|The cover of ‘Cruise Night,’ available now.|
Kristin Bedford isn’t afraid to commit to a project. Her style of long-term storytelling has taken her to live among a deeply religious community in Philadelphia, explore storefront churches in the South, and most recently to Whittier Blvd. in East Los Angeles to document the lowrider car community there.
“For 70 years, members of the Mexican American community [in L.A.] have been expressing their identity through car culture. I wanted to photograph and understand how transforming a car was integral to being seen and heard”
“The underlying theme of all of my projects is an interest in social justice and how communities express their civil rights in a society that often marginalizes them,” she says of her work. Bedford’s interest in lowriding culture started from an interest in the politics of Ruben Salazar, a Mexican American journalist and civil rights activist who was killed in 1970. It may seem like an unlikely path, but as Bedford sees it the ideas that Salazar stood for are omnipresent in the lowriding culture today.
She started shooting in 2014 and continued to work on the project until 2019. This spring she released the intimate and unstaged photos as a book called Cruise Night (available now here and here). Here, Bedford talks to us about how she became interested in lowriding culture, how she gains the trust of her subjects, and the unique perspective she brings to a project, as an outsider.
|‘Luscious Illusion’ | New Class Car Club | Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, CA | July 22, 2018|
How did you get started with this project?
My path to lowriding came from an interest in how the customization of a car is all about having a voice – politically, culturally, and creatively. Lowriding is a worldwide phenomenon, but for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, it has a unique significance.
“The way that I work is I let the photos tell me what the story is about. I make the work in the field and then I go back to my art studio and I quietly look at the images and I just see what speaks to me”
For 70 years, members of the Mexican American community here have been expressing their identity through car culture. I wanted to photograph and understand how transforming a car was integral to being seen and heard. I went to my first ‘cruise night’ in December 2014. As soon as I arrived I knew that I was in the right place. It was a pretty immediate confirmation of my intuition about lowriding and this phenomenon and the community.
|‘Gypsy Rose’ | Imperials Car Club | Hawaiian Gardens, CA | July 12, 2015|
Did you have any interest in car culture before you started photographing Cruise Night?
I didn’t know anything about cars, I had to learn everything from scratch. I’m not an expert on anything when I go into it, so I have to learn – I order every used book possible, I print out people’s thesis – with lowriding it was the same. I had to start from the beginning.
“I’m not an expert on anything when I go into it, so I have to learn – I order every used book possible, I print out people’s thesis – with lowriding it was the same”
One of the key elements was Ruben Salazar. He was a civil rights activist and reporter, the first Mexican American journalist for mainstream media to cover the Chicano community. During Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War he was hanging out at a place called the Silver Dollar Cafe in East L.A. and the Sheriff’s department shot tear gas into this cafe and he was killed; this was in 1970. My father was this bohemian, activist filmmaker and had told me about him when I was a little girl. When I grew up I looked him up, I heard interviews with him, and Ruben Salazar was someone who just resonated with truth.
When I moved to L.A., I figured out where East L.A. was and where the Silver Dollar Cafe was and I was curious about where that voice, Salazar’s voice, was now. Obviously, it’s in a multitude of places, but lowriding is one of those. It was kind of this confluence of many things: the place, thinking about Ruben Salazar’s legacy and thinking about truth. That’s when I decided to learn about lowriding.
|‘Yahaira’ | Millenium Car Club | Los Angeles, CA | December 27, 2015|
All of this sounds so intellectual, but when I get to a project I have no agenda. I leave all of that at the door. It’s literally what takes me to the door and then I walk in and I have no end goal. I never even know how long a project is going to last, I don’t know what a project is about – people would ask me and I’d tell them, ‘I have no clue yet’.
“It was completely organic that women are so prominent in ‘Cruise Night'”
The way that I work is I let the photos tell me what the story is about. I make the work in the field and then I go back to my art studio and I quietly look at the images and I just see what images speak to me. I have all these big tables at my studio. And as each would come along I would print it out and put it there on the table and eventually would see the voice of the project. It took many years for that to happen.
|‘Lupita’ | Highclass Car Club | Cypress Park, Los Angeles, CA | June 13, 2015|
As an outsider what perspective do you think you brought to this project?
My initial interest was in this communal self-expression and that’s what brought me to lowriding; once I began making photographs I had no agenda. My process is to completely turn myself over to the unknown. It’s grounded in mystery and I let the photos tell me what the project is about.
“It became clear to me that the visual narrative culture of lowriding, and automotive culture of all types, is entirely shaped by men”
Over time I realized that many of the photos from this series featured women. It was completely organic that women are so prominent in Cruise Night. During this project, I realized, for the first time, that I am a woman photographer, which was a completely novel thought to me. I never thought that my gender had anything to do with what I do. When I saw the reverent, quiet and natural photos of women lowriders that I made, I discerned that it was a woman connecting with other women. I also reflected on why I had not seen images like this before. And it became clear to me that the visual narrative culture of lowriding, and automotive culture of all types, is entirely shaped by men.
Male-dominated imagery usually portrays women as sexual accessories who pose in bathing suits, stiletto heels or lingerie, beside a car. I think that maybe it took a woman photographer to break through that mold and tell a new story. When I was in my studio looking at my photos, I realized that I was unfamiliar with these depictions of women. I didn’t have any pre-existing ideas about how something should be, I was just being me.
|‘Samantha’ | At It Again Car Club | Elysian Park, Los Angeles, CA | May 7, 2017|
At what point while working on Cruise Night did you realize that the women in this community were an important and overlooked piece of the story?
It was very early on that I noticed that women were there, but it took time to see how they would play into the story. There were a lot of women present [at cruise nights]; there are women who have cars, more now than ever, and people bring their whole families. Women are a really large part of the culture, but it’s usually men who are photographed.
“Women are a really large part of the culture, but it’s usually men who are photographed”
Some of the pictures in the book I took literally the first cruise night that I went to, and they have stillness and quietude that is very expressive. It’s there from day one, and the photos of women are there from day one. There is a picture of Raquel sliding out of her boyfriend’s Impala while we were on a road trip in Vegas, and you just see her legs. I took that picture really early on; the vibe and the feeling are elegant, integral, and natural.
|‘Raquel’ | Las Vegas, NV | October 11, 2015|
What gear were you using to shoot these images?
I only use available light, there are no strobes or flashes. When I think about photographing a community of people I think about how I would like to be treated. I would not want somebody shooting next to me with a flash, it’s very uncomfortable. All of the photos are unstaged, there is no posing or created environments.
“I like walking that line of fine art and realism; I’m not a photojournalist, I’m not out to get any story, in fact, I’m like the opposite. Photojournalists are sent out on assignment and I’m just out wandering around in the unknown”
I use a 35mm lens and the distance that I appear to be from the subject is often the actual distance. If you see a photograph from inside of a car, it exists because I was in the car. The story of the lens that you use often tells the story of the relationship that you have with the subject. Some things, like sports, you aren’t going to get close to and so it makes sense to use a zoom/long lens. But when it comes to communities and being an outsider of the community, there is a very disturbing association with the zooms/long lenses.
I think that the fixed 35mm lens is also a reflection of trust and kinship and community. The pictures are so intimate and they are so close. I think that once you know I wasn’t zooming in, I was that close to the subject, it tells another story too.
|‘Kandy Lavender & Magenta’ | Barrio Logan, San Diego, CA | April 22, 2017|
What is it you like most about the 35mm focal length?
I use a 35mm lens for everything. My background is as a street photographer and so I don’t like a lot of distortion. The 35mm offers that little extra space [compared to other ‘normal’ focal lengths] and that’s all that I need. I did one day take out a wider angle lens and when I went back and looked at the pictures that day it felt like the language of journalism, just a little bit more width than I wanted. It felt like I was looking at a very traditional journalistic story.
I like walking that line of fine art and realism; I’m not a photojournalist, I’m not out to get any story, in fact, I’m like the opposite. Photojournalists are sent out on assignment and I’m just out wandering around in the unknown for years on end. It couldn’t be more contrary.
|‘Kandy Lime’ | Klique Car Club | Barrio Logan, San Diego, CA | April 22, 2017|
How did you earn the trust of your subjects and gain access?
I spend the majority of the time listening and getting to know people and very little of the time actually making photographs. Relationships and trust are at the core of my practice. I always keep my camera out so people know why I’m there, but my priority was really connecting with the lowriders, and that was through time.
“Relationships and trust are at the core of my practice. I always keep my camera out so people know why I’m there, but my priority was really connecting with the lowriders, and that was through time”
For me to make something new and honest I have to understand a community. The Mexican American lowriding community was always kind and generous and supportive of me. They knew right away that I had the deepest respect for the tradition and that I appreciated lowriding as an art form. My love and respect for what they do helped build those relationships. And then it’s just time, hanging out in a lot of parking lots and alleys; I’d hang out and get to know people, learn the infrastructure of lowriding, how it’s organized, and the history.
|‘Purple Rain’ | Our Style Car Club | Los Angeles, CA | July 22, 2018|
When did you decide that this story needed to be published as a book?
Probably six months into the project I was clear it was going to be a book, in part because a book is a very democratic form of expression. A lot of the people that I photographed had demanding work schedules, maybe they have multiple jobs, maybe they don’t have traditional leisure time.
The book is a very democratic format because you can look at it in your own time; if you don’t have money it can be in a library and you can look at it there. When I was thinking about how to distribute the work and how to share it, a book seemed like the fairest form, given that people have such different circumstances.
More images from Cruise Night
About Kristin Bedford
Kristin Bedford’s photography explores race, visual stereotypes, and communal self-expression. Through long-term engagement with communities, Bedford makes photographs that invite us to reconsider prevalent visual narratives around cultural and spiritual movements.
You can view more of Kristin Bedford’s work here.