12 June 2017

Good 70s

Mike Mandel is an American photographer, based in Massachusetts, who uses the camera to create curious, innovative documentary-style images that double up as intriguing works of art. Many of his projects are some of the most selfless, fascinating research-based works of the seventies in which Mandel set about casually snapping people in cars as they drove by while he was standing at the side of the road. The Southern California native was able to document the real lives of ordinary passers-by in a unique and candid way for perhaps his most well known series People in Cars. All of the reactions were natural and the images are full of such humour, laughter and frivolity, that they create a timelessness that makes it extremely easy to forget which era they were taken. 

Five decades on, Mandel revisited his photos for the Good 70s exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery, New York which is on until August 18 and includes work from People in Cars; Myself: Timed Exposures, time-delayed images of Mandel inserting himself into a variety of social situations; Mrs. Kilpatric, in which Mandel took photos of a neighbour, always standing in front of her suburban house; Motels, a chronicle of the mid century beauty and ennui that is the roadside hospitality industry and also a series of his photographs of the San Francisco Giants.

A particularly favourable image is one of a teenager being driven along by his Dad. He sees someone trying to take his photo and gives them two fingers with what is quite possibly, the most nonchalant expression ever. What’s interesting about the series People in Cars, is that photographing people inside their cars is a rather mundane thing yet at the same time, if you look closer and observe with a fine-tooth comb, it also somehow allows us to look at the similarities and differences of the strangers captured. We can make observations based on their reactions to having the camera pointed at them, their physical appearances: including how they dressed themselves, and probably even their statures in society. There’s no way of knowing if this was the way Mandel had intended it to be interpreted – if the photos even needed interpreting at all, that is.

Mandel often shot in black and white during the 70s and he took these photos while prominent cultural issues were reflecting political grey areas, affecting the individuals in the photos as well as himself. The USA was outwardly very black and white, both literally and metaphorically in the sense that races were segregated and there were very clear-cut differences as America entered a grey haze of uncertainty. A lot of American white people maintained a conflicting mindset at this time in that they were trying to negotiate human rights issues but also had cultural beliefs that they had been brought up with. Integration became a goal, shaping Northern America’s “American dream”. The government introduced social housing initiatives called “grey areas” which were funded largely by Ford motors and aimed to bring black and white people together in society.

Prejudice and racialist talk continued to be pervasive, expected, accepted and even fashionable for some. Visionaries such as Mike Mandel however, began to challenge the rigidity of black and white structures and the positive influence within grey areas seeped into society. His photography subtly carried underlying messages of political and moral importance behind a well-coiffed facade of seventies cool. If you can't catch his exhibition at Robert Mann, check out his solo exhibition at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art or pick up his book Mike Mandell: Good 70s.