If you’re driving around Los Angeles and suddenly see a bright flash of light, don’t freak out. More than likely you’re being photographed by Jonathan Castillo.
The photographer roams the City of Angels with a clever two-car lighting and camera rig creating beautifully lit portraits of unsuspecting drivers for Car Culture. The series catches people idling in traffic, suspended in thought and action. “I’m really interested in capturing those introspective moments that we all have in our cars,” he says. “Overall though, the project is just as much about Los Angeles and the car culture as it is about the people.”
Castillo uses an elaborate two-car process. His camera is on a tripod held down by sandbags in the back of his 2007 Toyota Matrix. He drives around with the hatchback open to allow clear shots of cars behind him. A 1,500-watt flash rides just behind the passenger seat of a second car that pulls up alongside the target. The camera and flash are controlled by PocketWizard remotes, which Castillo fires from the driver’s seat of his Toyota. Images instantly transfer to a laptop, which an assistant checks for focus and exposure.
The trickiest part is lining everything up—Castillo’s car in front of the subject and the flash next to its driver. The flash makes the images harsh and abrupt, giving it a surreal, spotlight quality that he likes. “I really wanted the lighting to be intentionally unnatural,” Castillo says.
Most of the time, Castillo shoots people who happen to be behind him at a light. He likes leaving things to chance. Sometimes, though, he’ll spot a car or a driver he really wants to photograph, so he and the lighting car must quickly slide into place.
Castillo has shot around 800 cars since starting the project in 2010, but keeps his edit tight. The series features people from all walks of life, their windshields offering a brief glimpse into their stories and lives. A woman in a green Volkswagen smokes a cigarette amid the party balloons filling her car. A cabbie barely peeking over the steering wheel. A teenage girl who appears to be taking a picture of Castillo taking a picture of her. “I am definitely looking for those weird and quirky elements to incorporate into the shots,” he says.
Few people ever figured out what was going on, and a few have gotten ticked. One woman got out of her car and demanded Castillo delete her photo. Another man politely asked not to be photographed. “He looked like he was ready to kill us, but just had to say his piece and that was it,” Castillo says.
It is easy to see why Castillo’s subjects might feel intruded upon, but his work is part of a long line of protected street photography. However unusual the method, he is careful about how he portrays his subjects. Castillo is not trying to harass people, but simply document a moment.
I’m just trying to show what it is to be a driver in Los Angeles and most of the time that’s a contemplative, zoned-out existence.
“I really see the work as a portrait not only of these people but of the Los Angeles landscape,” he says. “If I was there to be a jerk about it I’d be photographing people picking their noses. That’s not what I’m going for. I’m just trying to show what it is to be a driver in Los Angeles and most of the time that’s a contemplative, zoned-out existence.”
Castillo hopes to turn Car Culture into a book. He took a break from the project, but is heading back out. For him, the photos serve as an anthropological study. If there’s one thing that unites Angelenos, it’s the time they spend in their cars. Castillo’s found a unique way to create a thread between otherwise separated drivers. “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.”