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Sunday, October 9, 2022

Crit: Car Sick by Tim V.

The book I'm going to talk about here is a book you can't buy. It was a self-pub one-shot, in 2020. Full disclosure, when he was doing the book Tim generously allowed me a look at a pre-print PDF and I gave him some notes and a blurb. Honestly, the book was excellent before I looked at it. I have never checked to see which, if any, of my notes he took. He used my blurb, though, which was very flattering.

Tim is also busy dying now, and was supposed to die a month or so ago. He muffed it and apparently now has a few months left, which he is using to blog fairly aggressively at his excellent Leicaphilia blog. Since he got his brief reprieve, I felt that I should give him a chance to read my review of his book, which I then realized I had to write. So, here we are.

Since you can't buy a copy of it, I made one of those flip-through videos, which will give you at least a sense of the thing.

I like this book a great deal, I think it's an absolutely superb example of a particular form. It's not a form that I am myself well-suited to doing, and it's a bit old school. It's a form that I like a lot, nevertheless.

What we have here is a book very much in the character of Evans' American Photographs or Frank's The Americans and while I won't say this is better or worse than those, I think it can stand with them. They can go to the same parties.

It's a whole bunch of black and white photos, all taken from the windows of a car, over a couple of decades, with Leica cameras. Not my jam at all in terms of making. There is grain a-plenty if you're into that. There's quite a bit of car-window framing. The themes are all car-accessible: roadside sights, automotive stuff, roads, toll booths, other cars. There are no photos from the remote wilderness, no photos looking up, or looking down, no photos of interiors.

What is there, then?

There's a hell of a lot of structure. It's bookended with abstraction: you segue into the body of the book with a series of extremely spare rural road scenes, and exit the book with a fantastic disintegration into abstraction. In between, it's "Walker Evans" sequencing in spades. Each photo connects to the next through some graphical element, or some subject matter. One photo contains has a sign with a line drawing of a washer-dryer set, the next photo has an actual washer and dryer incongruously set outside. These photos are drawn from a very deep archive.

Yet at the same time there is much more going on here. It's not just one and then the next one. There are repeated themes, mainly that of small local religion, but also mass produced statuary, semi-rural decay, boarded up shopfronts, and so on. As often as not the themes overlap, it's a boarded up shopfront church, it's a mass produced concrete statue of the Virgin Mary, and so on. Not only is there a fairly robust linear structure, as in the two older books cited above, there is also a sonata-like repetition of theme, a constant circling back to specific tropes.

The photos themselves are all at least good. There are very few absolute bangers. Everything lands somewhere between the well-framed document of an at least mildly interesting subject, and the well-framed abstraction with only murkily discernible subject. Mostly, the photos lean toward the former.

There are any number of excellent juxtapositions, including what I consider to be the finest pairing of photos I have ever seen. At 2:05 in the video, the sign on the left quotes Proverbs, noting that one never knows what's going to happen (and therefore, presumably, you should go to church or something) and the signs in the photo on the right first urge you to pre-order Holiday Chicken, and second remark that a B-52 with nuclear bombs crashed 3 miles to the south in January of 1961. You can locate the intersection easily with a quick google search and a mapping tool. Indeed, one does not know what today will bring. They're strong photos of a specific kind, of a specific kind of Americana, juxtaposed in a witty way which is nevertheless more than just the joke. The pairing makes a legitimate philosophical statement.

The whole book is like this.

Not only is the book structurally and graphically interesting, though. It constitutes a kind of honest and affectionate portrait of rural, small-town, North Carolina. It is, I think, clear that Tim feels a profound warmth and at the same time a certain frustration and even disgust, with the state in which he lives, and where he has spent a lot of time. Perhaps he finds irritating the constant drumbeat of religion, especially this kind of small-time vaguely venal religion. At the same time, he can't leave it alone.

There is no sign that these are beautiful people or that there is anything special about them, or the communities they live in. Indeed, the few people depicted at all are, as often as not, rendered anonymous. At the same time, there is an affection, or at least a familiarity, from the photographer that comes through.

This is the kind of meaning that I aspire to. I am also in love with America, and frustrated, and disgusted by America. Perhaps I am actually just projecting my own conceptions onto this book, but damn it, it seems to accept those projections willingly even if it's not Tim's intention. I see the book as a kind of affectionate portrait of a dog who is dumb, ill-mannered, but basically, somehow, a pretty decent dog, a dog you love in spite of and maybe because of its many, many, flaws.

I like this book a lot, and I am extremely happy to have bought it when the opportunity came along.

Thanks, Tim! Well done!


  1. Though there are some cool shots, on "leicaphilia," this kind of gearhead rabbit hole leaves me feeling more than a bit queasy. All I'm gonna say.

    1. I'm not sure what you mean here, but it's worth noting that Tim isn't really a gearhead despite the name of the blog. He likes his Leicas, but he's not obsessive about it. More of a philosophy of photography blog, in the long term.

    2. Yeah I don't know when you last checked, but right now that's pretty much all of it. I guess he wants top dollar for his gear?

  2. Good review, makes me want to see the book, even though I am definitely not into America in any way, having only visited Houston for a couple of days on business a decade ago. A deep archive of worthwhile pictures on a subject you care about is something to aspire to as photographer