The Teutonic Gentleman & His Mercedes 450 SELTuesday, May 10, 2011
In recent months I have written here about my enthusiasm for my present car, a 2007 Chevrolet Malibu which I call the Rocket because of its V-6 engine. I like that it is a plain domestic car with few of the trappings of the cars from Japan. I believe that some of us have to begin to buy domestic and bring back an era when stuff was being built (not software or the transfer of mutual funds) – just plain stuff.
In the late 50s I was obsessed with cars. While in Austin Texas, my friend Steve Burdick and I would go to all the car dealers and tried to convince (and we generally did) the salesman to give us the glossy brochures of the new cars in the showroom. I particularly remember the beautiful ones which showed the hugely long Lincolns and such jewels as the Chevrolet Corvair Monza (Nader had not arrived yet) or the Chrysler Imperial with the two lights sitting on top of its fins
The mystique of cars is now behind me. It has been my Rosemary who still grieves the Audi A-4 we could not afford to buy when its lease was up. She expected we would buy a clunker but was almost pleasantly surprised by the fact that our Malibu is not in the least a clunker.
When I drive our Malibu down Hemlock Street and cross West Broadway going north I always glance, and smile at the Mercedes dealership on the corner. It has been there, at least since 1978.
It was around then but probably in 1979 when Rick Staehling, the art director of Vancouver Magazine dispatched me to several automobile show rooms in town to take pictures that were going to illustrate a article on the coming crops of cars.
I have long forgotten the name of this very Teutonic and elegantly trim general manager who posed by his best car.
At the time I was obsessed with the no grain and extreme sharpness of a Kodak film that had the nondescript name of S (Special) O (Order) 115. It was a film that had to be special ordered at places like Lens & Shutter. The film had been designed for the specific and most scientific use of taking photographs of solar flares. The folks of the big yellow box had given the film an extended range into the red spectrum and had made its emulsion the sharpest of any film of the time. It didn’t take long before photographers of the less scientific kind to find other uses for the film. SO 115’s predecessor had been S0 410 and I had taken some spectacularly sharp nudes with it. The skin, because of its red sensitivity made skin look like Carrara marble.
For me this film, with its far from flat increased contrast (I had to use a special slow working developer to reduce its inherent high contrast) had a look that I though would set me apart from other photographers then trying to muscle into the fairly lucrative field of magazine photography. This film enabled me to take pictures that looked like they were taken with 4x5 view cameras without the hassles of using such big cameras and their heavy tripods. In fact I used a lowly Pentax Spotmatic-F while my competition indulged in Nikons and the medium format Hasselblads.
I took the two pictures here using a fine 20mm rectilinear wide angle lens. I was careful not to distort the Mercedes too much but I went wild with the Ferrari when I noticed that the lens rendered the car into a flying saucer.
In those heady days of fine magazine photography, magazines competed for originality and would have never considered using any handout photographs provided by the car manufacturers. At the time an article on the new crop of cars would have at least tried to show a considerable editorial independence. In 2011 many magazines now use “provided” photographs and in some cases the writers get tickets to travel to the locations by the companies they are writing about. In my time, in 1979, that would have been anathema. By the mid 80s there was a bad expression being used by writers. Some of these articles that they were writing were not fully independent editorially. The expression used then was a “service piece”. If the term seems confusing think of product placing in film as an equivalent example.
There is no way my picture of the Germanic gentleman and the Mercedes could possibly compete with a photograph of a modern Mercedes taken by an advertising crew in some beautiful and exotic location.
But as I look at these pictures I see in them an honesty of the time and I regret that those times will probably not come back.