Taken between 1974 and 1976, Langdon Clay’s photographs of the New York City streets have the luminous loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting. Instead of capturing some solitary souls in the Manhattan night, each shot frames one car against its urban environment. Four decades after they were captured, Steidl has published Langdon Clay: Cars: New York City, 1974–1976 with 115 portraits of these cars both beautiful and battered.
“A big tripod, a Leica, a 40mm lens, Kodachrome film and two years of wandering around,” the now Mississippi-based Clay writes in an afterword. “It was photography of the street itself. One car. One background. So simple. Night became its own color.”
Despite the connecting theme of each image, the photographs don’t feel repetitive, with their distinct details illuminated by windows, neon signs, street lamps, and Clay’s own sodium vapor lights. People only appear as haunting phantoms through the long exposures, like the ghost of someone working beneath the hood of a Buick Electra outside Zizka Cleaners, or a man stationed in the lobby of a Park Avenue building while a Mercedes two-door car rests outside.
“They rule the night, those Pintos and Chargers and Gremlins and Checkers and Galaxie 500s and Fairlanes and Sables and Rivieras and LeSabres and Eldorados,” writes author Luc Sante in an essay for Cars. “They unashamedly flaunt their dents, their rust spots, their mismatched doors, their liberal applications of Bondo, their repairs effected with masking tape— but then some of them revel in Butch Wax jobs like you don’t see anymore, gleaming like the twilight’s last sigh.”
Not only do the cars act as time capsules of the mid-1970s, including the Plymouth Fury cop cars and Checker Marathon Yellow Cabs, so do the views of New York City and New Jersey. Clay notes that the Everard Baths, where a curvy Chevrolet Corvette is parked, burned down in a fatal 1977 fire; the Marlin Room in Hoboken where a Cutlass Supreme is proudly parked was closed in 2004 and demolished. Even the sites in the West Village and Greenwich Village, where much of the architecture has remained, have been cleaned up; the graffiti and shreds of wheat paste posters are mostly gone, as are many of the nightclubs, diners, and cafeterias advertising “veal and peppers.” Yet in the photographs the viewer is transported back to these nocturnal moments of the sleeping city.