Book Reviews

, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018

Since 2007 Douglas Ljungkvist has been photographing vintage cars, mostly in Brooklyn's urban and industrial landscapes. The work has matured into a cohesive typology ready for publication. The project is a study of form, design, and beauty documenting cars mostly between the 1960's and late 1970's. The cars are photographed similar to formal portraits, in profile and isolated from people and other cars. The visual relationship between the cars and their environment is more important than the brand, model, production year, or engine size. The process is similar to a nature photographer looking for exotic animals to photograph in the wild. It's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Whether on his scooter or on foot Ljungkvist has perfected a one second glance down a block looking for unusual shapes or colors to identify something to add to the collection. Ljungkvist even followed a few of them on his scooter until they parked and the owner walked away. American cars of this era are still popular for their (masculine) aesthetics and raw power. They were built with individual expression in mind, to be seen and heard, at a time when everything was big and bold. As mechanical cars they are fairly easy to maintain and tinker with for hobbyists. The European cars in the collection reflect longevity and craftsmanship, attributes that are rare in today's modern and generically designed cars. The work is also a celebration of 1970's vernacular color photography and the freedom, expression, and adventure that the automobile represented in American popular culture at a time when people didn't worry about the price of gasoline. The project catalogue includes more than 750 cars.

Urban Cars Brooklyn

Landscape Stories Issue n° 6 has been entirely dedicated to the theme of cars. The editorial said:

Means of transportation or status symbol? Driver of social progress or cause of environmental disasters? Instrument of freedom or mechanism of slavery? Concentrate of technology or industrial dinosaur? The automobile is the unquestioned fulcrum of modern societies and of major financial investments, a place of living, a cultural and commercial catalyst, a continuous presence. We spend more time in car than with the family. It takes us longer to park than to eat. We spend more money on cars that for health. A car causes more pollution before it's ever driven than in its entire lifetime of driving.

"Urban Cars Brooklyn" by Douglas Ljungkvist would have been perfect for that issue and as a corollary to the questions the editorial raised. The entire project indeed includes more than 750 photographs of cars taken since 2007 mainly in urban and periurban areas of Brooklyn. Mostly vintage cars from the '60s and '70s in relation to the architectural or industrial context in which these cars 'rest' when they do not rev up in the Big Apple streets. Photographed as if they were portraits, as in portraits they retain the characterizing features of face and body; the identity and character of the driver. We can mentally catalog the brand, type, model, year or we can let ourselves be fascinated by their decadent beauty, their captivating design or their bizarre shapes. Cold mechanical objects that speak to our human pulsating hearts to remind us what car has represented (or still represents?) in American popular culture. The electrifying sensation of freedom and independence that sometimes accompanies us as soon as we jump into our roaring cars. The dream and the mirage of quickly reaching the electric highway paradises.

The silence continued. Here and there a driver shifted behind his steering wheel, trapped uncomfortably in the hot sunlight, and I had the sudden impression that the world had stopped. The wounds on my knees and chest were beacons tuned to a series of beckoning transmitters, carrying the signals, unknown to myself, which would unlock this immense stasis and free these drivers for the real destinations set for their vehicles, the paradises of the electric highway.
J.G. Ballard, Crash, Picador 1973

Gianpaolo Arena



Douglas Ljungkvist

Gianpaolo Arena: Could you tell us something more about how your project "Urban Cars: Brooklyn" started? Did you start the project with the idea of making a book?
Douglas Ljungkvist: I had just moved to Brooklyn in 2007 and I was evaluating areas that I wanted to photograph in. My photographic process includes returning to places over and over that I like spending time in or how they feel. These turned out to be some of the remaining industrial areas in Brooklyn. What I found there were more vintage cars than anywhere else in New York, mostly from the 1970's. So I started photographing them. I've always loved these cars for their sheer size, vibrant colors, and how they sound driving down the street. Culturally I've always been interested in the 70's as a decade; the colors, fashion, music, movies, and cars. As the collection grew I thought it would make for a good book. Now the collection includes enough photographs for several more books, should this one do well, and I have started an Urban Cars LA, too. Most of these cars are gone now. The industrial areas got rezoned, luxury condo towers started popping up, and the new residents are more likely to drive new SUV's and European luxury sedans. The streets that were barely used for parking before, giving me the space I needed to photograph the cars isolated as portraits with no other cars or people in the photograph, are now bumper to bumper with generic looking parked new cars. So even when I find a car I want to photograph now the setting is seldom right and I walk away. 

© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018
© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018

GA: How do you approach the urban spaces and the industrial landscape while working on your project?
DL: As an urban landscape photographer I look for graphic and minimal street "scenes" to use as backdrops. Generally they will have three elements, or rather won't have them; trees, people, and ironically, cars. Modern cars that is. Where I live in Brooklyn is too beautiful in a traditional sense, with brownstones houses and tree lined streets littered with cars. I enjoy the two dimension flat facades of the industrial areas and geometric shapes. The abundance of rectangles and squares, ties into something else I like, repeated patterns. I loved spending Sunday's in the industrial areas. When the businesses were closed it was some of the quietest and desolate areas you can find in a large city like New York. How something looks and feels is much more important to me than what it depicts. So in that sense I guess I'm a bit of a formalist. Architecturally I'm more interested in the vernacular and collection of buildings and other elements as part of a landscape than famous buildings per se. I'm also a bit of a sucker for Modernist architecture if I had to pick a favorite style but I don't think it photographs very well.

© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018
© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018
© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018

GA: How did your collaboration with Unicorn Publishing start?
DL: I didn't know about Unicorn Publishing until I saw they were publishing a Tom Chambers retrospective book. So I reach out to them about Urban Cars. From the very beginning they were very interested and loved the project. I think they were also looking to branch out to doing more photography books at the time. So it was a great fit! They also have resources, experience, and distribution that many smaller publishers don't have.

© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018
© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018
© Douglas Ljungkvist, Urban Cars Brooklyn, Unicorn, 2018

GA: What has been your 3 favorite photo-books in the last few years?
DL: I haven't looked at or bought that many new books in the last few years. Partly as my eyes were deteriorating to a point where I had a hard time enjoy my photography book library. Now that I've had double cataract surgery my love for photographs books is coming back. 
Some recent favorites of mine, include:

Douglas Ljungkvist is a Brooklyn based fine art photographer originally from Sweden. His personal work explores vernacular beauty that is graphic, colorful, and quiet. Mood and atmosphere are important aspects to the work that often have subtexts of time, memory and identity. Formally he is interested in the study of color, form, and space.

Number of pages:
128 pages
24 x 20 cm

Curated by Gianpaolo Arena