Michael Furman might have become a Richard Avedon or an Annie Leibovitz, but he chose to focus his cameras on doing his portrait photography of cars instead of people.
In 2005, he founded Coachbuilt Press to publish coffee table books about automotive subjects. A couple of years ago, he decided it was time to do one that focused on the portraits of primarily vehicle faces that he’d photographed.
“I hoped to give my audience insight into why automobiles look the way they do,” he writes in the opening chapter of The Face of Change: Portraits of Automotive Evolution.
But the book is much more than a collection of Furman’s fabulously lit photographs, because after talking about the project with author John Nikas, the project evolved into “a journey into the larger history of automotive design.”
I use the terms “evolved” and “lit” with intention. “Evolved” because, as he writes in his opening chapter, Nikas drew from Darwin’s hypotheses “that complex organisms undergo a process of natural selection and genetic drift, whereby beneficial mutations are preserved and then passed on to subsequent generations, my theses posits that a number of eternal forces have pushed, pulled, and constrained the course of automotive evolution.”
“Lit” because Furman writes about the lighting of his photographic subjects, and one of the things the book explores is how advances in lighting technology have changed the face of the automobile through time.
As I read the book, I took notes on the evolution of automotive lighting and, quite frankly, it makes for an illuminating story by itself.
But there’s so much more to this book, which was written with input from the teaching staff at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, from car designer Robert Cumberford, and from Leslie Kendall, historian at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Despite times when we’re not sure who is writing what we’re reading (not all of the chapters and sidebars are bylined), and when the words don’t seem to relate that closely to the adjacent photos, those words present a good examination of the history of the design of the automobile. They also speculate about what cars might look like in an electric-powered and autonomously driven future.
“Making cars attractive is not essential to their functionality,” Kendall writes. “We do not have to have beautiful things, but we want them because they please us. In the absence of war, pestilence, natural disasters and other calamities, society can take time to indulge a collective yearning to do, not what is essential for the sake of survival, but simply what is essential for the sake of beauty.”
And speaking of beauty, well, there is Furman’s photographic array to be seen, studied and appreciated.
The Face of Change: Portraits of Automotive Evolution
By John Nikas and Michael Furman
Coachbuilt Press, 2019
Hard cover, 298 pages