Photographing an Era of Car Culture
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It’s a book more than four decades in the making — spurred on by the pandemic. “I carried around the idea of the book for years,” said photographer Thaddeus Holownia, the creative mind behind “Headlighting 1974 – 1978.”
Soon to be released, it features portraits of everyday people with their cars. Like the title suggests, Holownia captured these photos between 1974 and 1978, but he did so without thinking he would compile them into a book. That Idea only came later.
At the time he was taking the images it was the heyday of automobile manufacturing. “That certainly had an influence on my thinking of being aware of the mechanical age and people’s relationship with their cars,” said the visual artist, publisher and teacher.
Holownia didn’t know it at the time, but he was capturing a snapshot of car culture in the 1970s. He took photographs of about 50 people with their vehicles — everything from a custom Boat Tail Bentley to a Ford Model A and a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. There’s even a police cruiser: a 1974 Plymouth Satellite.
To take the portraits, he used a large-format 8-inch by 20-inch Gundlach Banquet camera — with a creative twist. “It’s an accordion box with a lens on one side and film on the other side,” he said. “I was pretty broke, so I started using photographic paper (instead of film), and the sensitivity of paper is much less sensitive to light so the exposures were done with a lens cap rather than a shutter.”
That meant he could only take four photographs at a time and then he’d have to find a dark room (often a motel bathroom) to reload. “I had to be very careful in what I chose to photograph — it’s a different kind of a process than what people are used to today.”
Because of this process, his subjects would embrace the moment and pose seriously with their vehicles, “so there was a very different kind of feeling about making those portraits,” said Holownia.
Some people posed behind the wheel, some in front of the car. One gentleman with a 1939 Packard limousine stood behind it because he didn’t want to ruin the lines of the vehicle. “I let them pose however they wanted to,” said Holownia. “People loved their cars, and the process was a participatory process.”
This was also his first solid artistic venture into photos, and eventually he shared these works and went on to start a photography program at Mount Allison University, located in Sackville, N.B. It also meant he could now afford to switch from photographic paper to real film.
Recently retired, Holownia now spends his time at his studio in Jolicure, N.B., where he works on projects like “Headlighting.” Over the years, he’s shown these car images in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Germany. “Wherever it’s shown, people love it and it’s gotten better with time,” he said, adding that these cars are now considered antiques. “As a group of portraits, it really defines an era of car culture.”
Holownia, whose photographs can also be seen in the National Gallery of Ottawa and the Spencer Museum of Art in Kansas (where many of the original photos were taken), started thinking about turning the exhibit into a book about 30 years ago. But it was during the pandemic’s rolling lockdowns that he decided to turn this vision into reality.
Everything about the book is an ode to cars. It’s spiral-bound, on bookbinding boards with black ink embossed directly into the boards. “It has this mechanical feel about it,” said Holownia. It’s also 12 by 18 inches, honouring the size of the negatives. “When you open it, it’s a two-page spread so it’s linear like a highway.” While he doesn’t name the people in the photographs, he provides the year and model of each vehicle.
At the front of the book, there’s a self-portrait of Holownia with a friend next to their vintage GMC panel van and Studebaker R10 in Toronto’s Distillery District in 1974, when the area was still abandoned and run down. Now his photography from the same era is hanging in the Corkin Gallery in the Distillery — coming full circle.
The book will be distributed by Goose Lane Editions this summer or can be purchased at halownia.com.