Clint Woodside, Undercover Cars

JTF (just the facts): Published by Kill Your Idols in 2016 (here). Hardcover, 68 pages, with 52 color photographs. Includes an essay by Mike Slack. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For the past five years, photographer Clint Woodside, originally from Buffalo, NY and now based Los Angeles, has been almost obsessively documenting cars covered with sheets of protective canvas. Shot on film, most of Woodside’s photographs were taken in Southern California, where the fading effects of bright sun, the constant falling debris of tree resin and bird droppings, the ever present danger of random scratches, and a car culture centered on shiny waxed finishes make covered cars a rather common sight. A selection of Woodside’s pictures first appeared in a zine under his imprint Deadbeat Club, and the project has recently been released as a full fledged photobook entitled Undercover Cars.

The proliferation of interstate highway building and car ownership in the 1950s had a significant effect on life in the United States, and in subsequent decades, the country has developed one of the world’s prime car cultures. So capturing America’s social landscape through the prism of an automotive phenomena seems only natural. And of course, there are plenty of well known photographic projects that have done just that, both inside and outside beloved vehicles, some even adopting rigid categorical frameworks comparing makes and models. As a backdrop to Woodside’s particular effort, Robert Frank’s images of cars come to mind, specifically his iconic photo of covered car between two palm trees, taken in Long Beach, California in 1956, but we could just as easily find apt comparisons to Eggleston, Shore, Friedlander, and many others.

Undercover Cars presents a tight edit of Woodside’s series. A tipped-in image on the cloth cover features an old car parked on a street with a silver cover sheet slightly slipping from it, and this picture sets the mood for the book: a typological project with a twist. The book has a simple layout with two photographs per spread and a generous amount of white space around them, and the elegant design serves its main purpose, which is to show a long term, single subject photographic study with a minimum of distractions.

Woodside’s camera often captures vintage car models, and we see these specialties parked on the streets, in backyards, or seemingly abandoned at parking lots. Covering a car with a protective sheet is fundamentally a practical act, yet Woodside’s study presents a more playful and cheerful documentation of this practice. While some vehicles have wraps that fit them almost perfectly, Woodside is particularly drawn to unexpected and often comical arrangements. There are images of cars with covers that barely conceal the vehicle, and some cars are in such a rusty condition that one wonders why they even have a cover. One image shows a bourbon car (a white uneven cloth hangs on its front and another one covers the roof), and another reveals a row of three cars parked next to a garage, all of them similarly shape and wrapped in matching grey covers.

As the title of the book cleverly suggests, there is more to this series than just the straightforward images of cars – the photographs also uncover and document a place and a time. Woodside’s cars have real character, yet they are inseparable from their social landscape. They inhabit the residential environment where they were spotted, and interact with their surroundings. While there are no people in these photographs, it seems that we do get some sense of the folks who own these cars. Shabby buildings, colorful painted fences, suburban garage doors, along with palms and bushy trees, come together to create the layered urban and human context for the series. As Mike Slack notes in his essay, we need to be aware of “<…> the intimate, everyday human narrative swirling around the cars. Woodside is just gathering evidence”.

Typologies are of course everywhere, both good and bad. The long arm of the conceptual influence of the Bechers continues to extend down the decades to each new generation of new photographers looking for a framework in which to make pictures, and it’s impossible to visit a photobook store these days and not see a dozen of these kinds of efforts. But in the end, Undercover Cars is a self-sufficient and unpretentious project, and that unassuming clarity makes it stand out. What makes it more than just a grab bag of like things is Woodside’s interest in something wider than just rigorous pictures. There is visual humor, social context, compositional experimentation, and even admiration all at work here, and those tiny details are what separate this book from the crowd.

Collector’s POV: Clint Woodside does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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