Mike Mandel

People on Wheels

Automobiles are part of the American way of life, according to the self-image cultivated in the USA, along with the desire for freedom and the pursuit of happiness. A car can be many things – a practical means of transportation, but also a status symbol and the embodiment of power and speed. Or it can simply be an extremely small living space, in which the average American driver now spends more than 290 hours every year.

In the early 1970s, twenty-year-old conceptual artist Mike Mandel made his fellow Americans and their omnipresent automobiles the subject of his photographic series "People in Cars". He placed himself at a busy intersection in San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, in the light of the late afternoon and photographed people heading for any destination – alone, in pairs, in small groups, in good spirits or annoyed.

His chosen subject is not an uncommon one in photography. But only very few photographers manage to get as close to the occupants of the vehicle and develop a rapport with them in such a distinctive way as Mandel. From the start of his artistic career, the young man from Los Angeles preserved a healthy portion of humor and kept at arm's length from the "sacred cows" of art and photographic history. Mandel does not put the car at the forefront of his images, neither as a technical or design object, nor as a mythical symbol of a former pioneering society that once made the transition from the horse to the combustion engine. On the contrary, cars feature in his pictures, but rarely in their outer form. Mandel much prefers to focus his wide-angle lens on the occupants of the vehicle, whom he photographs mainly through the open window. The artist thus gazes from the outside into the interior life of the automobile as it flows with the traffic – a private space in public view.

Meanwhile, it is only a question of time until there will be autonomous automobiles on the road. What's more, many photographers are no longer able to take pictures in public as easily as they used to, as people are increasingly aware of their right to their own image. Seen in this light, Mandel's photos of drivers looking mostly cheerful, and only sometimes unfriendly, seem like a window on a distant past. In the same way, the mother's relaxed gaze that is directed both at the photographer and at the boys sitting in the rear of the car today appears like a gesture of subtle complicity from a different era. The cast of figures preserved in Mandel's "People in Cars" have a dual function: they are both the protagonists in a scene captured in the photograph, and also abstract witnesses of a past, who, if we compare it directly with our own present, provide us with a clear indication of the dramatic progress of time.

Biographical information

1950

born in Los Angeles, California, USA

1974

Master of Fine Arts in Photography, San Francisco Art Institute, USA

1997

receives a Fulbright Fellowship and photographs in Turkey

lives in Watertown, Massachusetts, USA