Life & Culture

Capturing 1970s Muscle Cars in Mid-Air at Sunset

Photographer Matthew Porter previews his new book The Heights

Hollywood first embraced the trope of the car chase back in 1903 at the dawn of automobile and motion picture technology, in the short silent film Runaway Match. Over the next century, it became a mainstay feature in American cinema, adding a thrilling, adrenaline-inducing spectacle to countless films across multiple genres.

Photographer Matthew Porter was fascinated by the way these cars could steal the show, and honed in on the muscle cars of the mid-60s through early 70s for his new book, The Heights (Aperture). In a series of 25 photographs made in the studio and on location across the United States, Porter plays with our suspension of disbelief, allowing us to read each picture as a film still.

Here Porter shares his love of spectacle, and offers his take on all-American archetype that has reached its sunset years.

“As a kid who grew up in the 80s, car chases are something that define the cinematic experience for a lot of us. It’s a very macho, male-driven thing; a sequence to feature excitement and spectacle. I thought it would be interesting to isolate those moments and do it in a humble way with resources that were available to me.

“I like that photography is a medium that you can use to talk about subjects you don’t have access to. I knew I couldn’t get a crane and raise a car in the air, so I was experimenting with model cars and hanging them on string, I took a long weekend to San Francisco early on, driving around and trying, with a 4x5 camera, to get as many hills as I could.

“The sunset ones are the ones I liked more; I liked backlighting the cars with an anti-commercial approach. You’re not featuring the face of the object, and it spoke to the twilight of that technology. I was drawn to muscle cars like the Camaro and Chevelle, which teenagers could buy and then race on a quarter mile drag strip just off the lot. You see those cars now and it’s like looking at a dinosaur.

“You would think I am a big 80s movie fan, but it’s not what I come back to. It’s really the light in the pictures, like an early Terrence Malick film. I will go to San Francisco now and it’s just me in a rental car. I will spend part of the day looking for hills. Then, as the sun starts to slide down the sky, I am standing on the side of the road with a camera and a tripod waiting for the right moment. I love the thrill of waiting for the climax.”