LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Long Beach native Jonathan Castillo cruises around Los Angeles studying the thousands of faces that pass in their cars.
Using his rearview mirror as a viewfinder, the 33-year-old photographer checks out the ones stopped behind him at intersections – and if they have a story written across their face that's when he'll shoot.
He picks up a walkie-talkie, directing friends in the Jeep parked to his left to ready the flash. Once they count down the burst of light, he pops the back window to his hatchback and presses the trigger tied to a digital camera propped up on a rig in his trunk. The flash is almost unnoticeable, easily mistaken for a passing reflection.
Most people he's photographed have no idea that their picture's just been taken.
"Unless you're right up on my car, you don't even notice that the camera is there ... 85 percent don't even react to it," Castillo said.
He has spent years developing this project, a study of Angelenos caught candidly in their cars, a home away from home that's both communal and isolated. It's a culture he still finds strange, fascinating and unique to Southern California.
He said, "You could photograph punk rockers, or roller derby girls, or so many other subcultures in Los Angeles. Not everyone is a surfer or a Hollywood star, but we all drive our cars on these same streets."
Castillo becomes something of a social anthropologist in his car.
"It's a part of our culture that is very far reaching. In most shared cultural experiences, there's a level of interaction. But in our culture, we're all doing the same thing, traveling in our steel bubbles, getting where we need to go, but none of us are interacting. It's a really odd thing."
Castillo is gearing up to release his candid portraits in a book appropriately titled "Car Culture." And they clearly are portraits. The lighting is cinematic and the color saturated, which makes the photos easily pass as stills from a movie. But the unplanned participation of the subject makes them also a type of documentary.
"People will say, 'Oh, it's Photoshopped,' but they don't realize that what they're reacting to is the lighting."
The concept sprouted when he was a photography student at Moorpark College in Ventura. He went on a class trip to see renowned photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia's "Heads" series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Castillo was struck and inspired by the ambush tactics diCorcia used to get shots of unwitting pedestrians in New York's Times Square, their faces emerging, theatrically lit by a powerful strobe, from a black void that drowned out the crowds.
He replicated diCorcia's set-up on Moorpark's campus and took photos of unsuspecting passersby. When he transferred to California State University, Long Beach, in 2010 he thought, "How I do make this more my own and more Los Angeles?"
And the idea came to him: What's more intrinsic to life in L.A. than driving?
What catches Castillo's eye, out in the field, varies. It might be a woman looking out the window of her green Volkswagen in East Hollywood, the backseat filled with balloons. A young man in a red classic Ford Mustang in Hollywood, waiting for the light to turn.
Most people like the shot with the balloons, he says, but his personal favorite was included in a book released by his mentor, portrait photographer Dan Winters. It's of a man and a woman in a black Mercedes-Benz: "There are all these beautiful reflections in the hood in the car. And I really like the lighting, that little triangular strip that hits the driver and passenger ... And it's kind of cool that I lit the bus behind them, as well. The farther across the frame the light travels the more subtle it gets."
Sometimes, people do notice Castillo's camera and the flash - a task managed by his good friend Briana. Drivers who curiously pull up alongside his car, will get a business card and referral to his website.
When Castillo initially started on "Car Culture," he tried sitting in the back of his car to take the shots, but it wasn't working out: "The movement of holding a camera up to your face and pointing it at them, people react badly."
The turning point came when he decided to shoot with a tripod. He switched out a larger lens, which would also be distracting to drivers, for a sharp 50mm prime lens - perfect for portraits.
"It was so much better, people almost didn't react after that," he said.
There were a few, however, who did.
"I had one or two people who got really upset. I had one woman who got out of her car and demand that I delete her photo. I didn't delete them because she told me to, I just didn't use them. I just told her the law says I can photograph in a public place," he said.
When asked whether that kind of confrontation makes him uncomfortable, Castillo makes it clear he isn't shy about what he does: "That's the common misconception: that [people] have the right to tell a photographer what they can and can't shoot in a public place. And you can't. It's legally protected under the First Amendment."
"Photography is one of our fundamental rights ... And I'm a strong supporter of street photographers' rights."
And, he points out, his inspiration, diCorcia, had to battle on behalf of his photography. An Orthodox Jew and retired diamond merchant sued the photographer for exhibiting and profiting from his portrait without his permission. Artists and free speech advocates considered it a victory when a New York State Supreme Court judge in 2006 dismissed the case, arguing that diCorcia's right to artistic expression outweighed the plaintiff's privacy rights.
Not shying away from confrontation doesn't mean Castillo is inviting it, either: "I'm not trying to embarrass anybody or make anyone look bad. I'm really just out to turn my lens on Los Angeles and the people of Los Angeles as a whole, but through a select group of photos. I'm hoping that by looking at L.A. and people in their cars my photos will be a document of our culture."
And while he's on the phone talking about his book and his career, the perfect -- and ironic -- thing happens. One of his good friends happens to pull up alongside him and snaps a photo of Castillo in his car.
Article by CBSLA.com Online Producer Deborah Meron.
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