You may remember the name Nick Turpin. He’s the man who brought us On The Night Bus, a brilliantly observed candid street-based photography project that snapped London commuters through foggy, rain-spattered bus windows. Well, since then, Nick has been busy: he teamed up with Hoxton Mini Press to produce Street London, an annual street photography festival now in its fourth year; he’s spent time teaching the art of street photography; and he’s been working on a fascinating new project in the heart of the capital.
Autos is a series of candid photos of cars taken at night in Piccadilly Circus, illuminated by the 785-square-metre advertising screen that sits above the famous junction. What gave Nick the idea for this series? “Since having children, I’ve been aware of them being advertised to in public places, being made consumers from a very early age,” he says. “I wanted to find a way of exploring the omnipresence of advertising in the public realm. I noticed the advertising reflected on the side of shiny new cars and I loved the slick, colourful seductiveness, the idea of this shiny expensive product illuminated by the colours and logos of the brands we all know.”
The process of taking these shots was painstaking and, at times, perilous. “I could only shoot the cars when they were static, which meant synchronising my shooting with the traffic lights,” Nick explains. “As soon as they stopped at a red light I stepped out amongst the vehicles trying to identify the best car and crouched in the road making images as the adverts changed and swapped.” Each car would be transformed by the colours, logos, fonts and images on the ads. “There were a few occasions where the lights changed without me noticing and on one night I was yanked out of the path of a bus by a gentleman.”
The images that Nick has managed to create are striking both for their slickness (surprising given the short amount of time he had for each shot) and their consistency. “Working in a visually busy space like London’s West End required me to shoot this series on a longer lens and focus right in on the abstract interaction between glass, bodywork and light,” he says. “I worked with a long image stabilised lens and slow shutter speeds in order to get enough of the passing cars sharp. It’s almost unheard of to shoot at night at f11 without a tripod.”
The intensity of the billboards helped with the composition. “Because the advertising is so bright, exposing for it means that the background behind the cars drops almost completely into darkness, which helped in giving them a graphic look.”
One thing this series does incredibly well is play off the well-known tropes of car-advertising photography. It’s clear Nick has an intimate knowledge of these tropes and it turns out he’s shot campaigns for car companies from Toyota to Fiat and Jaguar over the years. “It’s made me aware of some of the techniques, especially in lighting and retouching, that are used to make cars look like slick and modern desirable machines,” he says. “The use of huge soft boxes to create a ‘liquid light’ effect over the bodywork is very similar in style to the way the huge advertising screens light the cars in this series. I am subverting that look to make a point. Some of my cars are even lit by a car advert.” Now that’s meta.
Asked what he hopes viewers will take away from this project, Nick becomes more philosophical. “I think it’s easy just to get on with modern life and not take a step back and ask if this is a desirable way of existing,” he says. “All my projects interrogate an aspect of city life, whether it’s the hours spent by many just getting to work and back or the commercialisation of our public spaces with branding and advertising. As a street photographer it’s my job to observe us when most people are too busy to and to convey what I find in a thought-provoking, inspiring and hopefully beautiful way.” With Autos, as with On The Night Bus before it, he’s definitely succeeded there.