Did The Cars Really Look Like That?

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Yes, and no. Or not, as the case might be. You never can tell. There is a possible ambivalence that you need to balance out with the uncertainty…A nod is a good as a wink to a blind man. Curtain men are fussier…

The heading page is an image scanned from  a book by the Motorbooks division of MBI Publishing company. It is written by Thom Taylor and presents the custom car photographs of James Potter in California in between 1955 and 1959. I urge all car photographers to seek out a copy and enrich the author and publisher – it is superb.

That’s a ’57 Buick, the paint job is not the ordinary dealer’s choice (!), and the reproduction of this picture is excellent. Colour is strong, fog is minimal. In other pictures in the book, Motorbooks have elected to reproduce the pictures as they are now, without retouching or colour restoration. I think it is a very wise decision.

I note from another section of the book that the photographer, Mr. Potter, is using a Rollei 2 1/4 square TLR camera and a “Limelight”  5″ portable strobe attached to the right of the camera. There is clear evidence of the effect of this flash as fill in many of the images – either from shadow placement or reflections in the chrome. I would not be at all surprised if there were two flashes used for some illustrations. Bet it was a nightmare of synch cables…

The inside covers of the book show proof sheets in b/w from the era – 2 1/4 square shots on Kodak Safety Film. No choosing camera orientation in the field – just leave enough air around the shots and crop in the darkroom. This meant some pretty distant shots for anything that had a chance to make it onto a vertical oblong – like a magazine cover. It sort of explains the odd presentation of the ’57 Buick with the massive pink building filling up so much of the frame.

Bless him. This sort of background information is just what I am seeking. That is a big building, and the fact that the lens on the Rollei was 75 to 80mm means that there is an entirely different look to this shot vs something taken on a modern wide-angle lens. In my own studio it means I have encouragement to build 1:18 scale building fronts to stand behind the cars and if I am using and APS-C sensor in the camera to limit my lens choice to a 35mm focal length to reproduce the effect of the Rollei standard lens.

The use of RAW shooting and then passing the file through various computer stages seems mandatory if I am to get the sort of colour tones seen back in 50’s photos.

The other thing that stands out with Potter’s work is the imagination he has used in shooting the custom cars from above to show the hood and trunk paint styling. I don’t know if he used a ladder or a pole but I shall be trying to achieve something of this look for the cars at Whiteman Park on Sunday.

In my case it will be a Manfrotto monopod holding the camera up. Here’s hoping it works.

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