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‘Baby you can drive my car’

Watching a photography exhibition on automobiles with a playlist to match is a great way to spend an afternoon in Paris

Actor Steve McQueen driving a sports car in California, June 1963. Photo: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.
Actor Steve McQueen driving a sports car in California, June 1963. Photo: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

The first photograph I saw was by Man Ray, the America-born Dadaist and Surrealist. The image by Ray, who lived in Paris from the early 1920s till his death in 1976, was that of an early race car speeding, its form distorted by the long exposure. As I peered at Ray’s photograph, the song that piped up through my trusted RHA T20 earphones was One Headlight by The Wallflowers. Jakob Dylan was singing: But me and Cinderella/ We put it all together/ We can drive it home/ With one headlight.

I was at Auto Photo: De 1900 À Nos Jours, an exhibition dedicated to the relationship between photography and the automobile from the beginning of the 20th century. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. I was in Paris, at a loose end, and when I learnt that the exhibition was on at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, an art venue in the 14th arrondissement not far from where I was staying, I decided to pack a portable playlist on my phone, plug in my RHAs, fork out €10.50 (or around Rs790), and walk right in.

By design, the playlist exclusively comprised songs about cars or driving that I had selected from my library and put on shuffle while I roamed the three floors of the Fondation Cartier and gazed at over 500 photographs curated for the exhibition. Just as they have been for photographers, cars have always been a favourite subject for contemporary musicians across the genres—country, R&B, hip hop and rock musicians have written thousands of songs about cars. My playlist was by no means an exhaustive one and, indeed, it was skewed, influenced heavily by my own preferences.

The photographs on display at Auto Photo covered many facets of how the automobile has influenced the art of photography, beginning with the car and its place in the urban landscape; its influence on culture; on consumerism; and on modern life. Next to Ray’s were Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï’s images of Paris’ already chaotic traffic in those years. Curiously, just then my playlist served up the Rolling Stones’ Brand New Car, with Mick Jagger singing: I got a brand new car/ And I, I like to drive real hard/ I got a brand new car/ And I, I’m feeling good so far.

From those very early car photographs, I moved to where Yasuhiro Ishimoto and Langdon Clay’s works on “car portraits" were displayed. These were unmanned cars captured as stationary objects—on streets at nights; in the snow; and eerily parked against deserted urban landscapes. Neil Young’s Long May You Run from the album with the same title, which he released with Stephen Stills in 1976, came up. The song was an ode to the first car that Young had owned, a Buick Roadmaster Hearse from 1948, and the lyrics reminisced both fondly and sadly about it. Ishimoto and Clay’s images were in black and white and stark but nearby were photographs of a different mood. Photographers Basile Mookherjee, Soy Sanlé and Seydou Keïta had captured moments that spoke about the car as a status symbol, as an object that filled their owners with pride. Mookherjee’s images were those of gleaming supercars with beaming super-rich Middle Easterners.

By then I was listening to Picture Me Rollin’, the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s 1996 song, where he talks about the dream of owning a Mercedes-Benz legitimately, but also the stress of trying to achieve that.

The shuffle function of iTunes isn’t exactly endowed with Artificial Intelligence, so the songs (I had loaded around 50 of them) that were served up randomly often didn’t correlate with what I was looking at. But then, that hardly mattered. One section of the exhibition had wall-sized, super-blown-up landscapes, shot by German photographer Hans-Christian Schink, of massive highways being built in the early years after Germany’s reunification. The Beatles were singing in my ear: Baby you can drive my car/ Yes I’m gonna be a star/ And maybe I’ll love you. Bizarre but nice.

Auto Photo and my self-curated playlist became strange, yet happy bedfellows.

Oscar Fernando Gomez is a Mexican taxi driver from Monterrey who also shoots photographs through his cab window. All his photographs displayed at Auto Photo were framed by his taxi’s window, an arc variously capturing a man dragging a heavy load; a white and black cow asymmetrically framed as if in a painting; a pile of abandoned tyres forming an abstract installation. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Willie The Wimp, about a man who was laid to rest in a coffin styled as a Cadillac Seville, played. The exhibition had images of film stars and celebrities with their cars—Brigitte Bardot being snapped by a fan as she left in her car; Steve McQueen at the wheel of his sports car; of cars that were used to smuggle people across the border—from the files of the erstwhile East German secret police; of families forced to live in their cars—Mary Ellen Mark’s moving portraits of the homeless Damm family; and of the icons that have fascinated photographers over the years—including Raghubir Singh’s ode to the Ambassador, in this instance a tomato-red one at the Kumbh Mela in Prayag (Allahabad).

My playlist ranged from Bruce Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, The Doors’ Queen Of The Highway, and The Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac to Prince’s Little Red Corvette, Tom Waits’ Diamonds On My Windshield and Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally. The songs came up unpredictably as I walked through Fondation Cartier’s imposing glass building, designed by the award-winning architect Jean Nouvel. Not half bad an afternoon.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Trampled Under Foot’ by Led Zeppelin from ‘Physical Graffiti’

2. ‘The Passenger’ by Iggy Pop from ‘Lust For Life’

3. ‘On the Road Again’ by Canned Heat from ‘Canned Heat ’70 Concert Live in Europe’

4. ‘Picture Me Rollin’ by Tupac Shakur from ‘All Eyez On Me’

5. ‘Low Rider’ by War from ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends’

First Beat is a weekly column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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