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Work of the Week: Back to the Future

POSTED BY , ON January 04, 2013, Comments Off

Since the turn of the 20th century, the possibilities of technological invention have been a source of great fascination. Digging into the past, projections about our future world can offer a fascinating glimpse into the popular imagination and the hopes and values of different eras. Be it robot servants, flying cars, or moon colonies, retro depictions of the future can also be a great source of kitsch and aesthetic cool.

Since the 1930s, car companies have explored cutting-edge automobile design with concept cars, or “dream cars”, often highlighted at auto shows around the world. Most of these cars never go into production; the ones that do lose many of their zanier features for the sake of practicality. One concept car made by Lincoln in 1954 became the Batmobile in the popular Batman TV series of the 1960s. A few images of these futuristic cars are featured in our latest photography show When Collecting Was New: Photographs from the Robert A. Taub Collection.

Robert A. Taub, a photography collector whose expansive acquisitions are currently featured in Galleries 1–4, once served as counsel and later vice president of the Ford Motor Company. As an officer on the Ford Motor Company Fund, he spearheaded the purchase of modernist photography as a gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recently, he generously gifted the core of his own collection to the Art Institute’s Department of Photography.

Among the many photographs on display in When Collecting Was New are these commercial photographs commissioned some time in the late 1970s by Ford for an annual report that was never published. Using a large-format camera, photographer Joel Sternfeld captured these “dream cars” in rich glossy detail. While they still seem to belong to a future we never arrived to, one can also see features that became popular in cars of the following decade, particularly the rounded corners of the so-called jellybean era of automobile production in the 1980s that valued the energy-saving aspects of aerodynamic design.

Sternfeld used the same large-scale format for his most popular work, American Prospects, a series exploring the toll of industry on the American landscape. You can see a photo from that project on the wall across from the Ford photos in Gallery 3.

When Collecting Was New (closing May 12) features an eclectic mix of photographs tracing the full history of the medium, including these funky futuristic cars and much more.

Joel Sternfeld. Untitled (Ford Marketing Image), c. 1975. Gift of Robert A. Taub.

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