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

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