One of the first things I learned about driving a taxi was that it’s always a mystery who’s going to climb in the back of your taxi.
The uncertainty of where a ride will take you can be exhilarating and terrifying.
Washburn drove a San Francisco taxi from 1982 to 1986. During that time he documented the experience with a camera mounted to the dashboard.
Washburn’s photos, which include part of his own face in the frame with the passengers in the backseat, not only document the randomness of taxi driving, but also the awkward intimacy that comes from sharing an enclosed space with a stranger for a prolonged period of time.
I’m often curious how other drivers interact with their passengers.
Alex Sack, the Buddhist taxi documentarian, wrote in a recent blogpost about a ride to the airport: “I throw on some KDFC Classical 90.3FM, lest Constantine and I ride in, uh, awkward silence.” Background music is a familiar theme in Sack’s writing.
I tend to drive with just sounds of the city as a soundtrack. And the occasional burst of chatter from the dispatch radio. With few auditory distractions, the slightest utterance can potentially lead to a conversation. Which is my way of pursuing a story…
Washburn’s taxi photos are different, though, in that he turns the camera around, and focuses on the inside of the taxi. Where so much of the randomness really occurs…
For me, these still frame moments don’t just resonate because I’ve helmed the wheel of a cab. Long before I ever drove a taxi, I rode in them and the experience was always an occasion – either special or desperate.
My earliest memory is being in the back of a taxi, when my mother’s car broke down and she called a cab to take me to preschool. The driver was listening to the news on the radio. Something about President Ford…
The subtle revelations in Washburn’s snapshots pull me closer to the person in the back, stoking my curiosity about who these people were and what their lives were like outside of this short cab ride.
Another obvious quality to these photos is the time they capture: San Francisco in the 80s. Which isn’t just a bygone era, but also a time when taxicabs were the accepted form of private transportation.
Nowadays, Uber and Lyft are all the rage.
Having driven an Uber/Lyft before switching to taxi, I found app-based transportation to be a neutered experience.
Even though Uber and Lyft function essentially the same as a taxi – they both involve driving people for money – there is little spontaneity with the former.
Pick up and drop off points, along with routes, are all recorded.
You know the passenger’s name before they get in the car. They know yours.
There’s an assumed vetting process.
And the rating system gives the passenger all the control. Uber/Lyft drivers know that if they step out of line, they can get deactivated. Which limits uncertainly and creates a passive experience for the driver.
In a taxi, anyone or anything can happen.
That’s what makes these photos so intriguing: they expose the random adventure that comes from moving through the city, untethered by technology.
View the collection of photos, annotated and with an essay by Pete Brook here.
[all photos by Bill Washburn, used with permission]
[thanks to Pete Brook for turning me on to this project]
If the social inept techies continue to sway public opinion, the urbane experience of hailing a taxi may soon become a thing of the past. Here’s a photoset of people getting into cabs throughout the ages…
(I also wrote a column about hailing taxis for the S.F. Examiner. You can read that here.)