Saturday, February 26, 2011

Boulevard Photographic, front cover
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
With the end of WWII in November 1945 came the end of coupons, rationing and shortages of food and most other commodities. While rationing didn’t end until the following year, manufacturers began gearing up to satisfy more than four years of pent up demand for products of all kinds.

One of the greatest signs of recovery after WWII was in the automobile industry. Detroit, or Mo Town as it became affectionately known, became the center of production for millions of new cars every year after the four year famine of WWII. No civilian cars were made between 1942 and 1946. Every bit of production had gone to the War Effort, but when the war ended the Lion roared and Detroit came rushing back to life.

New cars were at the top of the list for many families and Detroit was more than happy to oblige. MoTown rolled out passenger cars by the thousands, using dated pre-war designs. America didn’t care, it was enough to be able to buy a replacement for that old “beater” car babied and cosseted through the war years even if the styling was stodgy and conservative
Ford, Chrysler and General Motors weren’t the only ones producing cars. Studebaker, Kaiser, Frazer and others heard opportunity knocking at the door and answered the call alongside the Big Three.

Until the 1950's photography in automotive advertising had been the exception rather than the rule. Ad agencies and the manufacturers they worked for were accustomed to using art illustrators in carefully composed ads to sell their products. This was across the board, from Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup to Tide Soap.

Boulevard Photographic, back cover
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Everyone needed advertising to draw in customers and to drive demand for their product. Until the 1950’s it was not common to see photography used in automobile advertising. When photographs of cars were included in ads most were “record” shots, unimaginative and pedestrian. Most car ads used line drawings or artist’s illustrations to show off the lines and colors of the cars. Artists could “stretch” a car’s lines or accentuate a feature.

There were several reasons for this. Until the 1930's color photography was time consuming and difficult. Color photographs were not unknown, but only the hardiest photographers dreamed of producing a large body of work in color.

It wasn’t until 1942 that Kodacolor, the first color negative film was introduced, and even then it was unpredictable in quality and results. Ektachrome, introduced in 1946, put Eastman Kodak at the forefront of color transparency films and became the film of choice for professionals shooting portraits or advertising.

Photographers Jimmy Northmore and Mickey McGuire were little more than kids when the war ended. Northmore had been born in 1925 and McGuire in 1929. Neither had had a burning desire to become a photographer, much less to become a pioneer in the field of automotive advertising. But both needed a job and in 1951 serendipity brought them together at Art Greenwald’s New Center Studio, a Detroit based art illustration studio scrabbling in the postwar economy.

Oldsmobile and an an Old Movie
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The partnership Northmore and McGuire eventually formed was to last more than forty years. Anyone who has been in a partnership knows how unusual that is. Though partners are supposed to share equally in the profits and the losses, it's not unusual for a partnership to end in times of financial hardship or mishap.

In “Boulevard Photographic, the Art of Automobile Advertising, ” author Jim Williams takes us through the life of America's premier automotive photography firm. Williams, a writer, editor and later art director of “Car and Driver” magazine, knows cars, and he understands photography. He's combed the files of Boulevard Photographic and included almost 200 of Boulevard’s best shots to illustrate the remarkable history of a firm whose time has come and gone.

This is not a new book. It was published in 1997 by MBI Publishing Company and is long since out of print, available only as a used book. Why review it? Because it contains some of the finest automotive photography backed up by explanations from a photographer writing about photography in ways all of us will understand, “Boulevard Photographic, the Art of Automobile Advertising,” is more than a coffee table volume of beautiful car photographs. Williams traces the careers of Jimmy Northmore and Mickey McGuire, illustrated with photographs taken from the archives of Boulevard Photographic, and followed by collections of favorite photographs selected by Northmore and McGuire themselves, Williams's work provides a window into automotive advertising that would otherwise be unknown to us.

Northmore's boss, who was not a photographer, asked him it was possible to shoot a car inside a light tent. It didn't take Jimmy long to come up with a way to do it He rented a Detroit music hall, then used white muslin fabric to create a giant light tent. A forklift hoisted a tricked out 1949 Mercury onto the stage. Banks of lights outside the tent illuminated the tent, filling it with soft white light devoid of shadows.

Jimmy Northmore’s boss, Art Greenwald, at New Center Studio was an unwitting accomplice to moving photography out of the shadows and into the bright sunlight of Detroit’s assault on the American lust for power, speed and elegance in its automobiles. At a meeting of ad executives Greenwald listened as a potential client bemoaned the fact that cars could not be photographed the same as silverware, in a light tent, a technique which allows silver to be photographed in such a way that the printed product looks like silver. Greenwald took the problem back to Northmore who said he thought it could be done, and proceeded to create a giant light tent out of a Detroit theatre stage.

White Chrome on a 1949 Mercury
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Northmore forklifted a brand new 1949 Mercury onto the stage, then bounced light into the huge “light tent” and clicked the shutter. ¡Voila! The Mercury’s chrome printed out as pure white, and without extraneous reflections to mar the image. Jimmy’s boss had opened a Pandora’s Box, and Jimmy had solved the first of many “impossible” tasks for automobile photographers.

The light tent technique wasn't new. It was well known that silverware photographed inside a tent of white cloth, lit from outside the box using diffuse lighting sources, would appear silver in the print. Because the only thing inside the tent would be the silver, there would be no extraneous reflections to detract from what would be perceived as shimmering silver.
This “simple” solution to a vexing problem turned the automobile advertising industry on its head. It wasn’t long before Northmore was taking finished photographs for use in car ads, replacing the work of artist illustrators.

But, because photographs of cars taken this way all tended to have the same “look,” it wasn't a technique to be used every time. In fact, some art directors refused to have it used because it didn't “look real.”

Northmore and McGuire figured out that a foggy or an overcast day would give the same kind of “white chrome ” effect, and not require the use of a light tent. Glamorous models draped over elegant automobiles were photographed on the beaches of Carmel and Monterrey, or the winding roads of Big Sur, but always in the diffuse light of a foggy or overcast day. The only problem, never completely solved, was that, again, the photographs tended to look the same, low in contrast and lacking “sparkle.”
Dodge Charger out of the Night
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

“White” chrome wasn’t the only problem to be solved, however. An artist could accentuate one element of a car over others. With a few brushstrokes he could make a car look longer, lower or wider. These were not things easily done with a standard box camera. But using an 8x10 view camera has many advantages. Using tilts and swings, rises, falls and front or rear shifts a skilled photographer can alter the perspective of a building, or an automobile, eliminating convergence, straightening a line, adjusting a horizon or perspective, or even eliminating parts of a scene before the shutter is opened.

Northmore, and later his partner of more than forty years, Mickey McGuire, were masters of the view camera. Using every bit of the view camera’s potential they found ways to reproduce the tricks of the artist illustrators, and soon convinced art directors of the major ad agencies that finished photographs could, should and would be used in every major automobile ad campaign from the mid 1950’s to the 1990’s.

For his entire career Northmore used the same ancient wooden Ansco view camera. But even though it seemed he could do almost anything with it, he couldn’t lengthen a car without destroying its proportions. That is, not until he and McGuire came up with a curved film back made to their order. This required a curved ground glass for setting up the shot, but that was just an added detail, easily solved.

The curved back was a closely guarded secret. Though simple to use, Northmore and McGuire made it seem complex by adding faux adjusting knobs to fool unsuspecting onlookers. With the curved back they could make a car look longer in a finished photograph without any further manipulation after the film was exposed.

Later they replaced the curved film back with an anamorphotic lens, a lens developed in the film industry to compress or to expand images horizontally, changing their aspect of viewing. The anamorphotic lens, used with the tilts and swings of a view camera, allowed Northmore and McGuire to achieve the same effects they had created with their magic curved film back.

During the course of their careers Northmore and McGuire created the largest and most successful automotive photography studio in the history of Detroit. At the height of their business, and before they decided photographing cars on commission was more lucrative and satisfying than running the business of doing it, their studio, Boulevard Photographic had shooting facilities in five cities and took shooting assignments worldwide.

“Controlled Motion Rig”
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
The light tent was the first of many Northmore ideas and techniques which changed the field of automotive photography. By the time it was all over some forty years later, Northmore and his partner, Mickey McGuire had shooting facilities in five cities across the United States, each of them more than thirty feet high, one hundred feet long and fifty feet deep.

Another problem was shooting cars in motion. Film, unlike digital images, must be developed before the image can be reviewed. “Is this what you wanted?” could only be answered long after the cars had been loaded on the trailer, and the models and drivers had headed home on the plane.

Leave it to Northmore and McGuire to come up with a solution for shooting “controlled motion.” Northmore realized that a car in motion could be photographed in perfect focus against against a static background if a way could be found to also put the camera in motion in sync with the car. The car and camera didn't have to travel far or at great speed, they only had to travel a parallel path for the same amount of time the shutter was open.

Northmore came up with a plan to mount a view camera on a precision “camera dolly.” The camera would move in the same direction as the car at exactly the same speed. The background would remain stationary. As the car moved forward and the wheels turned, to shutter would be open, capturing both the motion in the wheels and the motion of the car relative to the background. The effect was a car perfectly in focus seeming to move across the field of view at highway speeds. Properly lit, the effect was magical. Then, if that were not enough sensation of speed, it was possible to have the background move as well, but in the opposite direction, effectively doubling the illusory speed.

“Flying Flat”
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Then there was the “Flying Flat.” Giant light tents made it possible to photograph chrome as pure white, but the light within the tent was utterly uniform and flat. McGuire and Northmore devised a “flying flat” to give them additional lighting controls within the tent, adding contrast to what could otherwise be a sterile look.

Over the course of their careers Northmore and McGuire made it look easy to photograph what Kazu Okutomi recently described as twenty foot mirrors. They made photography the driving force in automotive advertising, and they taught the rest of us a few things along the way. By the 1990’s computers, Photoshop and digital images had begun their tsunami across the entire field of photography and McGuire and Northmore’s days in the sun were over. They had come in at the beginning and they went out at the top of the Golden Age of Automotive Photography.

Mickey McGuire now lives in retirement in Palm Springs, California; Jimmy Northmore lives in Detroit, Michigan.

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