Jonathan Castillo is giving a new and positive meaning to “drive-by shooting.” His methods are far from violent means, rather it comprises of a creative manner of ambushing car drivers of Los Angeles with his camera attached at the back of his car and the lighting rigged on his friend’s jeep. “I’m really interested in capturing those introspective moments that we all have in our cars,” he tells Wired. “Overall though, the project is just as much about Los Angeles and the car culture as it is about the people.” Using an off camera lighting system, Castillo captures stunning portraits of people behind the wheels of their car, against the busy streets and bright skies of Los Angeles. The unique visual which the “Car Culture” series provides viewers had us reaching out to the Castillo for some immersion with his photography project.
How did the series Car Culture came about?
When I saw the work of Phillip Lorca DiCorcia at LACMA around 2008 (specifically his “Heads” series) I was really stricken by it. His use of artificial lighting in photographing pedestrians was really amazing. So I went back to my community college (Moorpark College) and I tried my own version (The Five Hours series on my website) at my college campus. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot doing it but ultimately is was a lesser version of what he had already done. I spent a couple years thinking about how I could take some of the elements of that work and make new work that was about Los Angeles and more my own. So while I was at CSULB (Long Beach State) I started this project as a final for my first photo class after transferring there. I then began to work on the project throughout the entire time I was at school and I have been working on it on and off ever since. I had to take some time off because my laptop was stolen when my apartment was burglarized in 2013 and I have gotten side tracked doing other projects as well.
What do you think are the reasons that make your series Car Culture unique?
I’ve seen people photographed in cars before. The most well-known person would be Andrew Bush and his Vector Portrait but I haven’t seen anyone use artificial lighting to highlight the people and capture the surrounding space. I don’t just focus on the cars and the people, the Los Angeles landscape is just as important as the people. I see the work as a collective study of Los Angeles and it’s residents with a slightly cinematic twist. The lighting is there not just to illuminate the people in the cars so you can see them but also to give them an artificial look. The lighting doesn’t look natural because most of the time I’m lighting the people from the opposite direction off the sun so even if you don’t know lighting technique you subconsciously know that something is unnatural about the images.
Describe your photography style? I understand ‘Car Culture’ was mostly taken guerrilla style, do you prefer that style or you also do portrait photography?
I don’t really know how to describe my style except to say that maybe I am most interested in photographing people and culture. I try very hard to consider lighting, technique and I lean towards quiet moments in my work, but it’s constantly changing based on photographers that inspire me. People tell me they can recognize one of my photos by my style but I’m not sure I can put what that is into words. I don’t necessarily prefer to photograph people candidly but if I feel it’s important for the project at hand then I will do it. Most of the work on my website is portraiture where I am directing people, whether on the street with strangers or in the living room of a family friend.
Whose work (photographer) has influenced you the most?
John Grzywacz is my most important influence in my photography, my former professor and close friend inspires me to no end. Dan Winters allowed me to assist for him for many years while I was a student and has also been a huge influence on me. Brian Smith has been a great advocate for my work and has helped me as well by allowing me to assist him. As for photographers, I don’t know but would love to meet that inspire me I would say Phillip Lorca DiCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, Taryn Simon, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Duane Michals. A couple that have passed on or were before my time that influence me include Walker Evans and Larry Sultan. Let’s include James Turrell in there, I know he is a light artist, but he makes me want to quit photography and take up other forms of art so I have to include him.
Any upcoming series you wanted to share to your followers?
I am still shooting the car culture work, as the end goal is a book and I think I need quite a bit more work and diversity before it is finished. I have a portrait project photographing rock climbers in Yosemite that I am currently working on and I have begun a series of portraits photographing people who live on my block in Long Beach. It’s all black and white natural light shot in my alley against a seamless. I also have a fourth project that I can’t tell you about, but I think it’s gonna be really good if I can put it together.
Tell us about the method on how you photographed “Car Culture”?
I never ask for permission to take someone’s portrait, never get a model release and I generally only take one photograph per person. I use two cars rigged with camera, and lighting equipment and need a small team of friends to drive, adjust lighting and monitor a tethered laptop as part of my process. Basically, my car has a camera (Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm/f2.8L or a Canon 50mm/f1.4) mounted on a tripod that is secured in the back of my car and is positioned to look out the back window. The window on my car luckily flips open so that I don’t have to shoot through the glass of the rear window. I have the camera tethered to my Macbook Pro which sits with a friend in the front passenger seat who monitors image capture, checks focus and exposure for me as I drive. 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. I use a Pocket Wizard to trigger the camera, which in turn triggers the strobe in my friend Briana Pattillo’s Jeep.
Lastly, state your camera gear of choice?
Whatever camera I have with me. Okay seriously I don’t get into the Nikon/Canon/Sony posturing. At a certain point a camera is a camera and light is light. I’ll use the best tools available to me at that moment but I’m not a die hard supporter of any brand. I shoot mainly with my Canon 5D Mark II but I own a Fuji X- 100T that I am playing with. I have shot with Sony and Nikon cameras and both have been great. I still shoot some film, I would love a Hasselblad and I still get excited when I see a 4X5 but mainly I shoot digital. Lighting wise I use Speedotron lights (2403cx and a 1500 Digital Explorer packs) mainly because I can buy them cheap, they have lots of power and they never break but I have a Profoto Acute 600B I used in Europe for a portrait series and have been using it in Yosemite. It’s become my main one light setup for portraits. My friends like to tease me about the Speedotron gear but no one can tell what gear you use by your images so at a certain point you just need to get out there and make work with what you have.
Since he started “Car Culture” in 2010, Castillo has taken more than 800 images of people driving their cars, giving us a rare opportunity of seeing up close some of the many who find themselves dealing with the daily grind and gridlock of Los Angeles’ freeway and avenues. It also offers us a unique perspective about man’s relationship to machines – in this case, four-wheeled cars manufactured by different automotive companies. “The only way we can live in this city is to be part of the car culture,” he says. “We sit on the 405 or the 101 or the 5 for an hour a day, it’s just what we do.”
To see more of Jonathan Castillo’s work check out his website and follow him @joncastillophoto on Instagram and @JonMCastillo on Twitter. To be considered for Photographer of the Day, follow us on Instagram @resourcemag and e-mail submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “POTD Submission.”