A car says a lot about its era, and the German photographer Jens Ochlich knows this very well. Armed with his camera, he hunts out American "golden oldies” along the US West Coast: the result is highly poetic images that breach the boundaries of time
Words by Francesca Rabitti
Whenever I look at one of Jens’ photos, I expect to see film stars turning up out of the blue - and chatting to him I found out that this was exactly the reaction he was aiming for. The photo comes to life, the frame pans slightly out and we get a glimpse of the director and the actors getting ready to make an entrance: every shot hides a different screenplay, leading spectators to wonder what will happen next. Will it be a love story, or a thriller?
Class of 1970, born in West Germany, Jens Ochlich moved to California around twenty years ago. He confessed that he works alone, with no assistant, and spends a lot of time sitting and waiting for the right moment to take a photo. To my great surprise, I discover that his photos are almost always the result of sitting patiently, because nothing is constructed: there is no set, as many might imagine when looking at the moments he is able to capture. Like many Europeans, he is fascinated by the potential of the American landscape, particularly those desert towns that so easily blend into the surrounding wilderness, and the sunlight, which gives the shots their unique shade and texture. All in all, for him California is a continuously evolving natural backdrop that allows him to explore the America that made him dream when he saw in on TV as a child.
Looking at his works, I ask him how he gives his photos that vintage aura typical not only of the 1970s but also the ‘50s and ‘60s. He tells me that he uses what for him is a winning combination: a digital camera with vintage lenses dating back to those times. The effect is surprisingly cinematographic and ‘retro’. Jens has always been fascinated with mid-20th century design and architecture, because for him they are a perfect example of freedom, just as all the cars from that era are the expression of post-war optimism: indeed, any car will tell us a lot about the period it was built in. When hunting for that perfect photo, Palm Springs is his ideal destination, as it is able to blend cars - especially muscle cars, another of Jens’ passions - and period landscapes in a single photo.
His website is called Autobahn66, and he explains that the nickname comes from the song of the same name by the British band Primal Scream, and is the perfect match of his German origins and the US Route 66. Today Autobahn66 has become his trade mark, even though he uses his real name more and more often in order to avoid any confusion.
How did Jens Ochlich become a photographer? By studying 1950s architecture photography books, on Julius Shulman, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter and Slim Aarons; or the films that went on to become classics, like Vertigo and Double Indemnity. A passion for nice photos is not enough, you have to study, research constantly, in order to improve and develop your own unmistakeable style.
I admit that I use Instagram a lot, for me it’s a never-ending gold mine, and it's the place I run to when I’m looking for photographers who have something really interesting to tell me for Speedholics. And so I had to ask Jens what he thinks about this social network, which in some ways is so controversial. He confesses that for him it is a showcase where he can come into contact with potential customers interested in his style, and thanks to Instagram he has been commissioned several works by European interior design companies. Lately however, he has noted a bit of a crisis, especially since the advent of TikTok, and I have to agree with him, even though deep down I hope that it will never lose the charm it is still known for and which offers inspiration for specialists and non-specialists alike.
But what does Jens photograph when he’s not waiting for cars? The world when night falls, and this has led to another project he would like to get back to working on soon, “California nocturnal”, or “Shopping carts”, devoted to abandoned shopping trolleys. He is also fond of nature generally, with close-ups of plants and flowers, although in recent years a certain laziness has led him to pay less attention here. I am surprised to discover that he’s not a professional photographer, but it’s as if he was, if we think how much time he devotes the photography every day: it’s really true that if you love something you will always find time to devote to it.
This is the story of a guy who dreamt - and conquered - California. So sit back as the lights dim, the chatter suddenly stops and in the background we can only hear the sound of popcorn being munched. The film you are about to watch is … you choose. I have decided: a turquoise house at no. 612, a few palm trees swaying in the wind in the background, and a white and red Beetle in the foreground. It must be warm, I can tell by the sky and the light, but I will only know when I see how the protagonists are dressed.
Nobody knows where this story will lead me, but as any journey teaches us, we just have to set off and let ourselves be guided.
What about you, have you chosen your story?
Francesca Rabitti has been looking for stories to read and write since her childhood and today they are still a really important part of her life and work. She writes short stories and some of them have been awarded at International Literary Awards. She's a National Geographic Italia and National Geographic Traveler contributor, too: she likes travelling and translating into words her emotions and anecdotes people from all around the world confess to her. That’s what she does for Speedholics: sharing the passion of people, that goes beyond everything and lasts forever.