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Book review: Auto America: Car Culture 1950s-1970s, Photographs by John G. Zimmerman
Photojournalist and commercial photographer John G. Zimmerman aimed his camera at cars and culture. This fine book shows off his talent and offers a visual narrative of cars in America.
Read time: about 6 minutes. This week: A book review — the first ever in Technocomplex! Next week: No comment. I have to shore up some pages of prose. I’ll see how time and writing go, but no promises for a post next week.
The Boulangerie offers glimpses of what’s in a warm place rising or already in the bakery oven. This past week, a hard but beautiful saddle. I only announce when something happens in the Boulangerie with my Mastodon loudspeaker: @firstname.lastname@example.org.
Share this one with someone who has entered a car, please. If you got this from a friend who shared it, how about getting your own copy? A subscription is free, and it’s only another email.
Zimmerman, Darryl, Greg Zimmerman, Linda Zimmerman, and John G. Zimmerman. Auto America: Car Culture 1950s - 1970s: Photographs by John G. Zimmerman. 1st ed. New York: Rizzoli New York, 2022. 244 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8478-7274-9 $45.00.
In his introduction of the Auto America: Car Culture, 1950s-1970s, Terry McDonell wrote, “What Zimmerman understood instinctively was that new cars were never simply ubiquitous industrial products, but rather flashy combinations of modernism, consumerism, and popular culture. Now his images opened new ways of looking at them, sparking imagination and a consciousness of the emergence of automobile design as art.” McDonell never met Zimmerman in person, but shortly after he took the reins at Sports Illustrated in 2002, the year John Zimmerman died, he “ran three spreads of his images in the August 12, 2002, issue. A team of photo editors argued down to final deadline about which images to include. There were so many.”
As they worked on this beautifully produced book, I suspect that the Zimmerman siblings Linda, Greg, and Darryl also “argued down to the final deadline” to select the nearly two hundred images that appear on the pages. Their father’s photographic legacy is so deep and abundant. Besides having a rich treasure to draw from, they created a book from an idea that allows for a greater breadth of topics and representations. This is no mere collection of “car porn,” by which I mean sensuous photographs of collectible and desirable cars otherwise lacking in a narrative. There are already plenty of those (and I have to admit I own a couple). No, the photographs that the Zimmermans chose tell a narrative of American culture, as the book’s title promises, and tell it with the eloquence and precision of John G. Zimmerman’s vision. The scaffold built to support the narrative includes four themes that group the photographs: “Dreams,” “Designs,” “Culture,” and “Racing.”
The cover the Auto America shows the Buick Centurion, the company’s 1956 concept car. Sleek and definitely inspired by aircraft design, the car is a striking example of the mid-1950s American car design ethos. Despite the impractical glass bubble top, I wouldn’t mind driving one of these. Alas, the car never made it beyond a concept and was never put into production. Two photos of the Centurion appear in the early pages of the book’s first section, entitled “Dreams,” that explores futuristic concepts but also looks back to dream cars of much earlier times — a 1926 Bentley and a Bugatti Royale (the “Type 41”). Of course, dreams are not only in designer’s or collector’s heads, so Zimmerman trained his camera lens on men gazing at cars in showrooms and car shows, too — a different kind of “male gaze” common in America even yet.
The mixture of humanity and material object makes Auto America a real contribution to automotive history and to photojournalism in its heyday, the era of Life and Look, long-established large-format general interest magazines that peaked and then faded at the end of the 1960s. Zimmerman’s beautiful images of cars notwithstanding, his images of interactions of cars and human beings are where Auto America has particular power. They show how the automobile created post-war America and formed a basis for economic growth and a burgeoning middle class.
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The “Design” section presents pictures of human talents and physical infrastructure that conceptualized and cast into material the shapes and technologies of the automobile. A two-page spread shows a sea of people — probably most of the population of Flint, Michigan, at the time — following a parade float bearing a gold 1954 Chevy, the fifty-millionth car to roll off General Motors factory lines. Two spreads depict the introduction of the 1956 Lincoln Premiere in its Broadway-inspired splendor and action. White-coated men dance with women with dresses encircling them as they spin to the accompaniment of an orchestra in the pit below. The auditorium is packed, and the car rolls out on a rotating stage. The section shows the industry at work and the communities that it employed.
“Culture,” the third section of the book, turns from the making of the car to the remaking of American culture and, in depictions of the US highways and byways, even its landscape and cities. McDowell’s brief blurb opening the section observes that what Zimmerman caught in his lens “was fresh and profound — not just on American roads and highways, but at drive-ins, car shows, and just parked in driveways. The cars and people of automobile culture changed America’s vision of itself.” My favorite shots: mobster Frank Costello leaving Milan Federal Correctional Institution in a 1953 Cadillac limo; funeral home owner Marconi C. Smith standing in front of his fleet of hearses in Sandersville, Georgia; and a 1965 Pontiac surrounded by a crowd of undergraduates. I rode on one of the cars that wound through the Ford exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair. Zimmerman captured part of that experience, too, on pages 168-169.
The final section is “Racing.” Here, again, humanity wins out over the mere machine, since the majority of the photographs focus on people — drivers, pit crews, fans. The cars and the races are settings. The section is dynamic, of course, depicting the speed and orchestrated work of racing. The series of pictures featuring Shirley Muldowney, the “First Lady of Drag Racing” aka “Cha Cha”, struck me as really an essay in picture form. The pictures from 1977 show her as she “applies makeup and spark plugs at California’s Freemont Dragstrip.” She naps in the leather front seat of her daily driver, consults with a team member, and burns rubber at the start of a race. She was the Top Fuel champion in 1977, 1980, and 1982.
All together, the book might leave you breathless with its scope, but it is a satisfying collection in large part because of its range and its exploration of the emotional ties Americans and probably nearly everyone else have with the car. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that the car created America, especially, and dragged Americans through tragedies of pollution, manufacturing troubles, and cringe-worthy encounters with back-slapping, double-talking used car salesmen. It’s also provided a sense of freedom and power, joys of travel and racing velocity, the enrichments of common purpose.
Some of us have been conceived in the back seats of cars. A few of us were born there. In hard times, some of us have used a car as a home. We decorate cars when we get married or rent limousines to celebrate. A special car carries us to our graves.
With a collection of John Zimmerman’s pictures, Auto America explores much of the complexity and uniqueness of the car in American experience.
Tags: photography, car, automobile, John G. Zimmerman, car culture, US, twentieth century
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
“John G Zimmerman – Photographs from the Golden Age of Magazine Photography.” Accessed February 8, 2023. https://www.johngzimmerman.com/
“John G. Zimmerman Archive.” Accessed February 8, 2023. https://johngzimmerman.photoshelter.com/
Berk, Brett. “‘Auto America: Car Culture 1950s–1970s’ Bears Witness to an Era of Dominance.” Car and Driver, February 4, 2023. https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a42723136/auto-america-car-culture-1950s1970s-book-review/.