Finding the Art in Abandoned Cars

March 31, 2008
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Last night in bed I read a print magazine for the first time in months, a belated copy of National Geographic with a story on "The Emptied Prairie" -- the vast western stretches of the Dakotas and Nebraska that are losing people, even whole towns, to gradual migration.

It caught my eye, since I'd spent much of 2006 writing a book about Bobcat, which is headquartered in Fargo. But what really drew me in was a single photo of an abandoned car.

Abandoned cars have been art subjects for years, with rusted wrecks becoming almost a cliche for Route 66 and the left-behind early history of American motoring. Anyone with a Canon 20D and a love for cars has taken some, like this photo I grabbed almost 20 years ago in a field far off paved roads outside Helena, Montana. Sometimes the cars have trees growing in the engine bay; sometimes they're the punchline in a redneck limerick, up on blocks and waiting for one last lap around the dirt track.

At least now you don't have to pay $75 for the coffee-table book that commemorates the time-dishonored heaps. It's all online, as easily accessible as clicking over to Yahoo's Flickr tool. Flickr lets you tag photos and join groups themed around those tags.

Needless to say, Flickr's "Abandoned Cars" is one of my favorite tags. When brain melt starts, I click on it and try to come up with a brand and a model name for some of the decrepit vehicles in the photos -- like the Chevy shot by user TBurton in DeSoto, Georgia.

You can spend a few hours scanning the photos, and come away with nothing more than a keen appreciation for the power of rust. Or you can try to elicit the story that's there, written and forgotten, with all but a few impressionistic details worn off. Like the Raymond Carver-esque caption of that Geographic photo darkly suggests, "Cars are left behind when they can no longer help you leave."

Do you have a favorite rustbucket somewhere on Flickr or the Internet? Tell us about it in a comment below.

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