Critic Roland Barthes once praised the automobile as a symbol of its era in the same way that Gothic cathedrals were once icons of their own — the car, he meant, is an image of American liberty. But as anyone raised amid concrete sprawl knows, that independence has come at a crippling cost to our environment and health.
The photographer Patrick Gookin recently explored the psychological ramifications of car culture in a series called LA by Car, which the photographer has self-published as a book. The series was prompted by Gookin’s own hour-long commute to work after moving to Tinseltown in 2010. Trapped inside his car, he took note of the lonely figures he’d see navigating the uninspired terrain by foot. After surreptitiously photographing them for a while with his iPhone, he began restaging those scenes using actors and a 35 mm camera — a strange marriage of documentary and fiction.
The product of those dull drives has become a body of work that pays homage to Lee Friedlander’s America by Car while offering a distinct perspective. Here, the sunny hues of Southern California contrast with the silent, inhospitable landscape surrounding the vehicle. Los Angeles is a city built for cars, just as California and the United States are. Yet LA by Car is ultimately more about the person inside looking out — about the driver’s desire for human connection and the perceived impossibility of finding it. It’s a reminder that creating cities for cars and not people doesn’t just sterilize the landscape; it sterilizes us. Gookin offers a glimmer of hope, though: in his final image, the car door is open, and a young man walks toward the horizon, seemingly free.