As Britain recovers from a national fuel shortage, many of us will be pondering over our relationship with cars. For decades, they have held a magical place in our lives. Now a new book compiled by Lee Shulman features hundreds of "found" vintage photographs that capture the freedom and adventure of the open road.
Filmmaker Lee Shulman is the founder of The Anonymous Project, a venture he began in 2017 to collect and preserve colour slides from the last 70 years from all around the world. His collection today amounts to almost 800,000 individual Kodachrome slides – a type of film with chemicals that degrade over time and eventually fade completely, meaning that most slides will not survive beyond 50 years. It's for this reason that Shulman is on such a mission to document our past.
One recurring theme that stands out in Shulman's collection is how cars feature in many of the vintage images. So much so, he's collaborated with Hoxton Mini Press to publish a new book, On the Road, to bring us some highlights. In the book's foreword, he writes: "Like a trusted family member, they bring us great joy and pleasure and sometimes a little frustration – especially on a cold winter morning. They are a safe cocoon that transports us to new and wondrous places."
The discovered photos hail from the 1940s to the 1970s. Entirely anonymous and shot across the midcentury, the colour slides show vintage cars, family road trips, unplanned pit stops and endless vistas, conjuring the timeless exhilaration of life behind the wheel. "I am often amazed and profoundly touched by the incredible, intimate moments I discover in these little windows into our past," adds Shulman. "Like a road movie, together they form a bigger picture: that of our shared collective memory."
Shulman painstakingly sifted through the entire collection to choose each image for the book. It's a humbling treasure trove that after a year of lockdowns and restricted freedoms perhaps reminds us of our sense of adventure. "When I look at the images in this book, I often see less of the mechanical ingenuity of the cars caught on camera, and more of the personalities of these imposing machines," Shulman continues. "People had – and I suppose still have – a deep affection for these heavy lumps of metal, beautifully crafted into elegant symbols of status. It’s undeniable that the aesthetics of these cars from another time seem exotic today, and even a little unpractical, but they were made for the dreamers. They hinted at a hidden sense of adventure and elegance. They were their drivers' alter-egos."
Shulman also points out how we all remember our first car – his was a "bright turquoise" Renault 5. "The freedom, liberty and responsibility of feeling like a real grown-up. That car made the world seem a little smaller. From being driven to driving myself, I felt that sense of transmission from one generation to the next: it's your turn now to take the wheel and find your own path," he adds.
But Shulman questions whether we feel the same way about the cars we drive now. Whether the magic still exists. "I guess function and form were a little further apart back in the day. Ok, so there were no seatbelts and you were lucky if your car didn't spontaneously combust, but when I see these stunning testaments to design I think maybe the risk was worth it."
When you consider your own relationship with cars, browsing through these photographs, you might also remember some fond memories. For Shulman he can still hear his parents singing along to the latest chart-toppers on the radio, "so wildly out of tune, but who cared? That was the point. That shared sense of moving forward together, going from one place to another," he writes, adding that it was "a moment out of time, away from the daily routine, the hope of a better future right around the corner".
The collection of images might feature cars, and it's a joy to see their various designs, but they mainly reveal more about the people who drove them. Shulman concludes: "All these people, unknown to me, are like one big family. We share in their experiences: fragments frozen in time forever. What was their journey? Where were they going?"
On the Road compiled by Lee Shulman, founder of The Anonymous Project, is published by Hoxton Mini Press. Visit hoxtonminipress.com to buy the book.