Langdon Clay was born in 1949 at St. Vincent’s Hospital on 14th street in downtown Manhattan, New York City. During the 1950s he lived in Princeton, New Jersey, before moving with his family to Vermont. He attended school in New Hampshire and then Boston; while there, he and his classmates became curious about the metropolis that was an easy five-hour drive to the south, piling into a car for occasional forays to The Big Apple.
In 1971, following his gut, 25-year-old Clay decided to leave Boston and return to the city of his birth — specifically lower Manhattan near the West Village.
With the naïve, blind energy of youth, Clay walked right into a challenging socio-economic mess. The fiscal crisis of the decade had pushed the city into a downward spiral of dystopian dislocation. What moviegoers saw in 1970s films like Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) was very close to reality. When Clay ambled the streets of the West Village and Chelsea in the mid-70s with his Leica CL, a 40mm lens, and heavy-duty tripod, the banged-up parked cars that sat quietly curbside under the glow of streetlights spoke to him from an alternative reality to the sanitized streets of today’s Lower Manhattan.
Michael McCabe: How did you get your start as a photographer?
Langdon Clay: In school, we were making 8mm movies without sound. On a trip to New York, I went to Olden Camera at 34th Street and bought a Pentax. I was familiar with cameras to a degree; I was familiar with the notion of recording things. I did not migrate to still cameras as a complete neophyte. The first things I took were pretty corny. I laugh to look at them, but you gotta start somewhere. I always took it seriously, but I was unschooled.
MM: Where does your visual sensibility come from?
LC: Part of it is who you like. Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams were early inspirations. Soon Evans, Sheeler, Atget, and Stieglitz were on my radar. Eventually, I was inspired by more street and less architectural/art photographers like Eggleston, Christenberry, Winogrand, Friedlander, and many others from the so-called “snapshot school.” Also, painters like Piero della Francesca and Vermeer.
I was reading Camera magazine and seeing all the European people but wanted to get away from it. I didn’t want to be an imitation of it; I wanted to do something that was mine. I understood the difference between an impressionist and expressionist perspective. I wanted to record. If photography is divided into a big tree, one branch goes off and it’s realistic and it’s recording things, and the other is expressing things from an artistic point of view using light-sensitive material. For me, using the camera is to record. That’s always how I’ve felt about it.
To photograph something, which I had done for a long time in black and white, is one thing; to turn it into a project where you are going out a couple nights a week, kind of hunting is kind of another level.
MM: During the 1970s downtown Manhattan was deserted, dark, and potentially dangerous. What made you go out at night to hunt cars?
LC: You know what they say: If you are a writer, write about what you know. So if you are a photographer, follow where you are. You can always find something. To photograph something, which I had done for a long time in black and white, is one thing; to turn it into a project where you are going out a couple of nights a week, kind of hunting is kind of another level. So it brings you to the whole question in photography: how do images and sequences, how does the ordering compound the meaning, and questions like that. Photographing the cars was the first time I had put together that I was actually on to something not so random.
MM: As you wandered the streets at night photographing cars, did you realize you were making historical documents, or were you looking at these things aesthetically?
LC: I knew they wouldn’t always look like that. In fact, I took those photos in ‘74, ‘75, ‘76, and we’d already had the gas crisis. And the cars I was photographing on the street were still from four, five, or eight years earlier. The ones I picked were the cool designs, but by then they were all rusting out and banged up. I knew too that degree, since things were changing, that those cars and my photographs would be a little bit of history. In ‘79 I did something about 42nd Street and that really was done for history. The newspapers were full of stories about the need to “renovate” (read: clean up) Times Square and I thought, fuck, I better do something about that to make a record.
MM: What about the design of a car draws your eye? And why photograph them at night?
LC: That was partly because night is different. The city at night is more dreamy. There’s one photograph of the Dodge Lancer that looks stucco. You can see the fenders look like someone was troweling a wall, and then of course the wall behind the car is exactly that. So, what that means to me is that cars, when they are designed by people, have a scale to them. You can tell that there was a certain amount of love, or it’s much more personable than what was developing elsewhere. Some of this still existed in some European cars. The Volvo — I don’t know, they just look like cars. The headlights look like eyes.
MM: Even though it’s nighttime in your photos, the rich colors are part of your signature aesthetic. How did you achieve that look?
LC: During the 1970s mercury vapor was used to illuminate places like basketball courts at night. Then to save money, the city switched to sodium vapor, which is a much warmer and more golden light and it works very well with Kodachrome. I was just learning about color and switching from black and white. I tested different color films but the best one was Kodachrome. I’m glad I picked it — there is a permanence and some weird richness in Kodachrome.
It’s not just the street lights. It was also the light from stores and stuff. You might not be seeing it directly, maybe if you are across the street, but there were certain neon glows of red and blue and green that you can see were behind the camera. So if some store lights were turned off, it wouldn’t be the same thing.
MM: Did you have any precondition about what kind of car you wanted to photograph? Or would you be walking down the street and see an old banged-up Studebaker and say, “That’s a good one.”
LC: I passed by a lot. And of course, I went past the same streets and same buildings over and over and over again. But the cars changed, so that’s why I went back again and again because something might turn up that would work. In the beginning, I did even wider streetscapes where there might be two or even three cars — like a red car and a green car right next to each other. I pretty quickly got down to just one car and one background as an aesthetic approach. At the time I was learning more about Renaissance styles. When I first showed these photos in Paris in ‘76, the French thought I had just moved the cars. They thought it was an arrangement thing. But that would be pretty theatrical, and I didn’t have either the money or the imagination to do it.
MM: As someone who first lived downtown in Manhattan in 1975-’76, your car photographs capture something authentic. You once said, “Night became its own color.” What did you mean by that?
LC: Well, you know what it means — from living in that city in particular. Back then, you weren’t always safe. There were three guys coming at you down the block and you’d cross to the other side to save yourself a bunch of grief. Photographing at night in that light was a different thing. Particularly during the summer — the humidity and the night are protective layers, so you don’t have to worry about the sky. You are focused on the street level. Basically, photographing the cars was very objective. I was also very keen to maximize any detail in any given image. Yes, there are the cars but there is also all the other information in the frame. For me that’s what’s important. In 100 years, that’s what I hope people will get out of these things.
MM: Yes, they are documents. The cars are of course important but the backgrounds resonate with the noise of life. New York is an impressive place to begin with. It’s a real city, overwhelming and impressive.
LC: I guess a lot of it is still there but they have painted over the buildings. Some of the buildings are gone. I was in the city recently and went looking for some of the places where I took the photos — like the White Tower hamburger place I photographed with a car in the snow. That’s gone. There is a big apartment building there now.
There’s another part to it for the photographer, which is to make an image, and then later — a week, 10 days later — after it was developed and came back in the mail, to look at it and to discover what it was you took a picture of. Especially what you didn’t see at the time, because you were worried about the guy down the street or getting run over by a car. Then later, at your leisure, project it on the wall and think about it. So that’s still, for me, the fun of photography.
MM: I remember you described how you felt as a young guy in the city. Borrowing from an old Roger Miller song, “Dang Me”: “My Pappy’s a pistol, I’m a son-of-a-gun …” You said, “We were all pistols on fire, New York was ours in the 1970s, so we thought …”
LC: Well you know what it’s like when you are 25 and sort of cocky. That song used to be on a 10-inch reel in the darkroom that went on for hours. That’s why I put in the last part: “So we thought …” Now at my age, the things I thought as a kid would become more clarified are now more muddy. There is no linear way to progress through old age, retirement, and complete understanding. You just have to hook in at any given stage in your life and see what’s up.