Auction Classics: Black-and-White Photography (and Disappointment) at the Mecum Spring Classic


(first posted 6/30/2016)    Every May I go to the Mecum Spring Classic old-car auction here in Indianapolis and spend the day taking scads of photographs. This year, my favorite photos all came from my film camera, a Pentax ME 35mm SLR sporting a 50mm f/1.4 lens. I shot a classic film: Kodak Tri-X. If any film could be considered venerated, Tri-X is certainly the one. Its signature look is black-and-white photography to most people. And it really delivered this day. Stunning results, as of this early-50’s Oldsmobile.


I hope Kodak never stops making Tri-X – not just because of its classic look, but also because it returns solid results even when the photographer screws up. As I did on this whole roll – I accidentally overexposed every shot by one “stop.” I applied a tiny dab of Photoshop to rein in overexposure’s signature haze, and magic happened: blacks became inky; chrome lit up like neon. This played to best effect in this photo of a ’61 Plymouth’s deeply browed headlight.


It’s such a shame, then, that they’ve f’d up the Mecum for those of us who aren’t buying, but just want to enjoy the cars (like this ’37 Ford). My apologies to those of you here who also follow my personal blog, which is mostly about my photography. I’m delighted you’ve come over, but you’ve already heard my rant (and seen most of these photos). But the Mecum just isn’t very much fun anymore and I think I’m done with it.

For years, this was a rare day of perfect joy for me. I’ve loved automotive design since I was a small boy, and the Mecum was my annual chance to get very close to the classic cars of which I once could only dream. I could spend all day at the auction, taking easily 1,000 photographs, and still not see all the available cars. And it cost just $10!

Thanks to a theft a few years ago, sold cars no longer fill the parking lots around the venue. They’re now all hidden away, and it has dramatically reduced the number of cars to see. What used to take 8 to 10 hours now fills just a morning or an afternoon. And there’s more security now to herd people in and through. At least you can still get close enough to the cars to touch them (but don’t; they don’t belong to you!). But this year they jacked the admission price to $30. After all the changes, it’s just not worth that to me.


I made the most of my last Mecum. Packards from the 1920s and 1930s were out in force, and I moved in close to their lovely hood ornaments. This flying lady is from a ’37.


This swan graced a ’36.


And this young fellow with six-pack abs perched atop the radiator of a ’25.


While I’m at it, here’s a lovely hood ornament from a ’34 Ford.


My favorite car of the day was a ’37 Chrysler Airflow in two-tone maroon. Tri-X rendered that color so dark it has its own gravitational pull.


Indulge me one more of its prow, which was especially elongated in ’37 to make this radical car look more like everything else on the road. The attempt failed, but it surely made for a rich photographic subject almost 80 years later.


In case you can’t tell, my favorite thing to do is move in close to these cars’ details, such as of this sugar-scoop headlight on a Jaguar XKE. There’s something about doing this that helps me see a car better as a whole. Like I said, I just love automotive design. I was that boy who drew cars all the time. I even had my own fantasy automobile company with an entire model range and year-to-year styling changes. I was ready to compete with General Motors! At least in my youthful mind.


Speaking of General Motors, here are the left tail lights from a ’61 Impala. They look as strong and confident to me now as they did when I was a boy.


The ’64 Impala was a much more common car in the working-class neighborhood of my youth. Seems like every other garage had one, or at least a twin-tail-light Bel-Air.


Lest Fords of the era feel left out, here’s the giant tail light from a ’63 Galaxie.


The Mecum bills itself as a muscle-car auction. It might be heresy around these parts, but I’m not a huge muscle-car fan. If I see one parked curbside I’m gonna photograph it, oh my, yes sir. But I (used to) go to the Mecum largely to see the older classics, the luxury cars from all eras, and the more workaday sedans and coupes that I remember crawling the streets when I was young. That said, I always hope to find a ’63-’67 Corvette because they photograph so beautifully from behind. I forget what color this Vette is in real life, but here it’s blacker than black. It just feels right.


Sometimes I pull back and get whole cars in my lens. I was very amused to find this row of Herbies waiting their turn to hit the auction block. The Love Bug was one of the first movies I saw in a theater and, as I’m sure it did for young children of that era all over, it made me fall in love with the Beetle.


A few cars were parked under the sunshine. I liked how this BMW 2002 shot turned out; it shows Tri-X’s signature grainy look so well.


I’ll miss more than just the cars at the Mecum. I’ll also miss the guys who gather around these cars, often strangers to each other, and swap stories about how a car just like this one was a part of their life. All the COAL stories that get told every year at the Mecum! It makes me want to hand every one of these guys a card with Curbside Classic’s URL on it and tell them to come on over. I think they’d be right at home here.