I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting Langdon Clay amid much hustle and bustle during a Saturday afternoon emergency requiring a dinner party’s immediate change of venue. There is a gracious and zen quality to him; in the midst of frenzy, he seemed to be calmly making images. It is an honor to preview Langdon’s latest book, Cars: New York City, 1974 – 1976, published by Steidl.
Luc Sante, in his forward to Cars, offers the following, “I can’t stop looking at Langdon Clay’s parade of parked cars in New York in the magic years 1974-1976, arrayed like mugshots but lit like Hollywood stars. They rule the night…”
CARS: New York City, 1974–1976 from Afterword by Langdon Clay
“… In 1974 something happened. No one thing, but an accumulation of things. A halting in the brain and a nagging in the gut. I had by then moved up to an 8×10 inch view camera. I was still shooting in black and white but what I was photo graphing on the street or in the interiors of houses were things that attracted me for their color. I was now seeing differently the way my world really looked. It seemed like it would be foolish not to, so I just switched one day to color film. The “cars” came into being, in bold garish color, as a tide turning on itself. It was a kind of “I’m here” statement. Running in the other direction from the street photographer’s decisive moment. A big tripod, a Leica, a 40mm lens, Kodachrome film and two years of wandering around. It was photography of the street itself. One car. One background. So simple. Night became its own color. Sumner, Mississippi, July 2016”
EA Raines-Whorton: Thank you for taking time to talk to SXSE Magazine about your latest book, CARS. Below is a part of your dedication of CARS. Could you explain this interesting choice for our readers?
“And for Peter Minuit, a Dutch colonist who acquired Manhattanon May 24, 1626 from Native American people, believed to have been Canarsee Indians. The exchange was for trade goods often said to be worth US$ 24, although accounting for inflation, in today’s bucks it amounts to around US$ 1,050. Minuit conducted the transaction with Seyseys, chief of the Canarsees, who were only too happy to accept valuable merchandise in exchange for an island that was actually mostly controlled by another tribe — the Weckquaesgeek.I wish to dedicate this book to Seyseys, whom I take to be New York City’s first real con man. Without him this book may never have come into being.”
Langdon Clay: If you’ve ever lived in New York, or just been there, you always have a sense of being on an island. An island that seems more finite than the rest of America. You also feel you are a bit trapped there with an amazing assortment of hucksters, shuck and jive flim-flam men or women, three card monte men, pickpockets, liars and thieves. In short, that can be scary but also can make you feel quite alive to the pulse of some crazy electricity.
My dedication is somewhat tongue in cheek, but I wanted to trace it all the way back.
Anyone seeking to know more of the scope to this should read Luc Sante’s book LOW LIFE.
EA: Would you tell us about your career path? How did you get from being an aspiring photographer to making images for a living?
LC: I started still photography in 1968 and I was so taken with the power it had to make me feel good. I loved every thing about it from making you be in the moment while shooting, to endless hours in a (wonderfully) smelly darkroom. I even used photography as therapy to pull me out of what used to be called an “identity crisis” by taking a picture of me every day, wherever, and with whom ever (early selfie sort of). It gave me something to do. So with all that, I was afraid that to do what I loved commercially would poison it. But New York being New York you can go to a party and come away with a job. In 1978 I did my first assignment for the New York Times Sunday Magazine on the Natchez, Mississippi pilgrimage. That was the beginning and it didn’t ruin things, instead it opened up opportunities. Since then I’ve worked on about 30 books and umpteen magazines. But the CARS series was done before all that.
EA: The images in this book were created over a two-year period when you were in your 20s while wondering the streets at night. At a time when so much street photography was black and white, you brought the color of night to life and to movement. Could you share the genesis of this work and any evolutionary insights you experienced during this project?
LC: I write about it some in the afterword. Basically this project was the pivot in my personal switch from black & white to color. One reason black and white had such a hold on street photographers and Magnum journalists and art photographers you might see on the walls of Light Gallery in the 70’s was purely technical. To make a color print you had to farm it out to make a c-print or an r-print (from slides), or a very expensive dye transfer. Most of them didn’t look so good compared to the options in black and white, which you could control yourself. The digital age has change that dilemma completely.
Personally though, I woke up one day in early 1974 and decided, to hell with it. I wanted to photograph what I saw, which was color.
EA: In each image, of course we see so much more than the car. We are taken back to a time and place that surrounds each car. What it is you want to say with your photographs in CARS, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
LC: Basically, I photograph whatever is there wherever I am. Today in the Mississippi Delta all around me are miles of farm fields but there is a lot you can do with it. Back then in the city I used to walk everywhere and often at night back to my place from friend’s apartments. I was told once but have found no proof of it that Isaak Dinesen said a “city at night is like a waking dream”. So that was my mantra and to reveal that dream all I had to do was walk around in neighborhoods that were safe and near. I think the net effect of the whole group seen now is as jigsaw puzzle pieces which when assembled reveal a long gone broken but beautiful city.
Technically it was done with a tripod, a Leica with a 40mm lens and Kodachrome film.
EA: Luc Sante provides a beautiful forward to your book. What set this forward to CARS into place?
LC: I asked my old friend and poker buddy, former American poet laureate Billy Collins, who was around when I was doing the CARS if he would write something but he was on a grueling book tour. However, he lent me two a propos haiku. Next I tried an editor at the New York Review of Books Jana Prikryl, also a poet, who writes so well about photography. (janaprikryl.tumblr.com ) She was launching her book THE AFTER PARTY and about to give birth to a son. She suggested Luc, who teaches now at Bard College, and like in a good dream it just worked the way it was meant to.
Langdon Clay was born in the middle of a hurricane in New York City in 1949. He grew up in New Jersey and Vermont and went to school in New Hampshire and Boston. He got his first camera on St. Patrick’s day 1968. His first roll of film was of Grand Marshall Robert Kennedy leading the parade in New York. Three months later the presidential candidate was assassinated.
Clay moved to New York in 1971 and spent the next 16 years photographing there and around the country and in Europe for shelter magazines and books like JEFFERSON’S MONTICELLO by Howard Adams and MY CHATEAU KITCHEN by Anne Willen. In 1987 he moved to Mississippi and works from there with his wife photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. They have three children; Anna, Schuyler, and Sophie.
photo credit: Maude Schuyler Clay