The Art of the Automobile

"Those Were the Days" by Darin Volpe [1940 LaSalle Series 52 at the Woodland Auto Display in Paso Robles, CA]

In the early days of the automobile, design was driven primarily by function and not a lot of thought was put into styling. Bodies on cars like the original Ford Model T remained unchanged for ten or more years – engine under a hood, body for the occupants – all served their function so were left essentially alone. Harley Earl and the 1927 LaSalle changed all that forever. Before Earl, automobiles were primarily designed by engineers. Harley Earl’s arrival at General Motors and the creation of the Art and Colour department revolutionized the auto industry. Styling became as important as function and led to the idea of updating a car’s design yearly, a practice which continues to today. Now, instead of keeping a car as long as it worked, there was an incentive to replace cars to get the latest design.

"Cruisin' with Bob" [1957 Ford Thunderbird and Big Boy at Paso Robles Classic Car Show, California]

Every year the City of Paso Robles hosts one of California’s premier car shows. Classic cars converge on the city park where owners compete for prizes or to just show off their restored and customized machines. Photography at these events is always tricky. Full car shots are impossible unless you don’t mind getting a crowd of people in the picture – which I do mind and so I concentrate on the details. Of course photographing polished chrome and highly reflective paint has its own challenges. The problem of people in the shots remains, only now they’re reflected in bumpers, hubcaps, body panels, etc.

"Red" by Darin Volpe [1948 Ford F-1 At The Golden State Classic Car Show In Paso Robles California]

When you do manage to get a scene free of reflected bystanders you always have to be careful not to get yourself in the reflection. This is particularly difficult when trying to get a shot straight-on, but sometimes the chrome cooperates by distorting your image enough to be unrecognizable as a person as in this photo of a 1948 Ford pickup.

"V8" by Darin Volpe [1956 Ford Pickup At The Paso Robles Classic Car Show]

Of course, photos of chrome are often all about the reflections. This V8 logo from a 1956 Ford pickup seems to have a different scene on each surface – the sky and tree in the top panel, the pink Cadillac at the lower right, and the mystery object with the red dot on the opposite side. This is one occasion where a bystander in the shot helped. The pattern from the wild shirt reflecting on the right part of the V and beside the tree in the upper left adds a nice splash of color.

Sometimes the best looks come in black and white. The glitter in the painted hood of the Buick Riviera and the bright red Chevy Bel Air looked fabulous in color, but in black and white the glitter turned into a starfield and the red became the perfect black contrast to the white on the Chevy’s two-tone paint job.

"R" by Darin Volpe [1965 Buick Riviera Hood Ornament At The Golden State Classic Car Show, Paso Robles California]
"Classic" [1955 Chevy Bel Air at Paso Robles Hot Rod Show, California]
"Rock Around The Clock" by Darin Volpe [1954 Bel Air Radio At The Golden State Classic Car Show, Paso Robles California]

It wasn’t just the exterior that was coated in paint and chrome. Before the days of padded dashboards and plastic paneling the inside of the car was made of the same stuff as the outside. This photo is one of my favorites – the clock in the upper left and the radio at the bottom tells a great story of the mid-fifties, when Rock ‘n’ Roll was new and carhops and drive in movies were taking off in popularity.

"Four Eyes" by Darin Volpe [1968 Chevy El Camino Headlights At The Golden State Classic Car Show, Paso Robles California]

My favorite post-processing technique for car show photos (as well as any just about any photo of shiny metal surfaces) is to use the unsharp mask to get a beautiful high contrast glow. Using Photoshop CS2 (I tend to stick with what works instead of paying through the nose to keep up with the latest version) I start by setting the “amount” to around 50 , the “radius” to around 90, and the threshold at 0. From there I adjust the “amount” and “radius” sliders until I get just the right look.

"Well Blow Me Down" by Darin Volpe [Blower On A 1961 Buick At The Golden State Classic Car Show, Paso Robles California]

Car shows aren’t just for the restorers and customizers. A big part of American car culture is made up of the hot-rodders – the people who ask “How fast can we make the old car go? How big a blower can we stick on the engine? From how far away can we make house windows rattle?” Engines on these machines are an art form in themselves, with exposed fuel lines, gears, and belts.

"Watching Your Carbs" by Darin Volpe [Holley Carburetor At The Golden State Classic Car Show, Paso Robles California]

See my online gallery and store for more automobile art, both shiny and rusty, stopped and speeding.

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