The winner of a demolition derby in Nebraska stands on the wreck of his car. Photograph: Gregory Halpern
“It’s a bizarre phenomenon,” says the US photographer Gregory Halpern. “People take these junkyard cars and fix them up so that the engine works, even though the shell is a total wreck.
Then the cars drive around in a muddy arena, spewing dirt everywhere and ramming into each other – and the last car still driving wins.
”He’s talking about a very American motor sport called demolition derby, one of many striking activities he documented during his visits to Nebraska over the past 14 years.
Halpern (born in Buffalo, New York state, in 1977) was invited to do an artist’s residency in the state’s largest city, Omaha.
Taking photos of midwestern life over the course of six months, he gradually zeroed in on the subject of hypermasculinity, which he felt was “much more celebrated and part of the visual culture in Nebraska” than in coastal cities such as San Francisco, where he was teaching photography at the time.
Out of the photos from his first visit, he created Omaha Sketchbook, self-published in 2009 using a laser printer and running to just 35 copies.
Ten years and several return visits later, Halpern – who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 – has updated (and upgraded) Omaha Sketchbook for a wider readership, though the images remain at contact-sheet dimensions.
At the demolition derby, Halpern captured the winner standing triumphantly on the roof of his battered car as smoke spews out in all directions.
It may look like something out of Mad Max but Halpern says the event felt “good-natured: the crowd is drinking and cheering. Sometimes fights will break out, but generally speaking it’s bizarrely fun”.
Volkswagen is bringing an end to its much-loved Beetle car this week at its plant in Puebla, Mexico.
Volkswagen’s Beetle was conceived by the Nazis in 1938.
Production of the car under Nazi rule never happened, but was restarted with the British.
The marque produced over 21 million versions, and was embraced around the world
It’s the end of the road for a vehicle that has symbolised many things over a history spanning the eight decades since 1938.
Initially birthed as a project of Germany’s Third Reich, it then became a symbol of Germany’s post-war economic renaissance and rising middle-class prosperity.
Today, the Beetle stands as a formidable piece of 20th-century design — about as recognisable as a Coca Cola bottle.
The car’s original design — a rounded silhouette with seating for four or five, nearly vertical windshield and the air-cooled engine in the rear — can be traced back to Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, the founder and namesake of fellow German marque, Porsche.
He was commissioned by Adolf Hitler to create a “people’s car” that would make motoring widespread among the German people, which was then known as the KdF-Wagen — the acronym of the Nazi labour organisation, Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy).
Preparation for the vehicle even involved creating a purpose-built factory town, which was then known as the City of the KdF car at Fallersleben.
Aspects of the car bore similarities to the Tatra T97, made in Czechoslovakia in 1937, and to sketches by Hungarian engineer Bela Barenyi published in 1934.
But due to World War II, production of the Beetle never happened. Instead, the factory switched to military vehicle production, using forced labour sourced from occupied Europe. Liberated by US troops in April 1945, the factory town was renamed Wolfsburg a month later. By June of that year, control of the factory was turned over to Britain.
In total, over 21 million original Volkswagen Beetles were produced in its lifetime. The Kombi Van was a big seller in the 1960s.
But not all Brits were immediately on the side of the Beetle, with automotive baron Sir William Rootes telling a meeting of the country’s leading car manufacturers the vehicle would be “quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer”.
By the end of 1949, the Volkswagen factory had produced over 45,000 vehicles, and had transferred ownership over to the West German government and the state of Lower Saxony, which still owns part of the company.
By 1955, the one millionth Beetle, officially called the Type 1, had left the assembly line.
They were once an integral part of daily life. Visitors to Tudor and Stuart England called it the kingdom of the horse because of the preeminence of the horse in the “economy, social and political life, in learned and agronomic discussions and as an object of both aesthetic and utilitarian concern” writes historian Daniel Roche.
Roche writes that this now-vanished world of daily equestrian culture was utilitarian, exploitative, and also something more. “As it involved living beings, it stimulated sensibilities, establishing constant links between thought and action, horse and horseman, horses and those who domesticated them, mobilized them, loved them or rejected them.”
Indeed, horses were once so ubiquitous that they gave their name to a measure of power: horsepower, essentially the power that one horse produces. The term was coined and calculated by James Watt in the 1770s.
The measure was initially a marketing tool; he wanted to compare his steam engine to the number of draft horses it would replace.
It took a while, however, to replace the power of horses with mechanical horsepower. In the early twentieth century, forty-horse teams pulled individual combines in the wheat fields of Washington. There were issues, of course, with using horses for so much.
In 1872, Boston’s business district burned down when the fire department’s steam pumping engines couldn’t get to the fire… because the horses that pulled the engines were down with the flu.
In 1880, 15,000 dead horses were removed from New York City’s streets, to be converted into leather hides, dog meat, glue, fertilizer, furniture stuffing, candles, and soap. The waste from the city’s 200,000 living horses presented another disposal problem: an individual horse produces 15-30 pounds of manure and a quart of urine per day.
Humans now worry about replacement by machines, but horses have already experienced this and for them it may well have been a good thing. In the nineteenth century, horses were “living machines,” says historian Clay McShane, who details the increasing growth of horse use during Boston’s “Gelded Age.”
Horses were used for “freight delivery, passenger transport, food distribution, and police, fire and ambulance services.” Caring for and cleaning up after horses (or not: cities were a pestilence of horse flies) were industries unto themselves. As late as 1900, more than 11,000 Bostonians earned their living driving horses.
McShane writes that, viewed from an ecological perspective, the horse/human connection was symbiotic, two mammals sharing habitat. Yet he also notes that it was an abolitionist who founded the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1868: the terrible cruelty humans could inflict on other humans in slavery was unfettered when it came to abuse of work animals.
As recently as a century ago, horses were still everywhere, omnipresent in rural and urban areas alike. Even during WWII, write historians R. L. DiNardo and Austin Bay, horses played an enormous role in transport and European agriculture, which suffered tremendously because of their appropriation for war.
The Germans—supposedly the most mechanized military of the day—were highly dependent on horse-drawn transport. The Russian horse population has been estimated at 21 million before the war, 7.8 million after.
Since then, of course, things have changed, and “horse-power” exists only as a metaphor used to sell cars. Humans worry about replacement by machines, but horses have already experienced this and for them it may well have been a good thing.