Two Inadequate Voices


2IV is a platform for image-makers to recount and reflect textually on their stories of being out in the world whilst photographing.

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Patrick Joust
Auto Anthropology

I got interested in photography in 2002. Not until several years later did I really start taking pictures of old cars. It was a subject I found myself resisting. Eventually I just gave into photographing them. I guess I thought of photographing cars as being overdone, a cliché. But then I realized much in photography revolves around clichés, the hard part is trying to do something special, even if just a variation on a theme; something that respects the uniqueness of an individual person, place or thing, while at the same time reflecting some of my own individuality. I’m trying to meld what is plain to see and what I imagine and feel when I see something interesting enough, like an old car, to photograph.

Like a number of other inventions in human history, such as firearms, nuclear weapons, leaf blowers, I’ve come to see the car as something that has caused more harm than good. Yet, as much as I feel a sense of repulsion and regret, when it comes to the supremacy of the automobile, there is also an attraction and sense of curiosity I have about them as objects, particularly when they have a history to them, when they show their age. I’m also as susceptible to the romance of the car and, more particularly, the road trip, as anyone else.

I feel like a great deal of my photography, including images that have no cars in them (most of my pictures), reflect the impact of the car in some way. The destruction and neglect of cities and towns, the attraction I have to places that have a human oriented infrastructure, however crumbling; it all comes back to the space we make for cars to roam the earth. The car has shaped the landscape perhaps more than any other invention.

One of my best friends is Laurence Jones. The two of us have been lucky to make road-trips through parts of California, Nevada and Oregon over the last several years. Sadly, we had to cancel in 2020 because of COVID-19. Laurence is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowledge of cars (and many other things). The detail of his car knowledge is remarkable both on a technical level but also because there is feeling and depth to what he has to say or write. Sometimes, when I have photographed cars, I feel a frivolousness about what I’m doing, like it’s some kind of guilty pleasure. In contrast, Laurence is able to take pictures but also really say something about their novelty today and their history, including how they fit in within the dynamics of race, class and gender.

I have an almost willful ignorance about the old cars I photograph. Mostly I’m interested in them as aesthetic objects that reflect the passage of time. I once told a friend that if there were old pianos out on the streets, waiting to be photographed, I would be just as interested in them. But, of course, it’s more complicated and personal than that. I find the impact of the car on our society overwhelming and my own relationship to the car confusing. I have fond memories that are often associated with cars, such as my dad’s diesel Mazda pickup truck or the clunky family car, the Audi 4000, that caught on fire and almost drove itself off a cliff, or my first car, an 85 Toyota Tercel that was top heavy and sounded like a truck when I drove at speeds over 40 mph. These days I delight in finding obscure diecast cars for my kids to play with.

I know that part of my attraction to a lone old car on some quiet urban street or sitting out in the desert is because it plays into a fantasy of a time after the car. A time that could be seen as post-apocalyptic but actually, for me, is a fantasy of life where the car has all but gone away. Or, perhaps, I’m just distilling something closer to car advertisements that show vehicles in unlikely situations where the vehicles being advertised seem to be the only vehicles around. The difference is the cars I find show their age. The more aged the better. These cars are still. They present themselves as immovable or they don’t move much. They can’t spew pollution into the air anymore, or at least not much. I can imagine the infrastructure created to maintain them is no more. Once I really get going, I can imagine a world adjusting back to a human scale. Actually, what I am imagining is post-apocalyptic, but it’s not a world completely destroyed but a world that has been given room to come alive again. It’s like having the ability to take a breath and relax as opposed to the vision of cars driving by, locked in unwilling formations, on the highway. All of this, I can imagine, while, most often, coming upon these scenes in my own car, thinking about my own place in, and contribution to, this unsustainable fossil fueled world.

On one of my road trips with Laurence we travelled through the Sierras and then into the state of Nevada. The dry climate serves as a preserver for old things of various kinds including, of course, the automobile. We both took lots of pictures, particularly in the towns of Beatty, Goldfield and Tonopah. On the last day of the trip, we passed through Benton, which sits just inside the border of California. We saw an old Subaru in front of a tall fence obscuring other old cars and decided to stop. We hadn’t been driving for long, which was good because that sense of curiosity and willingness to prolong the drive was still there.

When we got outside, we were met shortly by a guy in a well-worn jacket and hat, walking with a cane. Our encounters on this trip had all been positive but there’s always the possibility of meeting someone who is not at all thrilled with our presence. I think our minds both jumped towards that possibility, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. The man introduced himself as Burt and asked us what we knew about old cars. Me: almost nothing. Laurence: almost everything.

Burt invited us to explore his collection of hundreds of old cars sitting behind his home. We spent more than an hour laughing and learning. He showed us one car that belonged to one of his school teachers. Others were wrecks that he had salvaged over the years from various accidents along the highway. So many had stories behind them. There was plenty of technical knowledge about various changes in models from one year to the next but so many of the stories centered around the people who rode in these vehicles.

It was an amazing thing to see Burt delight in Laurence’s knowledge about Burt’s collection. The two of them went back and forth. I’m quite sure Burt had not run into someone who knew so much about his collection. If hundreds of miles didn’t separate them, I could imagine Burt and Laurence becoming friends.

Burt allowed us to take pictures and, eventually, he let me photograph him. I hope I took a picture that did him justice. It’s one of my favorite portraits I’ve ever taken. At some point during our conversation, we got to talking about the meaning of the car. What made cars exciting but also their drawbacks. Burt, who was jovial throughout, got a bit more serious when he pointed his cane to his disabled leg and said simply that cars allowed him to get around from place to place. They were the way for him to connect with other people, which was all the more important in this very rural area.

As much as the real drawbacks of the car are plain to see, I appreciated Burt’s simple explanation of what the car meant to him personally. Even while I hope the reign of the car will come to an end, I’m reminded of the complexities of this long relationship. The car is both a source of alienation and connection. It can give us freedom to go anywhere but also force us into gridlock. We can’t abdicate responsibility over the environmental cost, but I’m reminded not to forget that, for better or worse, the car is imbued with humanity, even as it threatens to destroy it.

Most of the cars I photograph are ones that have lasted thanks to a combination of care and luck. As expensive as they are, the car is less of a durable good than most household appliances. They are not meant to stick around for very long. The economy is largely built upon the idea of people trading in the old for the new on a regular basis, frequent crashes take care of the rest. I keep photographing these things even when it sometimes feels tired, especially the ones that show a little rust, that have developed a patina all their own; a copy that may have once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now down to a few unique individuals.

Patrick Joust lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife and two children. He is a photographer and librarian. Working with a camera for almost 20 years, photography has become a way of life for Patrick. He uses the camera to connect with the places he encounters and the people he meets on both sides of the lens.