Meet the Long Beach Photographer Making a Name by Photographing Unsuspecting Drivers

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Castillo. Scroll through the gallery above to view the photographer’s setup.

Even we can be honest: our cars, for those privileged enough to own one, are precious to us Southern Californians. For us, it’s normal but for others, it is baffling the extent to which we depend on, use, and cherish our hefty pieces of metal to sit for long periods of time idling in traffic.

These idiosyncratic moments—simultaneously very public but extremely intimate—are precisely what fascinates Long Beach artist and photographer Jonathan Castillo. And he is fascinated with it enough that he created a two-car contraption that captures unsuspecting folks, lost in a trail of thought or perhaps flat-out bored, throughout the streets of Southern California.

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“A lot of us spend quite a bit of our week in our cars driving to and from our jobs or just getting around Los Angeles in general,” Castillo said. “I often find my time in the car to be very quiet and introspective. I often come up with some of my best ideas for photo projects while I am driving. I think I’m mostly interested in those quiet or in-between moments with a bit of humor mixed in occasionally.”

Car Culture, Castillo’s series featuring elaborate editorial photography of people, well, idling while driving, can be examined through several lens—which is probably why his work has garnered so much attention. Think of it as an inverse of famed photographer Phillip Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series, where diCorcia used a strobe light timed to a camera to capture the many faces of those perusing Times Square in New York City. In fact, it was this series that Castillo was directly inspired by.

The photographs [featured in Heads] were introspective, cinematic and absolutely beautiful,” Castillo said. “I couldn’t get the images out of my head.  I love a technical challenge as well.”

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That technical challenge evolved from a stunt at Moorpark Community College photographing a busy pedestrian bridge to Car Culture, a full-fledged operation that involves a camera—a Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm/f2.8L or a Canon 50mm/f1.4 for photo nerds—mounted on a tripod that is secured in the back of Castillo’s car, positioned to look out the back window (which conveniently opens so Castillo avoids shooting through glass). With his passenger sidekick overlooking, his camera is tethered to his computer, monitoring the capture, checking for focus and exposure while Castillo drives.

“When I get to a stop light and someone pulls up behind me, I frame the shot by looking through my rearview mirror and edge my car to the left or the right if the subject’s car is not lined up properly for the shot,” Castillo said. “I use a Pocket Wizard to trigger the camera, which in turn triggers the strobe in my girlfriend Briana’s Jeep.”

The result? Pieces of art that show the rest of the world what driving in Los Angeles County really is: a contemplative, if not zoned-out existence. The fact that the work is so multi-faceted—it’s definitively anthropological, if not outright academic but it’s also very ground-level in its approach toward humanity—is perhaps the most addictive part of Car Culture. 

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Questions within the viewer can range from “How did we get to this point?” to “I wonder if he’s thinking he left something on the stove at home?”

It’s distinctly about humans and that’s what makes it phenomenal art.

“I make my work because I am interested in people first and foremost,” Castillo said. “I’m a photographer and an artist—even when those two things can be in conflict with one another.”

For more information, visit: www.jonmichaelphoto.com

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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