For two years in the mid-1970s, photographer Langdon Clay spent nights roaming New York City photographing parked cars. One car, one background—scenes of workaday machines, neglected and decrepit, resting in a sleeping metropolis. The best of these images are collected in a new book, . Here, we feature a small selection from this gorgeous new book, as Clay explains how he came to capture them.
Walking from a friend's apartment at the end of an evening back to my place, I began to see curious things inside the cars on the street, like a tire nestled like a passenger in the front seat. Then I studied the cars themselves, their design details. Finally I stepped physically (and mentally) back a bit to regard the whole scene—a background field with a foreground vehicle. When those two elements clicked—in color, or light, or design—then I knew I was on to something.
I went out hunting for cars a couple of days a week for two years. If I found them I shot them, but there were times nothing would catch my eye.
The cars sort of picked me. They spoke to me when the whole tableau became of a piece. When it all lined up, I could tell. There are plenty of rejects that suggest my judgement was flawed, but mostly I could tell.
I looked for cars that would fit with and work with the background. Or the reverse, cars that clashed and looked out of place with where they were parked.
But there were also cars with deep space, like parking lots, playgrounds, parks or squares, or wider avenues. A change-up in urban space to contrast the typical short distance from a car to a building.
Favorites come and go, especially after 40 years. Initially I was drawn to the more colorful ones like "A&P car" (shown above). Now I'm partial to a more severe look.
To me they are still odd but beautiful little jewels. Time capsules as jigsaw puzzle pieces revealing a bigger urban map or scene.
I view the history of photography as a big tree with two main branches—the impressionist branch and the expressionist branch. It is certain that I allied myself then and now with the former.
To see what "is," to record it clearly and to pass it on faithfully to your children and their children and to inquiring Martians and to leave it for posterity, has become my calling.
I don't think I've ever wavered in my desire to pull that off, even up to and continuing in the digital era where certain frauds might come easy. I wouldn't say I've always succeeded.
Not to mention that I don't think I have the necessary imagination to "express myself" with photographic materials. So I am happy to leave that to the Man Rays and Cindy Shermans of this world. Still that is the effort.
It may sound corny or coy to say you wanted to leave something of your world to your children or grandchildren and theirs in turn beyond that, but that is exactly the case.
In that vein one wants to show what it was really like in this time and place—not a sanitized version of it. There isn't a cleaned-up version of New York City, anyway.