A car for the ages

Photographer Mark Osterman focuses on automobile innards in his new exhibit, ‘Anatomy’

Photos from Mark Osterman's 'Anatomy' exhibit (photo credit: Courtesy)
Photos from Mark Osterman's 'Anatomy' exhibit
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Car lovers are a special breed. They spend almost every spare moment they have tweaking engine parts, polishing the bodywork with their carefully kept chamois, searching for some precious vehicle-related accessory, or exchanging valuable information with similarly minded auto buffs – not to say petrol heads. Anyone who came of age – TV-wise that is – in the late 1980s or early 1990s should recall the iconic American comedy series Cheers and bar-owner Sam Malone, who loved his Corvette convertible even more than the seemingly endless string of women who passed through his arms.
While it would be inaccurate to place Mark Osterman in the same fender-fondling category, the man clearly has a thing about his four-wheeler. But we are not talking about any old car. The vehicle in question is a 96-year-old Model T Ford, which the American photographic process historian lovingly and painstakingly restored to full glorious use, and which he happily drives on an everyday basis.
That almost century-old automobile is the subject of Osterman’s new photographic show, Anatomy, which opened last week at the Open University gallery in Ra’anana and is due to run through June 23.
The title of the exhibition, which is curated by Dror Maayan, gives much of the conceptual game away. The 56 prints don’t just add up to a record of what went into making, and resuscitating, the venerable model T Ford. For Osterman, his beloved car is a living, almost breathing, organic collection of mechanical limbs that do the conveyance business in consummate hands-on style.
“It may be a mistake to think of it as a picture of car parts, but essentially it is,” Osterman notes before going on to share the riveting tale of how the notion for the artistic project was born.
“I found this 96-year-old car in a barn and brought it home. As I was taking it apart – I planned to drive the thing – I started to realize that many of the internal parts, and even the external parts, resembled body parts, even in their function.”
That may seem a little over the top for the rest of us who are used to considering vehicles solely as, (hopefully) reliable, cost-efficient, modes of transport. But Osterman’s newfound baby was in an entirely different attitudinal domain.
“Carburetors of this vintage have very mesomorphic shapes, so they resemble, for instance, the human heart.” It is not just the aesthetics that put Osterman in mind of the human physique. “They [carburetors] convert air and gas into the power that powers the car. Hearts do something very similar as well.”
Osterman was taken not only with the designated role and original design of the age-old mechanical components, he was also charmed by the timeworn appearance accrued across decades of sterling road time service.
“Other parts, because of the way they aged in 96 years, say, the rust on sheet metal, can resemble old skin, or the appearance of skin cancer. All of this kind of personification of inanimate objects that kind of resemble our own aging process, is really the emphasis of the show.”
AT 64 years of age, Osterman admits he identifies with that.
“I am diabetic now, and I had my thyroid removed. My wife and I jokingly call this the ‘never years.’ We say this or that part of our body never hurt before, or I never had to worry about this,” he laughs. Osterman’s spouse is France Scully Osterman, an artist-educator and guest scholar at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
Advancing years notwithstanding, Osterman did a fine job on his far older car, and in double quick time. Mind you, he did have prior experience from a similar escapade.
“I sold an earlier model T Ford that I had owned for 37 years, so I could buy this one,” Osterman explains. “I found this one in a barn not far from where we live.”
He was immediately hooked, and transported back to a bygone era.
“It was like a time capsule. It had the original seats, and the original wood floorboards. When I started taking things apart, I realized that most of the parts inside the engine were original to the engine. They had the inspector’s stamps from when they left the factory.”
The veteran automobile was up and in daily use within about eight months. “Now I drive it nearly every day,” Osterman adds. “It’s probably the most driven car of that vintage in a city in the United States.”
Osterman works at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York and dipped deep into the photographic timeline to produce the images in Anatomy, some of which are pretty realistic while other tend more to the abstract, and don’t convey the actual shape of the components. That is not the point.
“It’s not important whatsoever to recognize the car parts. It is important to understand the fact that they were car parts, but the average person doesn’t know what the internal parts of a car look like.”
Osterman adopted a very different take on his ancient vehicle’s internal organs.
“Generally, when people take pictures of car parts, they look like catalogue photographs. But, with these pictures, you can see by the lighting and composition I used, that I am doing something very tender with these things, rather than just tossing the car parts onto a black background and taking pictures of them.”
OSTERMAN DIDN’T just set up his pictures of his old car differently, he also employed a photographic technique that dates back even further than his lovingly restored mode of transport.
“The images I made of the car are actually using a process that dates from the 1850s, on glass plates.” That refers to the collodion process, an early photographic technique invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. The process involves adding a soluble iodide to a solution of collodion, or cellulose nitrate, and coating a glass plate with the mixture.” This was clearly no quick documentation fix.
The technique may be over a century and half old, but Osterman says is not a rarity among contemporary photography artists.
“Right now collodion photography is very hot in the world. It was actually my wife and I who introduced it as a new-old process back in 1995.”
While Osterman would rather we zone in on the arresting images of his car he produced that are now on display in Ra’anana before the collection heads off to Japan and the United States, he says the process is important, too, for all sorts of reasons.
“The process is essentially therapy for me, given all that’s happening in America right now,” he chuckles. “It’s the one time I don’t think about the news.”
The same applies to the subject of the exhibition.
“When you drive a car of that vintage, there’s no gas pedal; there’s no way to shift gears with your hands – it’s done with the feet; you sit up very high. When you drive 45 miles an hour, it feels you are going 100 miles an hour. The experience is very tactile.”
The same could be said of the exhibition viewing experience which, and pardon the pun, really does transport you back to a quieter and gentler era.
For more information about the Anatomy exhibition, call: (03) 511-4412 or *3337.