There are a thousand ways to define culture. Ethnicity is one of them. So is location. So is occupation.
One of the most interesting ways, however, is avocation. What do people choose to do, for fun or enlightenment, or a sense of belonging? How do groups of people who have made the same choice come together and create a sense of history and purpose?
“Cruise Night” by Kristin Beford
Published by Damiani Editore, 2020
review by W. Scott Olsen
I do not mean merely a hobby. Sometimes we get deep into something and the activity becomes one of the ways we forge our own identity. Dancers understand this. Quilters understand this. Model railroad people understand this as well.
Car people often carry this idea in their blood.
It is, of course, a gross understatement to say Americans have a romance with the automobile. We have come to believe the car is not just something we own – it is an extension of our desire.
One of the places you see this best is in the lowrider community of southern California. Lowriders are cars, usually large sedans, modified to ride very low to the ground. These are not high-performance vehicles. These are works of art. These are acts of both bravado and love.
It’s instructive to note that the term lowrider refers both to the automobile and to the owner. At one level, they are indistinguishable.
Enter Kristen Bedford. No stranger to long term projects, she became interested in the lowrider community and settled in for a deep dive. In an interview with DPReview she says, “For 70 years, members of the Mexican American community here have been expressing their identity through car culture. I wanted to photograph and understand how transforming a car was integral to being seen and heard… I didn’t know anything about cars, I had to learn everything from scratch. I’m not an expert on anything when I go into it, so I have to learn – I order every used book possible, I print out people’s thesis – with lowriding it was the same.”
The result is a fascinating, curiosity-provoking, illuminating and wonderful book. The images are bright, the colors strong. I do not mean oversaturated or forced. I mean the pictures here are mid-day bright. The yellows and blues and greens of the cars leap off the white pages.
The images here have nothing to do with the advertising-slick car photographs we see in garages and on calendars. Nor are these images chasing automobile design elements the way architectural photography seeks to discover lines and form. Instead, these are more akin to personal and family portraits. Yes, there are plenty of gleaming fenders and polished rims. But there are also images of the men and women who own these cars, portraits of proud and artful people.
Cruise Night is, finally, an act of admiration. The images are not over-romanticized. Nor are they an expose of some dark corner. The images are celebrations of what is best in the lowrider world.
Along with the images, interspersed throughout the book, are small quotes from lowriders, small bits of history and explanation. For example:
The better your car looked, the better you’re going to look. And that’s what women saw back in the day on Whittier Boulevard. They said, “Wow, if his car is that clean, that nice, hey, he must not be bad either.” That’s the God honest truth. So I made sure I washed that car until the paint fade came off and I made it sparkle. And for extra credit, you put your Sunday best clothes on, your best cologne, brush your teeth and get ready to smile. And, of course, you want to be a gentleman. That’s number one. And if they see that, they look in your eye and they look in your car and go, “I want to ride with you.” And I go, “Okay, well come on in.”
–Moses Torres, Imperials Car Club, lowrider since 1970
As a girl, I always used to say to myself, “When I grow up, I’m going to be like those guys with their lowriders.” I saved and saved, and when I was sixteen years old I bought my first lowrider for $175, a 1962 Impala Super Sport with the console in the middle, beautiful black. I changed the tires and rims, and worked on the engine. I did everything myself. I felt like this was every Chicana’s dream, to be in a finished car that they had done with their own hands. There’s no feeling like it. There’s nothing else but this. It’s like floating in air. Take me up, take me up. I’ve done it. I’m here. I’m in heaven. And cruising with the windows down, it’s like if God’s breathing on me.
–Mary Saucedo, Vintage Ladies Car Club, lowrider since 1969
These little bits of oral history help give this book a personal grounding. Yes, these are gleaming cars. But yes, also, these are gleaming cars that matter.
In a small note at the end of the book, Bedford writes, “I made these unstaged photographs and recorded this oral history with the Los Angeles Mexican American lowrider community throughout California and Nevada from 2014 to 2019. My path to lowriding originates from my interest in the layered and nuanced ways that customizing a car reflects decades of political, cultural and creative self-expression in this community. Over the five years of making these photographs, the lowrider family shared the sophistication and complexity of their traditions with me.”
According to the bio on her website, Located at the intersection of aesthetics and social realism, Kristin Bedford’s photography explores race, visual stereotypes and communal self-expression. Through long-term engagement with communities, Bedford makes photographs that invite us to reconsider prevalent visual narratives around cultural and spiritual movements.
Bedford’s photographs have appeared in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe and are held in numerous private and public collections worldwide, including the Library of Congress and the Archive of Documentary Arts at the Rubenstein Library.
Bedford has given talks internationally about her projects, including presentations at Pop-Up Magazine and on numerous National Public Radio broadcasts. Her work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, The Guardian, Smithsonian Magazine, The Royal Photographic Society, The Telegraph, CNN, Esquire and The Huffington Post.
Cruise Night is the result of honest curiosity and a keen eye. Bedford’s photographs find a way to get beyond the shine of polished and decorated cars and into the heart of the men and women who make them their own. Her lens here focuses on the artifacts. And, as every cultural anthropologist will tell you, the artifacts of a culture can tell you a lot.
More information can be found at www.kristinbedford.com/books
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