Langdon Clay, “Zizka Cleaners car, Buick Electra” (1975), from Cars – New York City series, slideshow (from the artist’s collection, © Langdon Clay)

PARIS — When accompanied by human figures, cars in photography inevitably become objects of desire. Their owners, lounging on the wide leather seats of vintage models or posing with their new shiny purchases on suburban streets, exude a sense of glee, confidence, and newfound freedom that is intimately linked to their physical proximity to a well-oiled driving machine. Autophoto, an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art in Paris that traces how the car has transformed into a fixture of photography, offers a largely rosy view of our attachment to these longtime signifiers of social status. But its numerous photos of solitary cars, devoid of human presence, also suggest that there is a certain elegance to these vehicles that emerges only when aspirations for exclusivity are cut out of the picture.

William Eggleston, Los Alamos series (1965-1968), dye transfer print, 40.5 × 50.5 cm (courtesy David Zwirner New York/London, © Eggleston Artistic Trust, Memphis)

The exhibit opens with photos of the car as an icon of the mid-century American Dream. In William Eggleston’s Los Alamos series (1965-74), even the detached coolness of the young couples behind the wheel, milkshakes in hand, can’t help but betray their seduction by these sleek vehicles. Eggleston’s romantic frames are tinged with warmth and nostalgia, thanks to his embrace of color and his use of negative film, and they capture a moment when the country’s identity was entwined with imagery of cars, drive-ins, and roads filled with possibility. Even amateur photos of the era testify to the public perception of cars as a path toward prosperity. In Sylvie Meunier and Patrick Tourneboeuf’s collection of anonymous snapshots from the 1950s and ’60s (selected from their 2017 book, American Dream), diverse faces of America’s middle class beam in front of their new cars. This status symbol served as the backdrop for prom photos and family portraits, and, in the case of the men photographed with one hand on the hood, a reminder of the need for ownership and control.

Studio portraits, China (c. 1950), collected by Thomas Sauvin, colorized gelatin silver print, 7.5 x 11.5 cm (collection Beijing Silvermine/Thomas Sauvin, Paris,
photo all rights reserved)

The desire for these vehicles representing freedom, wealth, and sexual potency seeped rapidly into other parts of the world. In French Sudan, which would gain independence and become Mali in 1960, Seydou Keïta captured families in their best dress standing in front of their cars, flecked just slightly by the dirt from the gravel roads. Professional shots from a studio in 1950s China, when vehicle production was just beginning there, show that the lack of passenger cars on the road did not hamper people’s eagerness to be photographed in one, even if the vehicle was fake. Arranged behind cardboard cutouts of cars, they look crammed and unnatural, their arms resting stiffly on makeshift steering wheels. The incongruity is heightened by the colors liberally applied by hand, creating in one instance a blue car with pink wheels and a green windshield, thus underscoring the fantasy associated with cars.

Malick Sidibé, “Taximan with car” (1970), gelatin silver print, 40 x 30 cm (courtesy Galerie Magnin-A, Paris, © Malick Sidibé)

The most alluring aspect of the exhibition, however, is its suggestion of what photographs of cars absent of people can convey. Outside of human contact and the projection of our material desires, cars resting on the side of the road elicit an unexpectedly pleasant feeling of contemplation. Bernhard Fuchs’s series of abandoned automobiles in the countryside, set against misty skies, reads as a meditation on lost human ambition and the occasional willingness to discard objects that carry significant social worth. The appearance of the small red three-wheeler in “Rotes kleines Auto, Helfenberg-Haslach” (2001), for example, jars with the hilly meadow behind it, and yet it was carefully parked along the side of the road, as though its owner wanted to give it a formal resting place. In the 1970s, Langdon Clay turned his camera on cars dawdling on New York City corners at nightfall, in the few hours before the city reemerged from sleep. The vehicles are weathered, with dents and doors held together by masking tape, echoing the trash-strewn streets of midtown Manhattan. They paint an untidy portrait of the city, one that cared little for glossy storefronts and sanitized sidewalks.

Installation view of Autophoto at the Fondation Cartier (photo by Luc Boegly and courtesy Fondation Cartier)

By eliminating the energy and movement of human bodies, photographers were able to draw out the beauty of these automobiles. Yasuhiro Ishimoto captured the calming sight of soft, untouched snow settling on parked cars in the Chicago winter. Ray Metzker’s high-contrast photos highlight the geometry formed by cars within their urban surroundings, like in “Philadelphia” (1964), which plays up a trio of white lines formed by the gleam of an open car door, the light emanating from street lamps, and the lane divider on the pavement. Lee Friedlander, using the interior of his rental car to frame his America by Car series (1995-2009), tapped into the smooth curves of the dashboard and windshield, as well as the play of reflection in the side-view mirror.

Lee Friedlander, “California,” (2008), from America by Carseries, gelatin silver print, 37.5 × 37.5 cm (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, © Lee Friedlander)

The sight of stationary cars, lingering in place instead of performing the task of moving toward a destination, shifts our focus to another typically unseen element: the road markers that regulate and restrict the movement of cars. Martin Parr’s Parking Spaces series (2002-03) subtly notes the variations in color and signage across the world: in Paris, payant is painted along the ground, reminding drivers to pay for their parking spot. In Newcastle, seemingly gratuitous arrows point toward the marked spaces, while Naples opts for blue markers. Other photographers, like Walker Evans, evoked the automobile while removing it from the image altogether. Evans’ Street Arrows polaroids (1973-74), one of his last series before his death in 1975, forces us to reconsider the banal uniformity of these turn-lane arrows. Cracked and speckled, tightly cropped, and bathed in a faintly blue hue, they represent both our desire for the vehicles that enable geographical displacement and the forces that restrain them.

Autophoto continues at the Fondation Cartier (261 Boulevard Raspail, Paris) through September 24.

Jenny Che is a Paris-based journalist. She previously covered business for the Huffington Post and art for the Wall Street Journal, and is an avid fan of subway maps. Find her on Twitter.