Kristin Bedford attended her first cruise night on December 27, 2014. In a crowd of Mexican American1 lowriders, Bedford stood out not only for the camera hanging around her neck, but also for her blonde hair and blue eyes. One of the lowriders at the event, Anthony “Too Tall,” introduced himself to suss her out. Bedford explained her interest in lowriding as a political and creative act foundational to the Los Angeles Mexican American culture. As she told me in an interview this May, “I wanted to photograph and understand how transforming a car was integral to being seen and heard.” Anthony invited Bedford and her camera to another cruise night—and so began the project that has been Bedford’s all-consuming work for five years.
Cruise Night gathers 75 portraits of the automobiles and their makers, interspersed with excerpts from oral histories that Bedford conducted with an older generation of the Los Angeles lowrider community. The book’s binding—navy cloth hardcover (sans slipcover) with metallic embossing and baby blue endpapers—is a reflection of sparkling auto body finishes and lush car interiors, as well as of the gradations of sky in the photos alongside the lowriders themselves. Depicting everything from side mirrors and backseat neons to social events and riders cruising, the photographs primarily fall on the recto—a pattern sometimes broken to draw parallels of color or form between two images in a spread or on either side of a page.
In mechanical terms, “lowrider” denotes any vehicle with a lowered body. Many include adjustable hydraulic suspension, custom paint jobs, and altered interiors. However, “lowrider” also signifies the owner of this type of vehicle. In keeping with this definition, Bedford’s treatment presents the cars not merely as objects or craft, but as a social practice spanning generations. From Oscar Ruelas—who has been lowriding since 1958, when he bought his first car for 63 dollars—to the 10 or 11-year-old Arlene in hot pink pants who leans proudly against an equally pink lowrider, these photographs reveal a generational exchange as the young inherit the traditions and, indeed, the sweet rides of their forebears. Bedford’s photographs highlight the place of these cars in an identity: in one image, an aging photograph of a car is enshrined like a family relic in the center console of a contemporary vehicle. Elsewhere, a different model is inked into flesh. Tenderly presented, these renderings show the lowrider at the center of community and tradition.
Unique to Bedford’s portrait of the lowriding community is her representation of the place of women in a culture that has been, and continues to be, male-dominated. Cruise Night captures the voice and artistry of female lowriders in portraits that simultaneously encompass family and independence. Duke’s Car Club member Tina Martinez Perez states of her 1979 Cutlass:
I raised all my kids in that car, brought my first grandchild home from the hospital in that car. Back in the day, most people on the boulevard behind the wheel were men, and the women were sitting next to them. I was different. … I now own seven cars and I want to leave them to my kids. I want to keep that part of me going. I want them to keep it alive. It’s my story.
In a photograph presented early in the book, Mary of the Vintage Ladies Car Club languorously tosses hair over her shoulder, exposing a tattoo on her upper chest which reads, “No soy de ti”—as Mary translates it, “I don’t belong to you.” This statement of autonomy can be read romantically, socially, and culturally—and, as for Martinez Perez, it is inextricably tied to her car, her own ticket to independence.
“Underlying all my projects is an interest in social justice and how communities express their civil rights in a society that often marginalizes them,” Bedford tells me over the phone. Lowriding and the associated Pachuco culture have been vilified by the white mainstream—think of the historic Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. And while lowriders persist nonetheless, cruising on Whittier Boulevard is illegal to this day. For members of the lowriding community, the roses, loose suits, feathered hats, and teased hair of Pachuco culture are a countercultural form of resistance to assimilation. Reflecting on the social and historical elements of lowriding, Bedford observes, “Lowriding is an oral history. It was never fully documented.” This realization prompted Bedford to invest over 100 hours in interviewing older members of the Los Angeles community and scanning the family photographs that record the lowrider scene over the last 70 years, creating space within her project for the ways in which the community remembers itself.
Fostering trust and friendship have been paramount to Bedford’s practice, causing her to eschew flash photography and zoom lenses in favor of available light and fixed lenses. This means, in Bedford’s words, “the distance I appear to be from the subject is the actual distance. So if you see a photograph from inside a car, it exists because I was invited to be there.” While caught intimately at close range, few of the individuals in the photographs look directly into the camera lens—and when they do, the effect is startling, inflected with recognition and a certain sense of solemnity. A young woman wearing yards of burgundy tulle looks unwaveringly at the camera through the half-open window of a cherry-red car. A few pages later, a group of men from the Artistics Car Club pose symmetrically in front of the coffin of Julian Sosa Sr., their eyes and expressions inscrutable. Capturing a community as it comes together for cruise events and weddings, car shows and quinceañeras, family barbecues and funerals, Cruise Night is an electrifying portrait of the lowriders of Los Angeles.
- Bedford makes a point of using “Mexican American” without hyphenation to show respect for how the community wishes to be identified.