When my father was seventeen, he bought a used 1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe, a three-speed coupe that was four years older than him. He paid a junkyard $35, which he earned over three days baling hay. I thought of my dad and his car — with a dashboard clock that he had to wind manually — as I fell into the pages of Thaddeus Holownia’s Headlighting: 1974–1978, a new collection of remarkable old photographs of automobiles and their owners.
“The Chevy was a bit of an education, something to tinker on,” Dad told me recently. “If I screwed something up, it was no big loss.” With his bushy sideburns and inevitably greasy blue jeans, my teenage father could have easily stepped into one of Holownia’s frames, just like the dozens of his contemporaries who did from the city streets in Wichita, Kansas, to the country roads outside Middle Sackville, New Brunswick. Holownia shot his subjects using an old 8×20 Gundlach, and some of his exposures lasted twenty-five seconds — which meant the two chimney sweeps with their ’78 GMC Step Van 20 and the middle-aged police officer with his ’74 Plymouth Satellite had plenty of time to think.
Whether they’re standing next to a gleaming ’67 Austin Healey 3000 or beside a banged-up ’46 Studebaker M15, the men and women in Holownia’s book seem mostly proud. None seem to recognize the larger costs hidden by their chassis. And none of them seem to think that they are, to one extent or another, complicit in a screw-up of global proportions.
With the benefit of distance, we know how misguided most North Americans were when it came to the automobile and the sprawling networks of roads and highways that helped to define a century. While a certain sense of nostalgia makes it easy to empathize with a teenager who dreams of buying his first car, it’s harder to celebrate an automaker or a duly elected politician who laid the groundwork for a phenomenon that now kills 3,700 people every day, a disproportionate number of whom live in low-income countries. And that’s just the deaths from collisions; countless more people, a disproportionate number of whom live near the freeways that upended so many low-income communities, die every year from the air pollution.
Headlighting is exceedingly light on copy; Holownia lets his fifty-nine images do the talking. But in a brief introduction, the artist and designer Robert Tombs observes that a project dedicated to the internal combustion engine “has become increasingly provocative at the ‘end of oil.’ ” Perhaps there’s just something about this moment of ours that lends itself to provocation.
These are dangerous times in which to pay tribute to or even attempt to explain certain ideas that have fallen out of fashion with dogmatists, to say nothing of the reasoning of those who had explicit or even tenuous relationships with such thinking. Especially on social media, it is oh-so-easy to know better than our predecessors, to see their actions or inactions as nothing but detestable folly. Yet a sculptural work of art, like the teardrop ’48 Cisitalia 202 GT that’s currently on display as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Automania exhibition, is a striking reminder that things in the past were rarely black and white.
From today’s vantage point, my father should never have driven the twenty-five miles to and from school each day in a car that got a mere twelve miles per gallon. And from tomorrow’s perspective, none of us should probably be going along with society’s gradual abolition of fossil fuels. How will history judge our prime minister for supporting a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions instead of a cut of 50 percent or more? Will the realpolitik of now be acceptable to the punditry of then? And what will grandchildren not yet born make of their grandparents’ inexcusable decision to eke a few more years out of that aging Honda CR‑V instead of going whole hog on an Audi e-tron Sportback or a Tesla X?
Like the MoMA exhibition, Headlighting: 1974–1978 asks us to view the past through the lens of contradictory information. It asks us to hold competing interpretations and conflicted feelings in our minds at the same time, to see the ’65 Ford Mustang as both an object of desire and an object of contempt, to see the ’66 Volkswagen Kombi as both a home on wheels and a wheeled threat to the home we all share. It asks us not to judge harshly the man standing beside a scrapheap and his 1950 Ford F-4 Wrecker but to hope that the young girl sitting on her bicycle next to him was able to understand and learn from her father’s mess, so that she might build upon what he did and make things better.