“…There is a huge family element to lowriding and it was those stories of unity and community that I felt most touched by…”
‘Ground Clearance LA’, the latest project by London-based documentary photographer Owen Harvey, explores Los Angeles’ vibrant ‘lowrider’ culture.
The movement originated in the mid-1940s when Mexican-American youths in Los Angeles would customize their vehicles by adding sandbags to lower the chassis, creating an aesthetically pleasing effect of riding closer to the road. This practice evolved with the installation of hydraulics, enabling the same effect to be achieved mechanically.
More then a celebration of automobiles, this movement was also a way for its members to honor their Mexican-American heritage. Adorning their cars with symbolic imagery and political statements, the ‘lowrider’ enthusiasts conveyed their pride in their cultural roots. By the 21st century, the movement had spread worldwide, finding a place in popular culture, including music videos—a facet that originally caught the attention of London-based Harvey, (The winner of our Portrait Award back in 2021) whose compelling documentary projects centre on subcultures and communities.
OH: Music was the first art form that I really fell in love with. I grew up listening to a lot of heavier music and Hip-Hop in my teenage years. Lowriding was referenced so heavily in the music and music videos and I became fascinated with them. I was interested in the culture around lowriding and what it represented.
OH: I first started this series in NYC in 2016, so in this more recent continuation of the work in LA, I had quite a good understanding of Lowriding. Prior to 2016, I was purely interested in the ties between Hip-Hop and lowriding. During my time making the work, I started to learn more about its roots, how lowriding had been criminalised under the section 24008 vehicle code and how these vehicles acted as a symbol of resilience and pride and are so integral to family ties. I became even more interested in Lowriding and what these cars represent to the community who owns them.
OH: In 2016, I originally reached out to a club called ‘Lunatics Lowriders’, they are a NYC-based club. I originally spent 3 months with them making the work and then flew back and forth a few times in 2017. Over the months I spent there, I was able to build stronger relationships and meet further individuals to add to the series.
In 2023, I had the opportunity to spend a period of time in LA and I knew I wanted to continue making the work. I felt I really couldn’t complete this series and not include LA, as some people would say LA is the spiritual home of lowriding. At this point, I had previous images to show and they acted as a great way to illustrate the sort of images I wanted to make.
OH: All the images are celebratory of the people in them and I hope this comes across in the imagery. I’m interested in notions of identity, family and heritage and I try to be very clear in explaining the work I’m interested in making and why I want to make it. In my experience, when you are open to meeting new people and you have clear intentions and genuine interest, those people are usually very welcoming and happy to share their stories.
OH: I’ve documented Skinheads, Mods, Lowriding and Young Matadors, alongside other series of work. All of the individuals within the groups that I focus on have a common theme: They find a “family” through their shared interests. Most of these interests are also tied to their heritage and give them a strong sense of belonging and identity. I think a sense of belonging is what most people need in their lives and because I work in a visual medium, I of course focus on tribes and subcultures that illustrate this visually.
OH: I met quite a few ex-gang members, who had grown up in tough situations and found themselves in criminality. I was told fairly frequently, about how individuals had used lowriding as a focus/tool as a way out from their previous lifestyle. There is a huge family element to lowriding and it was those stories of unity and community that I felt most touched by. I met many mums and dads, who would take their children down to lowriding cruises, as they didn’t want their kids or nephews etc. to get caught up in the same trouble as they did when they were younger. I think that left the strongest impression for me, is how lowriding has been used as a positive force for change.
OH: First and foremost, I always hope people enjoy the images and perhaps the images can offer a glimpse into a world that the viewer may never have had. I know what the images mean to me and why I take the images, but I don’t want to prescribe what the viewer should take from them. Perhaps, they relate and see themselves as a young boy with their dad in one of the images. Perhaps, they feel a sense of pride in their community. Perhaps, they feel a sense of nostalgia as the world continues to become more digitally dominated. If they feel anything at all from the images, then the images are successful in my eyes. Good art provokes emotion and that’s all I can hope for.
Text and images © Owen Harvey