A Glorious Glimpse of 1970s LA
We spoke to photographer Mike Mandel about curatorship, archives and his new book, 'People in Cars'.
Photos: Mike Mandel, courtesy of Robert Mann Gallery and Stanley Barker
Mike Mandel's catalogue of work includes some of the most varied and fascinating photography projects of the 20th century. His work with Larry Sultan on projects like the groundbreaking book Evidence arguably shifted the parameters of what photography could do – de and then re-contextualising technical archival imagery. His famous 1974 portraits of great American photographers in the guise of baseball players, which he then released as a series of trading cards, is maybe his most famous work, and sought to both champion and highlight photographers' growing influence in the 1970s art world.
His new book, People in Cars, revisits one of his earliest bodies of work: a collection of portraits opportunistically shot from a car window in LA while he was in his twenties. A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to watch the book being printed alongside Mandel, and took the chance to chat with him about curatorship, archives, influences and, of course, cars.
VICE: The work in this book was made while you were studying photography – who or what were your influences at the time?
Mike Mandel: When I was first studying photography I was being exposed to people like Edward Weston and masters like Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Evans and Frank really spoke closer than others to what I was interested in personally, which was the social dynamics of culture. One person I don't want to leave out is [Jacques-Henri] Lartigue, who I found I had this connection to. I think he made his first photograph when he was seven years old. He had a very rich family; his cousins and brothers and sisters were all living a great life at the turn of the century, doing anything they liked, driving racing cars, trying to build aeroplanes and failing, and Lartigue was making pictures of all these pratfalls. Being so young, he was low in stature, low to the ground – so you get a different perspective than you would usually get if an adult took photos. The photos are really funny. They really appealed to my interest in having some kind of humour coming out of my work.
How did the "People in Cars" project get started?
I don't remember. I can tell you that, living in LA, you are always in a car. And at the time, looking at Robert Frank's pictures of cars in The Americans, and even going back to Evans' work – especially one photo of a diner with a painting or mural of a couple in a car – these were an influence. A lot of Evans' pictures are mundane, but there's a lot of information in them about how things are changing in the world. Evans realised that all of these technological developments should be part of what he was talking about. Billboards, cars, graffiti on those billboards... I think all of that stuff somehow got me to think about doing this project. I wish I had the memory of when I thought about actually going out and doing it, but I don't. I was still a kid myself – probably not even 20 – and it was around six months of work. There was one day when Robert Frank came to our class and everyone had work on the wall – he came up to me and said, "I used to make work like this – I know it's not easy to do."
Sounds like a good day at school.
Well, [laughs] I think that enabled me to think, 'Maybe I will make more of these then! It won't be a 20-roll project, maybe it can be a 75-roll project.'
You mention billboards, and of course some of your early work with Sultan was the famous fake billboards project, playing with commercial imagery. Was there an aspect of that in this series? Some comment about the commercial image of cars in America?
I think I was just responding to the idea that we live in our cars. In LA you can't walk to see your friends. It's all about cars, about being at a distance. LA is laid out so that just about every trip you take is via the freeways. So growing up in LA made me into the sort of person who never knows where I am. I have no sense of direction, but as long as I know which freeway entrance and exit to look for I can get there. I still wont really know where there is, though.
As far as the car goes – I think it was just about the fact we're in the car a lot, and here are these people stopped at lights. I had the opportunity to have an interaction – maybe a surprising interaction – with them. In those days it wasn't typical for someone to take a photograph of you. We weren't all carrying a camera around all the time with our phones, so it's nothing like it is today – there wasn't a sense of anger or an invasion of privacy; it was more like, "What's this?! What's this guy doing?!"
So you didn't get punched in the face much?
No. I got a few fingers, but no punches. Most of the time I was just having a great time and the people in the cars were enjoying the humour of the situation. I was really energised by it. You don't know what's happening, where they are going… are they going to turn? You have to get close – and there's this transition. So often I wouldn't really know what I had got in a photo until later. You just had to hope for the best. It was a project I had fun doing.
How did the project first manifest itself?
When it was all done I mounted the images as one big poster. They were all similar kinds of constructions. The car as a frame and the people within it. It seemed like it all worked as one big thing. So they were all little five-by-seven inch prints, collected together as a poster. When I remade it more recently as part of the Good 70s project, we replicated that poster idea.
What made you think about changing that format then, from a poster to a book?
What was so good about revisiting this project was that Gregory [Barker] got me thinking, 'If we're going to make a book out of this, we don't want to do just 20 pages, so it's worth investigating what else is there.' I was just blown away by all these pictures that I wasn't interested in originally. Some were taken through the window, and the reflections and lack of contrast that resulted in meant that I was originally put off using them. When I was 20 I wanted more direct contact. So there's all these pictures now included that have reflections and are a little more complicated, nuanced. I'm 66 now, and my sensibility after being an artist all these years was able to inform my understanding of what I was doing in a way I couldn't when I was 20. It's a very fulfilling feeling to have the two ends of your life come together like this. To reconnect to the memory of the pictures you made.
So, beyond the book being a new edit of images, and reflecting a different sensibility on your part, what is it about the format of a book that excites you.
I think being out of California in the 70s comes into this. I was fortunate enough to be at the right place in my life at the time that people like Edward Ruscha was making his little books. It was part of my education. Every time he released a book there would be an opening and people would come together from the photo community. And he would be just cranking these things out, these funny books – like Colored People, which was just photos of cactuses. There was also Ruscha's Royal Road Test. You open up the book and there's information there about the date, the time of day, what kind of car, what the weather is like. It's set out like an experiment data record or something. It's made up of photos of these little pieces of material, tab keys or ribbons or whatever, scattered in the roadside brush. Eventually you realise that what they did was throw a typewriter out the window of a car at 90mph [laughs]. It's all portrayed like a scientific experiment or a police investigation.
Anyway, Ruscha was doing all of this stuff, and I figured, 'That's a great way to put the work out without needing a gallery.' I liked the idea that, with a book, you could just do it yourself. In 1971 I published my first book and never looked back – I think it cost me $800 to do 1,000 copies of the first book I did, the Myself book.
So, across all of these projects, which are varied in terms of formats – books, posters, baseballs cards – there seems to be a theme of collections, or archives. Do you see that as the theme in your work, or not?
I've never really thought of my work that way. With Evidence, we were obviously choosing to come at it from the understanding that these different genres of photography had been overlooked as reservoirs of information that artists could use. The early underpinnings of Evidence would go back to [Robert] Rauschenberg and Warhol – how they transformed photographs into something else, though there was always a photographic reference to their political or social commentary. The thing we realised when Larry [Sultan] and I did Evidence is that you actually didn't have to do much; you didn't have to transform images.
We were interested in this reservoir of information. We went through millions of photographs over two years and were finding these open-ended, ambiguous images that were primarily sourced from hi-tech companies that were building the future: weapons and spacecraft, things like that. Those were the images that really spoke to us. We lived in California, and that's where a lot of that work was happening. If you were in Texas you might not have had access to Northrop Aircraft or Lockheed. But I don't see Evidence as a catalogue; we were definitely not "curators" of that work.
Of course, there have been famous projects with that more curatorial approach to these other genres, like John Szarkowski, who did From the Picture Press, where there were a lot of interesting photographs which we wouldn't usually see in the art world. [Lee] Friedlander discovered the Storyville portraits, the photos of prostitutes taken by [EJ] Bellocq, and put those out. All of that stuff was done on a curatorial basis.
But there wasn't the idea of taking the photographs and changing them to free floating signifiers. Taking them out of context and then placing them in relation to each other in a book which becomes a context: a coherent linear progression of sequential information which can make something new happen and speak about this idea of the fear of unknown technology and its implications. That's what Evidence is about. That's why Evidence was different than all the rest. I think it's considered to be a fairly seminal book these days, as there's so much interest in looking at other kinds of archives.
How do you feel about how the Cars work might have changed over time in terms of the impact on first time viewers, how cultural changes might alter the impact of this work?
I think you can't get away from the fact that we were in a sort of golden age back then. At a time when the car was built with a lot of strong materials, grandiosity, especially in the 50s in terms of the automobile, these big heavy cars... I mean, we have big heavy cars now, but they are just so ugly. There was a lot more sense of a car then being a little flying machine almost – we didn't think about seat belts, it was a more naïve and innocent time. And that comes out in the photos, the kids all loose in the car, moving around, no seat belts. People smoking. It seemed a different sensibility then, vigilance was less of a thing. Windows open, while now it's air conditioning and windows up. So when you see these pictures now there's a certain nostalgia about all of it.