Smile! (Click) It’s the Camera Van

Californian Harrod Blank had a dream. He was the creator of an "art car"--a preposterous-looking Volkswagen Beetle with a beach ball paint job and glued-on plastic fruit bumpers. In his dream, he imagined the fruit displaced and the colorful paint obscured by hundreds of cameras, transforming his Beetle into a motorized insect with hundreds of eyes. As he slept, he saw his VW shutterbug traveling the world, taking pictures of the first impressions of all who came to marvel at it. When he awoke, he thought, "How bizarre," and then turned his dream into a reality. He anticipated a low-budget, six-month project, but it took two years and $20,000.

Blank purchased a 1972 one-ton Dodge van for his canvas, and the Santa Cruz Goodwill Industries' Bargain Barn gave him most of his 1,705-camera palette (they couldn't sell them to a throwaway society). He purchased a few at thrift stores and yard sales, and individuals donated their Brownies, Leicas, Polaroids and Instamatics to the rolling museum. He acquired a Mamiya, and several Argus "Bricks" and 1920s Kodak Autographics. Along the roof he mounted 140 Super 8s and Straight 8s and a Bell & Howell 16mm movie camera that once filmed battles in World War II. Silicone caulk fastens the plastic cameras, and rivets secure anything weighing more than a quarter of a pound. Although the flash attachments of 40 cameras are rigged to set off a dazzling light show, the only working cameras are five Canon EOS 630s. A well-concealed video camera just above an EOS feeds into a TV set inside the cab: when Blank sees the facial expression he wants, he pushes a button, snapping the shot. Two years after his 1993 prophetic dream, Blank unveiled the Camera Van in New York City.

It takes six hours, three rolls of paper towels and a bottle of Windex to clean the Camera Van. Blank travels at dusk to minimize sun damage and seeks shelter at the first hint of rain. He lost one camera to a thief, but notes, "People are too respectful of the novelty to commit vandalism."

Blank pumps his own gas, and musing over his favorite picture, a cigar-pointing citizen at a Mississippi gas station, he chortles: "The Camera Van gets 10 miles to the gallon. In smileage, though, I get 100 smiles per gallon."

By Ruth Ravenel

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