“I wanted to do something that would have a little humour to it, and maybe a little riskiness,” the photographer Mike Mandel says. His new book, “People in Cars” out next month, does just that: It’s a collection of snapshots he took in 1970s California as a 19-year-old kid. “I grew up in Los Angeles and all of my experience of being in L.A. was about going from one place to the other by car,” he recalls. He saw the automobile as an American icon and a home in itself, where people would spend hours of their time. Walking to an intersection half a block from his house, he began to take candid photographs of drivers.
He used a wide-angle lens, which required him to stand close to the cars. “It wasn’t like I was looking at them from a distance — I wanted them to respond to me in some way,” he explains. And respond they did: the images show couples grinning at him, children scowling, and one lady flipping a manicured finger. “I think today there might have been a lot more paranoia about being surveilled or something, but in those days it was maybe a more naïve time. For the most part, people thought it was kind of funny, and responded in a jovial way, and I had a lot of fun doing it.”
The work came at the beginning of a prolific period for Mandel — “When I see what I was able to do in the ’70s, I really feel guilty about the stuff that I can do right now,” he says, chuckling. Next month, SFMOMA opens “Good 70s,” a retrospective of the many projects he completed that decade, including “Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards” and “Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston”; a surreal sense of humour runs through them all.
Revisiting the 75 rolls of film he shot for “People in Cars,” Mandel says he has been surprised by the fresh perspective he brings to it now. Today, he’s intrigued by the subtle details that he paid no attention to as a teenager, like the reflections captured in the windows of the cars. “It was interesting to go back and relook at something that you did 45 years earlier, and realise that you saw things then that you didn’t really appreciate until you were much older,” he says. “That’s kind of cool for me.”
“People in Cars” by Mike Mandel, out May 12, is published by Stanley/Barker. “Mike Mandel: Good 70s“ is on view May 20-Aug. 20 at SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, Calif., sfmoma.org.
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