The Fondation Cartier in Paris is currently focusing its attention to the world of cars with the exhibition “Autophoto”, dedicated to photography’s relationship to the automobile. Since its invention, the automobile has reshaped our landscape, extended our geographic horizons, and radically altered our conception of space and time.
Based on an idea by the publisher Xavier Barral and the journalist Philippe Séclier, “Autophoto” presents over 500 works from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. It invites us to discover the many facets of automotive culture – aesthetic, social, environmental, and industrial - through the eyes of photographers from around the world.
The exhibition brings together over 90 photographers including both famous and lesser-known figures, who have shown a fascination for the automobile as a subject or have used it as a tool to take their pictures. For those who are passionate about photographic material from China, here are three reasons why I strongly suggest paying a visit to this large-scale exhibition.
1. You will drive across hazardous hinterlands in the 1930s
On the ground floor, a small section is dedicated to two rarely seen original photographs taken during the “Mission Citroën” and Ella Maillart’s expedition to the Far East in the 1930s. The “Mission Citröen” also called “La Croisière Jaune” was organised by the French car company André Citroën between 1931 and 1932. It was assisted by the archaeologist and director of Musée Guimet, Joseph Hackin (1886-1941), with forty other members participating in the mission. The mission aimed to drive across the Asian continent by separating into two groups – one moving from East to West departing from Tianjin, another moving from West to East departing from Beirut – so as to eventually meet in Xinjiang.
Ella Maillart (1903-1997) was a Swiss adventurer, travel writer, photographer and sportswoman who spent years exploring Russia and other parts of East Asia. In the mid-1930, the French journal Le Petit Parisien commissioned her to survey Manchuria, the large geographic region in Northeast Asia today divided by Northeast China and the Russian Far East. She met her fellow American journalist Peter Fleming in Beijing and both embarked upon a journey leading to Beijing, to Chinese Turkestan, to Northern Tibet and India amongst other little-known regions at that time.
2. You will discover rare studio pictures from the 1950s
In the same room, we end up in the 1950s and its vogue for playful studio portraits showing people in painted backdrop. These pictures originate from the Beijing Silvermine Collection owned by Thomas Sauvin who has been gathering vernacular prints found directly in China over the last decade. Sauvin has embarked in this massive archival project since 2009, when he started to salvage discarded negatives from a recycling plant on the edge of Beijing and acquire a wide variety of found prints, albums amongst other items discovered in flea markets and on the Internet. Today his collection incorporates over half a million of records and has been complementing the history of amateur photography in the second half of the twentieth century in China. By looking at these studio portraits, we can understand the extent to which the car has influenced the approach and practice of photographers, while unveiling the mediation of ideology in vernacular photography.
3. You will encounter contemporary Chinese metropolises
Finally, “Auto-Photo” exhibition will enable you to (re)discover the well-known photographs of Martin Parr and Edward Burtynsky, who have both documented the impact of car culture on the urban environment, such as in China. In his series “Parking Spaces” (shot in the 2000s), Parr calls into question with humour the role of the automobile in our society by composing a mosaic of vacant lot in parking around the world.
As for Burtynsky, his aerial view of the Nanpu bridge interchange in Shanghai provides a keen insight into man-made alterations upon nature. Burtynsky’s anxiety about public awareness of environmental issues led him to China several times in the 2000s, where he created several series of photographs that depict human and environmental consequences of the pursuit of modernization.
"Auto-Photo", until 24 September 2017
Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
261 boulevard Raspail, Paris (France)
Monographs on the "Croisière Jaune":
Ella Maillart's monographs:
Thomas Sauvin's monographs:
Edward Burtynsky's monographs:
Martin Parr's monographs: