The decades following the end of World War II were boom times for the Detroit auto industry, and its gargantuan factories were pumping out products at a prodigious speed. After the ra-tioning and belt-tightening brought on by the war years, American families were flush with disposable income and ready for adventure. The space age was in its infancy and car engineers were quick to take design cues from the rockets being hurled into space.
In the midst of all this activity of the early 1950s, a young Los Angeles-born photographer was working in this heady atmosphere, freelancing out of Time/Life’s Detroit bureau. John Zimmerman quickly gained access to the factories and offices of the Big Three auto manufacturers—Ford, General Motors and Chrysler—and began capturing on film the emerging car culture the companies were fostering. His work appeared in the most popular magazines of the day, including Life, Saturday Evening Post and Sports Illustrated in both articles and advertisements.
Now, a selection of several hundred images from the many thousands Zimmer-man captured are reproduced in “Auto America: Car Culture 1950s-1970s” (published by Rizzoli, 2022). “The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and all the events that have grown up around it, was really the catalyst for publishing ‘Auto America,'” says the photographer’s daughter Linda Zimmerman who, along with her brothers Darryl and Greg, maintains and curates their father’s vast catalog of images in Pacific Grove. “So much is going on in the automotive industry right now—electric cars, self-driving technology—and it was fun to look back and see what designers envisioned for the future.” With an introduction by Terry McDonell, former editor of the Time, Inc. Sports Group, this lavish coffee table book will delight automotive aficionados at every turn of the page.
Zimmerman was a prodigious photographer. “He could come back from an assignment with forty rolls of film, and only a handful would appear in the magazine,” says Darryl. “Roughly half of the images in the book have never been published. Many of them were taken before I was born, and I’m seeing them for the first time.”
Interestingly, though these photos prove that the photographer loved the form of Detroit iron, he wasn’t much of a car guy. “I don’t remember my father talking about cars when I was growing up,” Darryl says. “But recently, we found a letter he wrote to my mom, while on assignment in Rome in 1960. He enclosed a photo of a tiny Fiat, saying we needed to get one. With three kids and a dog, she said ‘no way.'” Following an assignment to document Ford Mustang production from design to delivery, Zimmerman decided to purchase one of the iconic sports cars.
The book launch of “Auto America: Car Culture 1950s-1970s” will be accompanied by a companion exhibition at the Center for Photographic Art at Sunset Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea. On display from August 6 through September 4, 2022, the exhibition will feature a selection of prints of around 50 of Zimmerman’s photographs published in the book. “Since the book chronicles everything automotive, from concept cars, sports cars, everyday cars, the manufacturing process and auto-related celebrations, hopefully it will appeal to everyone,” Linda says.
For more information on the book launch and exhibition, visit www.photography.org/event. To learn more about John Zimmerman and his work, visit www.johngzimmerman.com.