Harry Wilks is a photographer with a sense of humor. You see it in the photographs for which he is best known, the iconic wide-angle shots from bridges, rooftops, parks, and roads, in which a stretch of guardrail, a girder, or a decorative crenellation takes playful precedence over the majestic landscape behind.
You see it in the way Wilks describes himself on his website: “one of America’s leading photographers of guardrails” (as if it could be imagined that he would have a lot of competition in that field). He catches you up in the details, makes you think twice, seems to undercut himself only to show you that he was in control all along.
You see it, too, in this other project with the car, with which, as he puts it, he has “harassed” his wife and son for thirty years. Well aware of the vernacular tradition of photographic portraits in front of the family car, Wilks has fond memories of posing with his own family in front of his father’s car when he was young. So it isn’t a surprise that it was on the bumper of his Saab that he chose to start this quietly mischievous, masterful romp of a portrait series—a series that, like so much of what Wilks does, leaves viewers smiling and other photographers shaking their heads with admiration.
Ostensibly recording the changes in his family since the birth of his son, Jesse, in 1987, “The Car Picture,” as he calls the series, is a product of the same wit and care for structure that Wilks has applied to his landscape work. Deliberately constraining the parameters of his images, controlling everything that goes into the frame, he takes the photo always at the same time of year, in the same location, with the same background of leaves and sky reflecting in the dark glass of the car windows. Always clad in a simple black dress, sometimes seated close to their son, sometimes apart from him, often smiling, sometimes serious, occasionally bored, Wilks’s wife, the painter Tamar Zinn, anchors and centers the scenes, responding to each year’s situation with a skepticism that is the source of much of the humor in the photographs.
That, in 1994, Wilks overrode his family’s objections and chose a picture with Jesse looking glum; or that, in 2001 and 2002, he decided to raise the hood of his Saab to create a dark, reflective backdrop for his subjects; or that, for some reason, in 2005, he chose to add his own quizzical face to the picture, all suggest an innovative artist keeping faith with an evolving artistic vision. In fact, just about everything changes in these photographs.
Not only does Jesse grow from that baby boy to a young man of character, but the car itself changes, from a Saab whose wide bumper accommodates mother and son comfortably in the first few images to a newer model whose narrower bumper requires alternative seating arrangements. You thumb through the images curious to see what will happen next. Where will Jesse stand in relation to his mother? Will Wilks poke his head in again? Will a new model of car appear? Did Jesse continue playing the clarinet after 1999? The more you look at these pictures, the more you want this warm, funny, artistically rigorous testament to love and family to go on and on.
By Benjamin Swett
Benjamin Swett is a writer and photographer whose books include Route 22 and New York City of Trees, which won the 2013 New York City Book Award for Photography.
More information on Harry Wilks here.
The Car Picture book is available here.