(TBW Books, 2022)
For a stretch of two years, from the summer of 2008 to 2010, I drove a black Nissan Altima that had been passed down through my family. First driven by my father, then my brother, then me, and finally by my cousin, it was (a quick Google search now tells me) a model from the year 2000, and it would remain on the road for some sixteen years before being sold to a junkyard. A modest vehicle, what I remember most is its color and rounded body shape. I can also remember the feel and texture of the upholstery, which was a kind of imitation velvet that felt synthetic and fuzzy rather than organic and supple like the way real velvet feels.
I was vividly reminded of all this by a picture in Phil Jung’s first monograph, Windscreen. The sixth photograph in a book of twenty-six, this one shows the interior of an Oldsmobile cropped tight, with a cracked rear-view mirror resting on top of a faux-velvet seat that nearly fills the frame. A ribbon of refracted light in the bottom right corner introduces something contingent and fleeting into what is otherwise a picture of extreme detail and precision. Amplified by the book’s large format and rich printing, and by the extreme clarity of Jung’s 4-by-5 inch negatives, the image, which shows very little, seems monumental—a world unto itself.
The feeling of looking into a self-contained world is a persistent one in Windscreen, a book of pictures that Jung made primarily from 2008–11. Eschewing the familiar genres of Americana or social documentary, Jung narrowed the scope of his project down to the surfaces and interiors of cars still in use and visible on the street. Working with a 4-by-5 inch camera, Jung would regularly use a ladder to obtain an elevated vantage point, from which he could achieve an angle that could heighten the feeling of immersion in a given picture. With the dark cloth over his head—and sometimes over part of the car as well—he would then make an exposure, often while looking through the car window.
These are fundamentally pictures about interior spaces; even when we don’t see cigarette cartons or parking tickets littering a dashboard, there is still a pervasive feeling that we are experiencing interiority of some form. In a car from Rye, New Hampshire, we can almost construct a personality from the choice of sheepskin seat covers. We can feel it in the accumulated dirt that coats the seat belt buckles and console between the two seats, and we can guess as to how many times the rosary which rests there has been clutched while driving. In a car from Lynn, Massachusetts such objects of personal description are absent, and instead the car seems to contain interiority, something made possible by the brilliant and atmospheric light that Jung so adeptly harnessed. The pale golden light seems to emanate out of the leather seats themselves, and the dramatic crackling of the leather in the seat closest to us looks carved by time itself.
Though light, framing, and the inherent character of the cars are crucial to the construction of interiority, of a kind of “deep mental space” as Jung has said, so too is the scale of the book, specifically the way it seems to augment the original size of the negatives. At 16-by-13 inches, it may come across as bold at best and audacious at worst (as it first did to me). Were the book any smaller, however, and were the pictures not printed so thoughtfully (right to the edge of the page with barely a quarter inch of margin to spare), the full frame of each picture would lack the impact they have. At this size the pictures read like grand dramas playing out on stage. Each and every detail seems magnified to novelistic proportion. Textures feel as though they sit on top of the page. Handling this book, and feeling the leather-like texture of its casing, adds to the immersive effect that each picture has, and which together they build up, one after the next.
Jung has spoken of this work in the vein of forensic photography, and this makes sense if we consider the improvisational cropping and varied camera position, or the way discrete details are rendered with a heightened form of description. Like the crime scene photographer, Jung seems intent on coaxing the odd and unfamiliar out of what is otherwise plain and given. Where Jung’s work differs is in the way it focuses on surface itself, in paint and dust and fabric, and on the way light can transfigure them all. More than being a conduit for a person we can’t see or for a surrounding world his camera never shows us, Jung makes these cars into sites for seeing with a kind of attention we may not have known we had.