Behind the wheel

Candid photos of people driving in 1970s California
By Alex Baker | Art | 6 June 2017

From Henry Ford’s revolutionary business model to the way vehicles represent escapism and freedom in a vast country, cars play a vital role in the American dream rhetoric. In the 1970s, Mike Mandel, a then nineteen-year-old budding photographer, wanted to capture the inhabitants of California in their beloved cars. The result was his photo series ‘People in Cars’, which is now being released as a photo book.

Taking a camera to an intersection in San Fernando Valley, half a block from his house, Mandel began to take candid photos of drivers. “I was using a 28mm wide angle lens on my 35mm camera, which meant that I had to get in pretty close to the window to get my shot, and when I did there would inevitably be a reaction: surprise, amusement, and on some few occasions, annoyance,” he tells us in the below interview.

When asked whether he’d be interested in turning this series into a photo book, the photographer revisited his archives. It was here that Mandel surprised himself, seeing complexities in the images that he didn’t take very seriously at the time of shooting; authentic reactions framed by the car windows, using the reflections of the West Coast streets as a glimpse of the outside world.


Alex Baker: So the photos from People in Cars were taken in San Fernando during the 70s, what made you want to release the book now?
Mike Mandel: I had the opportunity to look at the project again. I made these pictures when I was nineteen years old and they had a really interesting sense of risk-taking where I would get fairly close to the car and get some reaction. Then, when I was asked to think of it as a book I went back through all the negatives and sorted through all these pictures that I didn’t take very seriously or I just wasn’t mature enough to appreciate. There were more complicated pictures with the reflections in the windows and the reactions in the cars, and it seemed it was a more interesting project than I firstly recognised when I made them, so it’s kind of fulfilling in that way.

“Most of the people in these cars they didn’t take photographs everyday – today, we take photographs every day on our phone.”

Alex: Do you feel like there would be a change in people’s reactions in the modern day if you were caught doing this, given you took the pictures pretty close to the cars?
Mike: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t think that anybody could get away with doing this without having some kind of maise repellent along with them. People would probably get out of their cars and confront you. I have friends who are street photographers and the amount of shit they have to take from people who are feeling that their privacy is being invaded is pretty consequential, much more to the degree now than it was back when I was taking these pictures. In general, the public feel more paranoid to the “other”, what the “other” might be, what their intentions may be. Most of the people in these cars they didn’t take photographs everyday – today, we take photographs every day on our phone. So, I think it was very odd for them to be confronted by a long haired kid photographer and they tried to make sense of “why?” If I tried it again, I might not live through the project [laughs].

Alex: Your photography tends to focus on the everyday, such as people going about their day-to-day life…
Mike: I was a fairly introverted person. I was inspired by Evans and Frank but had a hard time putting myself out there in the world. The camera seemed to give me a reason to enter into the lives of people who were strangers. The Cars project was easy; the pictures kept coming my way, the cars just kept coming to me, I didn’t have move. Each photograph was another opportunity to make something happen, I surprisingly interrupted a person’s daily routine and created this interchange and the responses were usually so interesting and often quite fun.

Alex: What was it about a photograph that made you decide to include it in the edited series?
Mike: The first twenty were direct confrontations and I wanted to use the wide angle so I could get close enough where people were having to respond to me in some way, that’s where the earlier pictures were. Mostly, the series featured the exaggerated responses and then the ones that I chose to add were a few more subtle reactions. There’s one of this young man sitting in the back seat of the car all by himself and he looked kind of alone, it’s a picture that wasn’t a very strong response to me but more of a psychological appreciation of where he was at that moment. That was one thing that really interested me in those pictures, other things were the reflections in the windows and I didn’t choose those early on because you couldn’t see the people in the cars that well, but here I was now really appreciating some of the interactions between the people in the cars and the outside reflections.

Alex: What was the worst reaction you got from a passing driver?
Mike: The worst one is the one that’s in the book is where the guy is reaching out to grab my camera, he got pretty close. But that’s really the worst, in general what’s interesting to most people is that most of the subjects thought it was really funny and a good part of their day, something unexpected that was such a surprise they were jolted out of their meditation of doing their errands for the day, and they were confronted by this funny guy with a camera. I think we have lost that innocent relationship with people and the “other”, that’s the sadness about the book, there’s a nostalgia to the humour that came out from these people that were responding to me in an off-handed kind of way.

“It reminds me of when things were softer in the world, it’s a good memory.”

Alex: Absolutely, a sense of humour runs throughout the series, what other feelings do you get from looking back at these images?
Mike: I try to remember what I felt like when I was taking he pictures. The first one in the book, the one with the girl in the car that had Marlboro cigarettes on the dashboard and dressed in an interesting way, I got close and I got to where I wanted to take the picture and then she turned around and there was that moment of taking the photograph just before the person realises you are taking one. I remember some of those reactions, where people don’t know what to do about it so I guess when I look at the book I feel saddened by the fact we don’t have that kind of everyday life anymore. It reminds me of when things were softer in the world, it’s a good memory.

People in Cars by Mike Mandel is available from now via Stanley/Barker in collaboration with Robert Mann. 

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