The American obsession with cars seems to be so ingrained in popular culture that we often forget where it started. But in the Washington Post article “The Myth of the American Love Affair with Cars,” Emily Badger reminds us that the phrase “America’s love affair with the automobile” and the accompanying narrative was originally coined in 1961 during an hour-long episode of the DuPont Show of the Week titled “Merrily We Roll Along.” DuPont at the time was owner of a 23% stake in General Motors.
Like the diamond engagement ring, what started as a marketing campaign soon became a quintessential cultural narrative. Cars, from then on, were embedded in the American Dream; swooping down scenic byways and exploring vast territories by highway became a romantic symbol of freedom.
“The ‘love affair’ story … successfully helped seed [the idea] that … we’re bound to cars by something stronger than need.” —Emily Badger
The love affair story was so powerful that it shaped American infrastructure. We retrofitted our rural and urban landscapes to accommodate our cars, segmenting ecosystems for our own connectivity, demolishing old structures for parking, and displacing residents for wider roadways.
We even betrayed our former romantic idol, the railroad. In my hometown of Salt Lake City, a streetcar system that connected far-stretching parts of the Salt Lake Valley with 146 miles of track was dismantled in the early 20th century to make way for the growing number of cars. What is most ironic about this dismantling is that Utah transportation agencies are now dedicated to building and supporting a growing network of rail lines. Much of this return to rail in Utah (and elsewhere) is in response to environmental concerns.
With melting ice caps and a disappearing Great Barrier Reef, our love affair with automobiles is being reexamined. The cultural narrative surrounding cars has become a looming danger to our planet; we need to rethink cars as inherent to the American Dream, or we could cause irreparable damage.
“Instead of Ford versus Chevy, it’s Apple versus Android.” —Mark Lizewskie
Because I’m a product of the 20th century’s latter half, I occupy dual spaces. As a millennial, I learned about Global Warming early on, but I also came of age before smartphones and social networking—a phenomenon that Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum, says is shifting the way we think about cars. In the Chicago Tribune article “American Car Culture Hits Skids with Millenials” by Marc Fisher, Lizewskie states “much of the emotional meaning of the car, especially to young adults, has transferred to the smartphone.” Whether this is a result of an economic downturn, environmental concern, or something else entirely, this paradigm shift causes unease for those of us straddling both eras.
My series Love Affair explores the tension of this dichotomy. The use of toy cars creates emotional distance for the observer, while the macro photography subverts this distance by amplifying the cars’ larger-than-life presence. Likewise, the bold colors, serving to reignite nostalgia, are contrasted with odd angles that distort or amend the car’s shape. These disquieting portraits are not just of cars but of the accompanying narrative’s lure and subsequent anxiety.