed to riding a bicycle in Paris explains his concern for a stocktaking.

For although nothing has shaped the 20th century as much as the car, its history – as we know well enough – seems to have already come to an end with the 21st century. The visual mass media of film and photography were hardly less influential at this time, albeit with a greater future. The fact that Nicephore Nièpce, who took the world’s first documented photograph in 1827, had already applied for a patent for the first combustion engine with his brother Claude in 1807 points to a related history of invention. It led to a common history of development and use, an inseparable practice.

Photography and the automobile radically changed the perception of time and place. They introduced new ways of seeing things into everyday life in the Western industrialized countries, as well as completely new ideas of mobility and speed or the idea of progress in general. Photography and the automobile set modern society on its way.

Above all, the emphatic idea of individual freedom that took hold in the Western societies of the 20th century is inconceivable without the car. For the first time in the history of mankind, the car made it possible in principle for anyone to get wherever they wanted to go at any time. Narratives then go that in May 1968, students at the Munich Film School realized that they owned a VW Beetle, gas was cheap, and so they could afford to drive to Paris in solidarity with the people from the Cinematèque. There were also female students. And here one must chalk up the exhibition for not knowing what the car meant precisely for the freedom and emancipation of women.

Central goods of the patriarchal society

But this is precisely why the exhibition is so revealing. The car in which one drove through the world warm, protected from the weather, self-motorized and flushed with music, in a man-made womb of steel and glass, this car, so society and the car industry wanted it, could only be a thing for men. Just like the natural wombs, that is, the women. The most gruesome images in the exhibition are therefore the photos taken by Bill Rauhauser around 1975 at the Detroit auto show, showing a sexy young woman next to each new car model. The arrangement designates the car as well as the woman as central commodities of patriarchal society. The horror is surpassed only by the images Jacqueline Hassink took at the corresponding car shows in Geneva, Frankfurt am Main, Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai. Between 20!

Until September 24, Fondation Cartier, Paris, catalog 49 euros.

When had Edward Quinn photographed Francoise Sagan, who, as she said, saw herself as acting only in the car, at the wheel of a Jaguar XK120! 1954. Quinn’s photos hang on the outside wall of a cubic recess on the first floor of the Fondation. Inside, the earliest car shots are on display. Of course, there is Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s famous shot of a road race in Normandy in 1912, in which the spectators on the side of the road tilt away to the left while the car ekes to the right. But then the 19 photos of the "Croisière Noire," a Citroen-funded expedition that crossed the African continent, are surprising. This was followed in 1931 to 1932 by the "Crosière Jaune" through Central Asia. Many pictures show people and animals busy pulling the cars over bridges or steep mountain roads. The roads just leave something to be desired, worldwide, as a 1930 documentary by the tire manufacturer Michelin attests.

Not unlike the Côte d’Azur, being photographed driving a car was also prestigious in Africa and Asia. While the ravishing shots by Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita show African cab drivers and middle-class families in front of their own cars, in China families, couples and singles are placed in dummy cars, as can be seen in lovingly recolored studio shots from the 1950s. Africa is also the setting for the grandiose conceptual artwork "Turtle 1" by Melle Smats and Joost van Onna. The artist and the sociologist followed scrap cars from Europe to Africa, where most of them end up in the so-called Suame Magazine in the city of Kumasi in Ghana.

In this sub-Saharan part of black Africa, some 200,000 craftsmen cannibalize cars, sell used spare parts and repair vehicles. With some of them, Smets and van Onna built Turtle 1 in just twelve weeks, a truck constructed exclusively from found materials, optimally adapted to the environment, robust enough to withstand climate and road conditions, and easy to handle. The Dutch wanted to develop it into a small independent production, but the success of the vehicle moved the Ghanaian cooperation partners to build a luxury version of the car.

A story of failure

Photography therefore repeatedly shows the history of the car as a story of failure. Individually as well as in terms of society as a whole, the Reenactment MfS by Arwed Messmer uses the perverse photographs he found in the files of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR. In order to photographically reenact failed escape attempts by car, the MfS forced the protagonists to go into hiding once again. Throughout, the integration of roads into the landscape and into the city seems to be a disaster. At least that’s how it appears in the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, where the highway in Shanghai looks like the proverbial snake biting its own tail, or in Alex MacLean’s work, where the roads in Arizona all run into the emptiness of the desert. In Europe, the misplanning occurs like a force of nature. In Sue Barr’s photographs, lanky apartment blocks in Naples are spanned by highway bridges that seem like a construction of the volcanic mountains themselves.

Despite the car crashes that Weegee takes in New York in 1940 and Arnold Odermatt in Switzerland in 1964: Photography in the exhibition is by no means only illustration and document of a world changed by the car and its perception. Photography also plays its own games. Ed Ruscha’s photo book "Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles" (1967), which strings together 34 parking lots taken from the air in a series just as succinctly as the title promises, exerted a significant influence initially on Minimal and Conceptual Art, seeing the car parking lot as merely an everyday form like the swimming pool or cracker pastry.

Ruscha also left his mark on a younger generation of photographers such as Lewis Baltz, who belonged to the New Topographies movement that emerged in the 1970s, as did Henry Wessel, for example, with his photographs of extremely elaborate traffic lights in the middle of nowhere. And the god of American photography, Walker Evans, makes his own rhyme with Pop Art with Polaroids of street markings shot in 1973/74. But you really have to see Ronni Campana’s "Badly Repaired Cars Series" from 2016. The Italian photographer captures the tape-covered holes or makeshift exterior mirrors so closely that for all their delightful, ridiculous wit, the images resemble serious and grand abstract compositions.

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