NOT JUST A FACE IN THE MIRROR

New York taxi drivers carry some heavy mythical baggage. One is famous for shooting his passengers - with a camera. Now he's focusing on fellow cabbies nationwide. He talks to Christina Madden
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The Independent Culture
The taxi driver, like the barman, suffers from his inadequacy before our expectations. His role is too public; he's been over-fictionalised. The journalist's ally on arrival in strange towns, he's everybody's best buddy, full of wise-cracks and straight-talking advice. Except that, in reality, he usually isn't.

Ryan Weideman has been driving a cab since 1981, in New York, where the burden of expectation is greatest. His cab is yellow, of course: the colour is as much part of New York iconography as Coca-Cola and the Manhattan skyline - or, for that matter, the hustle and excitement on the streets, and the noise of horns and invective when gridlock strikes.

"It's so nasty out there sometimes," says Weideman, minutes after completing a shift. "I just came across a guy that reminded me of myself, driving on three wheels. Actually, no, I'm a really good driver, though I did have a guy fly up over the hood one time, an old black guy. But he was really very nice about it, just stood up, brushed himself off. Not one of these types that rolls over and plays dead." The quickfire delivery suggests a typical American cabbie, and Weideman is typical - not least in that he drives around nurturing artistic ambition.

Weideman came to New York a frustrated photographer, drawn from the Midwest by the intellectual and cultural promise of the East Coast. "All the while I had New York on my mind, all these images I was seeing in books. I felt like it was the place I had to come; I had to follow the adventure." Forced into driving cabs to make ends meet, he made a virtue of necessity: fitting a camera to his head-board, he began to photograph the tides of people washed by the city into his charge, or his "studio on wheels", as he calls it. It worked. By 1991 he had enough portraits of his passengers to fill a book; so he did. The publication of In My Taxi: New York After Hours (Thunder's Mouth Press) brought Weideman some celebrity and, more important to him, artistic recognition. In 1992, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. It was a perfect opportunity to give up his cab, but Weideman kept on driving. "I'm still out there; I'm staying connected. Plus, I would like to make some home improvements."

Now, after five more years on the road, Weideman is close to completing another project. This time, the focus is on the driver rather than the driven. He has been travelling round the US with a portable studio-tent which he erects in the lots and park-ups of the companies he visits, and into which he invites the drivers to be photographed.

The result makes an intriguing complement to his previous work. In My Taxi is full of democratic, slice-of-life reportage: disconcerting images which look as though the shutter has come down too quickly and caught reality blinking, slightly out of kilter. The new pictures are posed and deliberate, their subjects staring back at the viewer with camera smiles and stances. Yet the contrast is not as simple as it seems. Weideman's earlier pictures reflect the cultural extremities that New York throws up, the human fall-out of a neurotic city. The drivers convey a similar sense of anxiety, and present a similar range of character - often bizarre, sometimes haunting, occasionally extreme.

Weidman speaks with affection and respect about the people in these photographs. He is not oblivious to the obscure glamour that still attaches to the taxi driver, and nor, on the whole, are they. (He mentions that Choice Cab Company in Dallas, Texas, has the legend "Ride By Choice, Live By Chance" emblazoned on its cars.) "They're outsiders," says Weideman, "self- exiled, a disenfranchised community apart. These are individuals, and they're proud of that. Like one guy said to me, `Taxi driving has no future, but it has one hell of a moment!'

"Look at Thomas Cleveland Scott Sanders [see previous page]. Doesn't he look great with the cap and the hound's-tooth jacket? I had to get him in that hat. You know, he's been driving cabs since the Sixties. They call him The Reverend. And Gwendolyn Flash - great name, huh? She was a very sweet lady. She's been through chemotherapy recently. She came into the tent and asked if she should take her wig off, and I said sure, if she felt comfortable with that. Then there was this guy Vick Ridley, known as the Mountain Man. He calls himself the all-purpose taxi driver, because he once fathered a child with one of his passengers. Don't know if it was in the back seat."

Some of his subjects, Weideman says, live in their cars. "Some of them earn $25, $30 for a 12-hour shift - though the boss always gets his cut." Many (most, in the big cities) are immigrants - and charged by some with importing the lawless driving habits of the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. But America has always been a nation of fugitives, in search of a new, collective identity. Weideman's subjects are as representative as any; even in their dress there is a marked leaning towards those all- American types, cowboys and Elvises. To Weideman, they are embodiments - or victims - of the American dream, of a man making good by means of his honest labour. "I think I identify with their struggle."

Weideman's parents were Okla-homa farmers who were ruined by the Depression. The banks foreclosed, and like millions of others they were forced to sell out. "One of my earliest influences was the family album. When they lost the farm, my parents recorded all the episodes they went through with their Brownie: pictures of farmers standing around at the auction where all their equipment was being sold off, and of the lines of automobiles parked up on the dirt road that led to our farm. They're beautiful pictures. They inspired me." That and Life and Look magazines: "I'd spend hours looking. Never read a word."

Today, he remains as much a cab driver as photographer. "Just this morning I got a letter from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Every time I've had one before it's because somebody's made a complaint, or I've got a court summons, and I'm thinking I just don't need this. So I'm holding this thing at arm's length, trying to sneak up on it. When I whack it open it's telling me that I've won a Safe Driver's Award! Oh God, I can't believe it. No, man, I am not a safe driver. I'm a lucky driver."

ANN PARSONS CITY CAB SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA HOWARD G PEARCE TERMINAL CAB CORPORATION DALLAS, TEXAS THOMAS CLEVELAND SCOTT SANDERS, aka THE REVEREND YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA THOMAS MICHAEL CROSS YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA ROBERT SCOTT-PALLACK ACE CAB COMPANY LAS VEGAS, NEVADA MIKE MEANS ACE CAB COMPANY LAS VEGAS, NEVADA NICHOLAS FEDRO DESOTO CAB COMPANY SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA KATHERINE TAYLOR YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA CHARLES FISCHER YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA THOMAS F MABUTAS CITY CAB SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA MICHAEL WELCH YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA DONNA O'BRIEN YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA TIM JONES YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA GWENDOLYN FLASH CITY CAB SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA ROBERT D BOTTORF ACE CAB COMPANY LAS VEGAS, NEVADA JULIE EDWINSON DESOTO CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA EARL D BROWN CHOICE CAB DALLAS, TEXAS VICK RIDLEY aka THE MOUNTAIN MAN CITY CAB SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA LEON WILLIAMS GOLDEN CAB COMPANY DALLAS, TEXAS KEN WAINIO YELLOW CAB CO-OP SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA

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