Modern Nature: The Machine that is the Car in Discursive Photographic Practice


The Oxford English Dictionary describes a machine as, ‘an apparatus using mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task,’ (, 2016,)

and so from the time Niépce used a basic camera to create an early heliograph, machine have been present and in turn partly responsible for the discourse created by photography. They have been a part of the discursive practice of the medium as subjects also, a form of modern nature. In this essay I have chosen works which use a machine that has had a vast impact on society on many levels, the car. We shall look at the connotative, comparative and progressive nature in which this machine is used within the photographic conversation and how the photographers communicate this discourse with their audience.


Hannah Aredt describes the, ‘basic condition of human life with three terms describing our participation in life as, ‘labour, work and action,’ and communication as, ‘human beings’ greatest asset.’ (Arendt, 1958) Photo-graphs, (light-writing) are a form of communication and so the use of machinery, so dominant in our participation and interaction with modern society seems an ideal subject matter for that conversation.


The hugely important and influential work of the photographic movement Provoke in 1970’s Japan is followed in the late eighties by Masafumi Sanai’s Wakaranai (‘I don’t know’). This project is delivered in the form of a colour photo-diary and

shows a progression in discourse from the earlier Japanese work where the, ‘generation that inherited the post war boom, has been replaced with something much more constricted and less confident.’ (Parr and Badger 2006) The use of what is often seen as the ultimate material possession, a car, and the combination of a somewhat gloomy diary creates a conversation about the progression of the country and does so focusing on the male element of Japanese society. It creates a discourse that allows us in to the private world of the fictional diary writer, to have a personal insight through the images and writing whilst his ‘inner thoughts’ seek to represent the attitude of a larger proportion of the society. We are asked to question the ‘progress’ of modern Japan with the car signifying the position and the materialistic nature of that generation.


This approach to show relative progression using the car is not unique to Japan and throughout photography there are other works that use cars as their subject with many genre defining photographers have done so in their discursive practice with the car as subject or the literal vehicle and part of the process for the work. There are arguably few who have done this with such great success and notoriety as Lee Friedlander.


From Friedlander’s earlier work with New Cars (1964), an initially a unsuccessful commercial project for Harper’s Bazaar which was later produced as a work by that title, to the use of the motor car, it’s windows and mirrors as a framing device in Self Portraits, fig1 Friedlander has included this machine and the journeys he has taken within his work on many occasions.


Fig 1


In ‘America by Car’, (Friedlander 2010) he uses a car as the vehicle in both the senses described above.


To produce America by Car Friedlander travelled the majority of the 50 states of America over 15 years, producing a final 192 black and white square cropped 35mm images which were exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2010 and are used to form the photo book by the same name. The work demonstrates his amazing ability for intriguing composition, using the vehicles windows, mirrors and interior to frame the subjects and to, ‘heighten and magnify contemporary America’s unique visual identity’ (, 2016). While there is an obvious link visually in his earlier work, fig 2 Friedlander continues the discussion on where America is and is heading with the car as the catalyst. He does so in a manner that is both familiar and new to his audience, due to his identifiable style, the changes found in the subjects and the greater involvement of the car itself.

A discourse is created within the images that contain parts of untouched America, fig 3 and others that display change and challenges within that society. fig 4


fig 2

This discourse is evident in the image of the young black, overweight police officer. fig 5  The shot is taken to incorporate the side window, the part of the car that shows us where we are now as we take our journey, (as opposed to forward or backwards looking from the front screen or mirrors.) It frames the officer, while the lock and handle, the vehicle’s instrument of access and denial to the journey, create a discourse around the law, race relations and health issues experienced by Americans.


Friedlander includes the vehicle itself where many would work hard to exclude it. It compliments his composition of the images and allows the audience a sense of the familiar car journey and American scenes, if not the actual locations. The car’s inclusion allows the reader to experience this familiar in a new approach to the discourse with as, ‘the restricted vision from inside the car it is hard to get one’s bearings’ (Meyers, 2016) and so further forces the reader to consider and engage with the imagery.


Friedlander’s superb composition is evident throughout the work and demonstrated in what could be argued is a further progression of an existing approach with the image of another car being within the frame fig 6, complimenting his inclusion of self in his earlier work and showing a, ‘fascination with transparency and reflection in relation to the picture plane’ (Szarkowski, 1973).



Friedlander_America-by-Car-11-562x570Fig 3

friedlander004_780_780Fig 4


Friedlander_America-by-Car-10-561x570Fig 5



Fig 6


As with Sanai’s project a large part of the work discusses the values of the society represented, in particular a discourse is created around the subjective progression of those societies, what that progression is and what it means for those within it. The final piece of work I shall consider looks more overtly at the impact of such progression, this time in South America and involves a journey that creates ever greater distances, this time between those with and without wealth.


Alejandro Cartagena’s, ‘carpoolers,’which is produced as a colour print photo book, having also been exhibited, contains a series of images with striking composition, that look at the illegal and dangerous practice in Mexico of construction workers going to and from work in the rear of pickups along Mexico’s Federal Highway 85. The work follows on from his previous, ‘Suburbia Mexicana’ ‘…project that revolves around the representation of the current Mexican suburban sprawl with a focus on the metropolitan area of Monterrey (mam).’ (, 2015)

The imagery is taken from both the view of those travelling and from a bridge above, looking back at those within the rear of the cars. The book contains a number of pull outs from newspapers and foldout pages, all of which give the narrative context, but which also engage the audience, asking them to explore the pages and the learn through the discovery of addition imagery, creating a journey of their own for the reader.


We are able to see a literal comparison between two different travellers within cars fig 7 that symbolises much of the discourse around the social economical issues investigated. Cartagena engages with his audience by drawing these comparisons and by the use of the different perspectives. We can see the hard workers of the country and consider the lengths and risk they go to in order to get to work and the exhaustion suffered fig 8 in order to make ends meet by looking down from the bridge, whilst the view from below hints at the disparate riches available to others. Fig 9 The workers carry out these journeys in order to meet the needs of the expanding suburban areas around Monterrey and so the work progresses Caragena’s own discourse on the wider issue of how this expansion is impacting the area.


Fig 7

The imagery also contains, ‘power lines [which] serve as significant emblems here; Cartagena asks us to consider the political and economic structures that move energy, labor, and wealth throughout México.’ (McDonald 2014 as in, 2015).


1024;_alejandro_cartagena_%E2%80%93_carpoolersFig 8


1024;_alejandro_cartagena_%E2%80%93_carpoolersFig 9

The wider narrative created from earlier works is changed and allows us in to these private worlds and journeys. It is also a progression from works such as Sanai’s diary, to a more literal experience. Cartagena shows us the, ‘invisibility of the reality of so many people in Mexico’ (Cartagena, as in McCann, 2016) by allowing us in to these spaces.


Perhaps it is by the very nature of the subject that the photography of machines, including the car, may be accused of creating a dispassionate conversation, among many other things they mark moments in human history through the development of the subject and they create a discourse through how the machines contribute to mankind and what they represent within society. They are a constantly changing source of subject acting as instruments for this conversation and the practice of the photographers who choose to include them within their study. While the dictionary may describe the parts of a machine as having a definitive task, it is evident that through the medium of photography these parts and their whole may have far greater purpose than the definition suggests.





Modern Nature: The Machine that is the Car in Discursive Photographic Practice

9 eyes and a photobook

Today saw me purchase a copy of the Paris Photo award nominated book ‘Erasure,’ by the very talented Fazal Sheikh. There is always something special about receiving a new piece of work.  I’m looking forward to spending some time with it over the next few days.  The work comes as four volumes in one and, ‘explores the anguish caused by the loss of memory by forgetting, amnesia or suppressionand the resulting human desire to preserve memory, all seen through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’

In addition to a work that I’m about to spend time with I thought it only fair to share one we all can. Jon Rafman’s project Nine Eyes of Google Street View is a now well know and brilliant piece of work.  If you’re yet to have a look, please do and if you have already, I implore you to do so ago.  There are a number of other good works using this modern version on the medium, but this work strikes well with me.  It seeks not to explore a narrative or particular subject other than that of the medium itself and perhaps also our need for constant input from things we would otherwise not know without the photograph.  The resulting work is fascinating, well edited and speaks well to the nosey part of us…. enjoy

9 eyes and a photobook

Ken Grant

A couple of days ago I had the great pleasure of meeting and listening to the renowned photographer Ken Grant.

Not only was it utterly fascinating to listen to him and great to see some of his outstanding work, but I was very taken by one particular thing.  Ken has documented lots of the area and community in Liverpool in which he grew up, as well as other communities in Wales, Herefordshire and other areas and his work is agreed by others far more qualified than I to be outstanding. What really took, held and inspired me was Ken himself. He commits to his work and choses what to do carefully in order to be honest to that work, but more so as a person it is obvious that he has an ability to become part of and create the work for the projects due to the way in which those he communicates and then those he shares time with react to him.  This great skill to communicate, I believe, is a large part of what photography is.  In the documentary field in particular the photograph is chosen as the means of communicating what you are documenting, so the quality of communication at the time of taking the images must be as important to the process as that of the final work.  Listening to Ken it is clear that he is an exemplary example of this being the case.

If you’d like to see more of Ken’s work (which I discussed with a colleague as being ‘Parr plus some’) head over to his website.

Ken Grant

An update – I haven’t disappeared!

I thought I’d write an update to explain my limited communication of late.  I have had to have some surgery and so have taken time out in order to do so.  I’m on the mend now and so working on some projects as I recover.

I have a number of projects on the go presently, with my work looking at Hart, some digital pieces as well as some studio work.  As it’s completed I’ll post the imagery on my website and let you all know via here that it’s there.  I’m looking forward to sharing a couple of the bits of work with you when it’s ready.

In the meantime I’d like to say a big thank you to the NHS for looking after me so superbly.  We are incredibly fortunate in the UK to have a health care system with such dedicated and caring staff.


An update – I haven’t disappeared!

Someone else

I thought for this post I’d share the work of the British photographer Tim Smyth and his work, ‘Defective Carrots’. With the food waste being topical currently, this project is a great example of a traditional typology using discursive practice, which looks at the issue.

There’s definite humour in the project, and it cleverly moves a traditional approach to photography forward, looking at a modern problem. Take a look…..

Someone else

A family photo

Work still continues on inviting people to take part in the Hart project I’ve talked about recently.  Numbers are rising and we’ve had some good publicity to help with that – a big thank you to those who have already signed up.  More news will be out on the sittings very soon.

I wanted to step aside from the project for this post and share an image with you – at this point if you’re reading on my website, click the post and it’ll take you to the blog direct where you can see the image.


This image features my two children and my mother-in-law, a fabulous lady who had her birthday yesterday.  It was taken during the celebration as the children played monopoly with the birthday girl.

I like this image a lot.  Like a lot that fall in to that category it isn’t, ‘technically perfect’.  It was deliberately taken with a very wide angled lens, close up as you can see with the way my daughter look.  And there I write the last bit about the technical because the image is so much more than that and I find too many people get hung up on technical points.   Working commercially these matters may have mattered, but to dismiss such images because of the odd fault is, I feel, to completely miss the point of them.  There’s a whole world of experimental photography where technique plays a large part in the image and that’s where I find the enjoyment in the technical, not in worrying that despite it meaning the moment was missed, moving to f11 would have been a better choice in a post image pull apart.  There is obviously value in looking at images and thinking about how they could be improved, but to get hung up on it must surely remove some of the enjoyment.

So what do I like about the image?  Well apart from the way in which is captures a family moment causing an emotional link for me, I like the general aesthetic.  The look of surprise is part of the obvious spark that draws me to the image, the sun is pleasant and the light is nice, the brown and greens with the diagonal lines in both the natural background and the boardgames etc.  But beyond these the image has a depth with the technology, the array of drinks and the materialistic game being played between generations, (in fact this board was played with by my wife in her childhood) each having a narrative of their own.   The choice of hats between grand mother and grandson speaks of the link and the time being spent in each other’s company.

There’s more in the image and for some I’m sure less – but that’s the photograph…….

A family photo

A new project

An idea can, for me, sit in my head or on one of my lists, then in the many moments of wondering I have each day, some turn in to more.  One such idea has been doing this consistently and so I am going to move it to the top of the list.

I currently live in an area considered by various reports to be the, ‘best’ in the country.  This is worked out by some mathematical work looking at life expectancy, access to a range of elements and more.  Given we live with some of the highest standards of health care and wealth in the modern world in the UK, this must make us amongst the top percentage in the world within the context of the studies.

I’m taken however, not only by the idea that a study can assess this and the relativity projected by the idea, but also that, if taking them to be correct in some sense, what does this look like.  I’d like to explore the community make up, the social concerns and relatives issues through photography.  I have chosen to keep this within the people that make up the community and so the project will form portrait studies, with more detail to follow.  For now, watch this space and very soon there will be the opportunity to be a part of the project too.

All the best, Mark

A new project


28 May 2015

I wanted to create a discourse about beauty using the flower. The flower, the signifier of much around ‘beauty’ is still vulnerable to distortion through decay or the use of the photographic medium, and yet it seems to retain what it signifies, based largely on our cultural references. Even in removing the outward beauty in some, (not all to allow some journey in the concept,) the image remains something beautiful. As Susan Sontag said, ‘Nobody exclaims, ‘Isnt’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: “I find that ugly thing . . . beautiful.” (Sontag, 1977) While I don’t know that that holds as true in the modern world with so much photography and the constant need for spectacle on social media, I did want to explore that idea as part of the context.
They also work aesthetically to create interesting images. I hope you enjoy.




2-May 2015

New project: In a previous life I spent my days working with everything I had to find answers. The role – a traffic officer (police, not a highways mask) – was often mocked as being the anally retentive evil doer of the ticket giving variety. The reality was that I had the pleasure of working with a group of mostly hard working individuals who spent their time being determined professionals desperate to make life safer and to find answers when individuals lost their life on the roads.

I had the privilege of running investigations in to road deaths as well as being a family liaison officer. These two roles often led me to be amazed by and very concentrated on learning all I could from the scenes of fatal collisions. These places are parts of our communities that we use every day and that we live in and are part off. For a few hours they become crime scenes and then are released back to our communities where, for most life goes on. The transient nature of these places has always fascinated me and so it was this that I chose to explore in this photographic project.

This project is in part a reflection, but also a small tribute, looking back at what I used to do with what I now do and tipping my cap to those who continue to do the ‘job.’ whilst respecting those who have passed on in these places.

Until next time – here’s the project