Googie Auto Dealership

By Tom Paiva on

Before I share some new images, I’d like to mention that last week I  had a chance to go to a lecture and meet one of the key contemporary influences of my photography back in the 80s, Richard Misrach.  He is a long time 8×10 photographer and is also one of the early modern color night photographers back in the 70s.  In the Q+A session, when asked who his early influences were, the first person he mentioned was Roger Minick, who wooed him away from the sciences (his college major) into photography in the 70s.

Out of the dozen books he has done, one of my favorites is “Desert Cantos”, published in 1987 and really has what some would call mundane, but I think are iconic views of the desert.  His forced, yet deliberate composition with the 8×10 is most evident in this book.  This is the book I brought with me for him to personalize and sign, which he did.

The highlight of the evening was his slide show (yes, a slide show, not a Powerpoint presentation) that showed a chronology and some of his early night work from the 70s in the bayous of Alabama what he now calls Cancer Alley.  They were beautiful and surreal with the heavy humidity and ground fog.  I had never seen them before, as they had never been published.

Misrach delves into his chosen subjects and shoots prolifically.  For example, he shot over 350 8×10 views of the “desert fires” series.  When he went to New Orleans to shoot the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, he dropped what he was doing, drove from the Bay Area and actually lived in his VW camper in the wastelands for three months and shot over 1000 8×10 views(!) for his latest book “Destroy This Memory”.  Dedication, indeed!

Afterwards, I got a chance to tell him that I also studied with Minick in the 80s and that night photography is one of my strongest photographic passions.  When I said I still shoot 4×5 and 8×10 for my personal work, all he could do is smile and say “There is nothing like what a large format negative can give you, is there?”

The lecture left me truly inspired.  With that said, this week I am going to show some of my recent 8×10 work on the “Abandoned LA Auto Dealerships” series.

This former dealership is in Long Beach, and what attracted me to it was the 60s Googie architecture.  It is a small location that I can see a dealer outgrowing.  No one in the area could remember what company was here, as it’s been closed for years.  These images were shot over two evenings, and are not necessarily in chronological order.

This view shows the exaggerated roof-line, typical of the Googie style.  This is a night shot about 6 minutes (with just a touch of light in the sky), so the brightly lit gas station across the street is quite bright, but still readable.  The exact placement of the bent telephone pole in the window took a while to set up.


I wanted to play up the wild angles of the structure, so I shot almost all of these with wide angle lenses.  This is a twilight shot that is about angles and tangents.  Working with the 8×10 truly slows you down to create the images you really want, by studying the subject and composing carefully.  When the cost is $15-$20 for each sheet (film and processing), that also makes you work judiciously.


This is a reverse angle to the one above, shooting towards the west, where there is still a touch of light in the sky. I left the rebate (edge) from the 8×10 holder to show how tight I composed this image.


In this night view, I’m showing the wonderful early 60s sign with the oval that I’m guessing said “Ford”.  It is obvious how the building and sign shapes worked together.  This image is lit by the shoe outlet store across the street, with its bright neon and a sodium vapor street lamp.


Here is a tight image with just the sign in focus.  Select focus is easy to do with large format, especially 8×10.  It is overall deep focus that can be difficult, especially at night, as the exposures can go into the hours.  There is so much detail in this image, that you can actually see the writing on the fluorescent tubes…


This is my favorite image from this dealership, after shooting two nights, making just 10 views–and one sheet of each, at that.  It is a 30 minute exposure (I had planned it to be 15-20 minutes, but got carried away chatting on the cell phone).  The extra exposure really brought out the detail in the shadows on the ground.  Note the detail of the weeds growing in the cracks in the asphalt.  This is lit from the light spill of the shoe store and gas station across the wide four lane street.  It is much brighter that it actually was to the naked eye, as there are no working lights on the property.  The long exposure enabled me to get some tonality out of the night sky, too.

I have shot about 6 abandoned dealerships, and am always looking for more.  If anyone knows of any empty, abandoned auto dealerships in the LA area, please let me know by emailing me.  A recent article in the LA Times mentioned that about 25% of the closed dealerships over the past couple of lean years have been taken over by other brands, especially in prime locations.  Things change quickly.

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