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‘The Cadillac Chronicles'

On a June Saturday nine years ago, Bill Gaskins stood on a street in Baltimore watching a fleet of Cadillacs cruise by – dreamboat cars with tailfins, chrome bumpers and whitewall tires, 20 to 30 of them, each owned by a black man. He had heard about the revival of a tradition in that city's African American community: the Cadillac Parade, with marching bands and carnival rides. He traveled from his New Jersey home to see it.

Looking at those machines, the photographer knew he'd found his next project.

Gaskins launched “The Cadillac Chronicles,” a collective photographic portrait examining the relationship between black men and their vintage Cadillacs, those typically made between the 1940s and 1970s.

The Cadillac for decades has been a symbol of American power and pride. For many black men, as for many other Americans, buying a Caddy meant stepping into the middle class. But their relationship with the car also comes with negative stereotypes – the man who can't afford anything else but has that big car parked out front, stereotypes Gaskins wants to challenge.

After photographing in the Newark, N.J. area, he's brought “The Cadillac Chronicles” to Charlotte.

Through August, Gaskins, 55, is a fellow at the McColl Center for Visual Art in uptown. His grant provides him with a place to live, a studio, and, most precious of all, time. He's looking for black men with Cadillacs interested in being part of his project. His focus is not just on cars but on people, those he photographs and those who will view the results.

“I'm predisposed to the portrait because at the root and core of what I do is the desire to connect, communicate and collaborate with people,” he says.

A rich vein

When he's not making art, Gaskins commutes from his home in Princeton, N.J., to lecture at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. So when he talks about photography, he goes into it with depth – and passion.

He believes we live in an image-drenched culture, flooded with pictures from the Internet, television, video, advertising and family album snapshots. These images are disposable, soon discarded for other images.

The goal of the artist, Gaskins says, is to make images that will last, that trigger something in the viewer.

His intensity comes from his background.

He grew up in Philadelphia, where his father had, as he says, not a blue collar job but a “no collar job,” driving a forklift at the Domino sugar plant. His parents supported his aim to be the first in his family to go to college but were taken aback when he announced at 14 that he wanted a career in art.

He had seen television artist John Gnagy make drawings and paintings and thought he'd like to do that. His parents challenged him: Was art relevant? What benefits would it have for him and others? What would be the outcome?

Those questions – and his answers – form a credo for Gaskins.

Digging into his subject, he mined a rich vein. Beginning in the 1930s, Cadillac marketed to African Americans, one of the first businesses to do so, creating a relationship that boosted sales.

Gaskins found the car has a place in black art, writing and music. Examples: James Van Der Zee's Depression-era photograph of a black couple in racoon coats and their Cadillac; Mildred Taylor's “The Gold Cadillac,” a young adult book on a black family encountering prejudice on a drive to the South; William DeVaughn's '70s hit “Be Thankful for What You Got.”

Gaskins can quote the lyrics: “Just be thankful for what you've got/Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac/Diamond in the back, sunroof top/ Diggin' the scene/With a gangsta lean/Gangsta whitewalls/TV antennas in the back.”

But when he began taking pictures, Gaskins hit a snag.

He photographed a Cadillac owner he met at the Baltimore parade, posing him next to the car. “I was dissatisfied, but I couldn't articulate why,” he says of an image he decided looked too much like advertising, too “disposable.”

Over time, Gaskins sharpened his approach. He changed cameras and moved closer to his subject. And he began taking diptychs, two distinct but related pictures placed side by side. By so doing he drew the reader in and added complexity to his images.

Not about the car

Walking around a table in his McColl Center studio, Gaskins uncovered the photographs he's taken so far.

Here's a man in a dust mask and rubber gloves, a science teacher restoring a car. “He'll drive 600 miles for a (door) handle,” Gaskins says.

Another picture shows a man in front of a black convertible. In one frame, he drinks an orange soda and in the other pours it on the ground. The man has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction but has been clean for 24 years. Gaskins told him, “There's no way I can go past the cemetery without thinking of you.”

He photographed the man and his car before a row of tombstones.

Gaskins is not only interested in machines but in stories. “It simply couldn't be (just) about the cars,” he says. Before releasing the shutter, he talks to his subjects, not about their cars but about themselves. And he uses their stories to conjure images such as the man with the orange soda.

“A lot of these stories I didn't expect to get, and that's been the joy of this project,” he says.

For some black men, Gaskins says, the Cadillac is a source of pride. They may know neighbors, family members or friends who worked on a Detroit assembly line.

But while relatively few black men could afford a Cadillac, negative stereotypes also attach to them and the car – the image of a poor man living in a shack with the big car outside.

By creating pictures that strike sparks in the viewer's eye and mind, Gaskins wants to push them past stereotypes.

“I want to humanize those stereotypes,” he says. “The challenge is to see ourselves in the struggles and the weaknesses of other people.”