Bitten by the Bug
The photographs are striking: wonderful colors, interesting forms, all quite abstract until you notice a familiar shape here and there: a taillight, a fender-mounted turn signal, a characteristic, swoopy metal edge, then — of course! — a VW symbol. These are all detail shots from vintage Volkswagens. The exhibit of Jack Parsons’ photos at Patina Gallery offers visitors an array of images of VW metal quirked by time and patina, layered paint, and rust. The photographs for the show Bugs and Buses were made in 1998. “I did a whole series then,” he said, “and I tried to anchor them with some part of the Volkswagen that was recognizable, because otherwise they look like total abstractions.” Even so, there are a couple of prints in the show that he can’t identify; he can’t remember whether he was focusing on part of the hood or the fender or what exactly. Some are very close to the nonlinear realm. In one photo, a scratched and splotchy red and pink Bug roof looms in the foreground like a psychedelic boulder, with the desert landscape beyond. The colors in all of these prints are incredible; some of the cars had been repainted, sometimes more than once, and you can see the layers of hues.
Parsons was a longtime, proud VW owner. He bought a new 1961 Bug in Sherman Oaks, California, for $1,995. “I had that green Bug when I was going to college, which I used to drive nonstop to New York and back, and it just ran forever; it was a great car. It served me for my honeymoon 53 years ago, and when I lived in Boulder, it was great in the snow. I think it was early enough that it had one of those little levers you’d switch over to the reserve tank when you started running out of gas. It was so austere, that German aesthetic. No frills.
“When I was in New York, I put these French ambulance horns on it, you know that ‘dee do dee do dee do’ sound, and I’d come up behind the taxis, which don’t pay attention to anything, and lay on the horn, and they’d be trying to move out of the way before they saw what it was, because nobody had those sirens here then.”
Just about everyone who ever owned one of the old Beetles has stories to tell. One Sunday afternoon in about 1986, my blue ’67 Bug stopped going. It was near a small town somewhere between Olympia and Aberdeen, Washington. I investigated under the engine hood and figured out that the ignition points were shot. (This taught me to always carry a spare set of points.) I can’t remember if I started hitchhiking or if I was just regarding the car with perplexity, but another driver saw me and pulled over. The man took me to his house and called a friend who owned a NAPA parts store. That man met us at the shop, opened up the place, and sold me a set of points for a couple of dollars. My benefactor took me back to
my dead Bug and I was back on the road in a few minutes. The moral of the story is that when things go wrong, you can meet good people and come away with a wonderful memory. Cars that run perfectly all the time never make memories.
The classic VWs with their air-cooled engines in the rear have a strong Santa Fe story, too. Veedub Bugs and flower-dappled “hippie buses” were symbols of the counterculture in the ’60s and ’70s, and their owners had a gold mine of money-saving information in John Muir’s 1969 repair book How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot, which included amazing illustrations by Peter Aschwanden. The guide was produced by John Muir Publications, located in the old Nuckoll’s Packing Co. building in Santa Fe’s Railyard District until the publisher went out of business 30 years later.
Bugs and Buses was photographed back in the days before the digital photograph revolution. Parsons shot on film using his Nikon F3 and did no cropping for his prints. He also focused on unique objects from the automotive world in his 1999 collaboration with author Carmella Padilla, Low ’n Slow: Lowriding in New Mexico. Not coincidentally, the Patina show hangs concurrently with the first month of the New Mexico History Museum’s new exhibit Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods, which includes photos by Parsons. Among his other books are The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest, also with Padilla; Straight From the Heart: Portraits of Traditional Hispanic Musicians; and Dark Beauty: Photographs of New Mexico. In 2006, the photographer was the recipient of a Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts.
The series on VW Bugs and buses celebrates one of Parsons’ favorite subjects: found art — in this case, found in a junkyard in Alamogordo. “I started poking around, and there were all these beautiful old VWs that were weathered totally, because they had been out in the desert for God knows how many years.” His description of the photos is straightforward and simple, just like his subject. He calls them “evocative expositions of a classic car’s characteristic details.”
I had that green Bug when I was going to college, which I used to drive nonstop to New York and back, and it just ran forever; it was a great car. — Jack Parsons
Jack Parsons: Amber Directional in Green and Red Stripe; opposite page, top row from left, Roof in Red and Gray With New Mexico Desert; Curved Abstraction in Yellow; Abstraction in Red and Pink; middle, Bulb in Blue & Yellow; all photos pigment prints, 1998