As someone who views the car primarily as the link between supermarket checkout and fridge, I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by Autophoto – Cars & Photography from 1900 to Now at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. But this exhibition of 500 works by 90 photographers did just that.

It takes creative genius to extract beauty, drama and pathos from parked cars (Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Bernhard Fuchs), parking places (Ed Ruscha, Martin Parr) and road markings (Walker Evans) – and there’s no shortage of this here. There’s no lack of subject matter either: as one timeline caption for 2016 has it, “The global car fleet is 1.3 billion cars, or one car for every six people in the world”.

“It takes a creative genius to extract beauty, drama & pathos from parked cars, parking places & road markings — and there’s no shortage of thIS at the autophoto exhibition in paris. there’s no lack of subject matter either: as one timeline caption has it, ‘The global car fleet is now 1.3 billion cars, or one car for every six people in the world’.”

Autophoto is laid out as a road trip over two floors of the Jean Nouvel-designed Fondation Cartier in the city’s fifth arrondissement. The exhibition is curated by Philippe Séclier, editor of French car magazine, AUTOhebdo, and publisher Xavier Barral, and it explores the interrelationship between photography and the car. It’s arranged into six themes; the car as photography subject; Auto-Portraits; Paving the Way; the Car Industry; Carscapes and the Car and Society; with works by photographers ranging from Man Ray and Robert Doisneau to Eve Arnold and Larry Clark. Photography is essentially about freezing motion while the car enables it: when these are combined, the potential for creativity increases exponentially.

Matthew Porter, Borough Prime, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist/M+B Gallery, Los Angeles © Matthew Porter

Jacques Henri Lartigue and Man Ray were amongst the first photographers to capture the speed of the car and to explore the optical distortions that resulted. Lartigue’s iconic ‘Une Delage au Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, circuit de Dieppe, 26 juin 1912’ is a key exhibit. Initially, Lartigue rejected the photograph as it was blurred, distorted, and badly composed. On rediscovering it three decades later, however, he said: “Failure is completely natural. It is important to keep less than satisfactory photographs, because in three, five or ten years time, you’ll perhaps rediscover something in them you had initially felt.”

Or, as Clément Chéroux writes in In Praise of the Photographic Accident, “the accidents of the 19th century are so close in appearance to the aesthetic proposals of the 20th century”. (Incidentally, car historian Marc Douëzy points out the model and year of Lartigue’s caption are incorrect; the model was not a Delage, but a Th.Schneider; the year of this ACF Grand Prix was not 1912, but 1913.)

Image from Martin Parr’s series From A to B, A Tale of Modern Motoring, 1994

Auto-Portraits – a pun on the French for ‘self-portrait’ – opens with a series of parked car profiles photographed by Yasuhiro Ishimoto in Chicago between 1948 to 1952, the heyday of American automobile design. Fresh snowfall accentuates the sensuous curves of Buicks, Commodores and Chevrolets silhouetted against the sombre walls of Chicago streets. Bernhard Fuchs’ abandoned cars in natural landscapes are alternately menacing, poignant and comical.

“My first reaction was to look for the absent owners,” Fuchs writes of his series. “Since I hardly ever saw anyone, I remained alone with the situation, and unexpectedly, a relationship to these vehicles began to develop. The cars in the landscape had an impact on me, similar to the impact of actors on a stage, and since then I began to collect their wit and their tragedy.”

The assembly line also provides a rich seam for exploration. Doisneau documented life on the production lines at the Renault plant in France in the 1930s; Robert Frank the Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan in the 1950s. Frank managed to get himself smuggled inside River Rouge to document the revolutionary moving assembly line created by Henry Ford. “It was in summer and it was so hot in the factory and the noise was so fantastic,” he wrote. “It was really like a little hell.” Stéphane Couturier brings us up to speed with Melting Point, fusing digital and analogue photography to shoot the Toyota factory’s ultra hi-tech production.

Nothing says ‘We have arrived’ like a beautiful, brand new car (or its GPS) – and the notion of the automobile as status symbol is examined in the work of Seydou Keïta who shot group portraits of Malians posing proudly against their polished vehicles. Similarly, French photographers Sylvie Meunier and Patrick Tourneboeuf’s joint project, American Dream, is a collage of collected portraits of American couples and families in front of their homes, complete with a shiny new car in the foreground. Both sets of subjects, geographically distant, share an identical expression of resolute determination. 

Martin Parr captures an urban thrill with his Last Parking Space series – and, in a selection from From A to B, A Tale of Modern Motoring, his incisive portraits of British drivers are captioned with their quotes. “Before the recession, we had a Montego Estate which we were madly in love with,” reads one. “That was the hardest part, going from a decent car to this. It’s like wearing a placard round your neck saying we’re poor.”

In another examination of the car’s role in society, Mary Ellen Mark documented the Damm family for an article on homelessness for Life magazine. The family of four and their pitbull Runtly were living in their car after being evicted from a shelter. “On the last day, I saw a good location and asked them to stop the car,” Mark’s text explains in the show’s catalogue. “The spot was across from some railroad tracks so the car would have a bit of landscaping behind it. I must have worked on this picture for at least 45 minutes. It’s lit with strobe just to fill it. I opened the door to show more of the family. This is a very deliberate and directed portrait. But I didn’t tell Crissy to put her hand on Jesse’s face. That just happened, and it made the picture.”

Juergen Teller, OJ Simpson No.5, 2000

Jacqueline Hassink took six years to compile her Car Girls video installation, shooting the ‘car girls’ at motor shows in Paris, Frankfurt, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo and Geneva. She explores how car manufacturers communicate their brand identity through the woman they choose to embody it – and whose role it is to attract men to their product. Given that roughly 650m car owners are female, motor shows are failing to address these consumers. (Where are the Car Boys?)

Bringing the exhibition right up to date into a world of ‘fake news’ is Matthew Porter’s Borough Prime (2015). Porter’s muscle car, a 1969 Dodge Charger, is soaring so high over the road that both car and driver are surely destined to be pancaked. His process in fact involves using diecast models shot in his studio with lighting that recreates his selected streetscape before being inserted into the image. In this sense, AutoPhoto has achieved that which every exhibition sets out to do: I will never view the car in the same way again. And along the way nobody asked, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’