‘Built, not bought’: Philly’s classic car culture captured in photo exhibition

Photographer Sheldon Omar-Abba documents informal car clubs in Philly neighborhoods for Imperfect Gallery’s 10th-anniversary show.

Sheldon Omar-Abba photo of a 2011 Ford Crown Victoria owned by a woman who goes by 'Baby Doll Demon Doll.' (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

Sheldon Omar-Abba photo of a 2011 Ford Crown Victoria owned by a woman who goes by 'Baby Doll Demon Doll.' (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

When Renny Molenaar took down an exhibition at his Imperfect Gallery in Germantown last May, he promised photographer Sheldon Omar-Abba and car enthusiast Wayne Lemon he would have the space cleaned out for them to install the next show.

“I know how pristine photographers can be, so I was, like, ‘Don’t worry, by the time you get here the place will be totally swept, mopped,’” said Molenaar. “They both were in shock: ‘Don’t!’”

Omar-Abba wanted the gallery to resemble an automobile garage. There had to be grime, old tires, random spare parts, and an old radio propped up on bricks. He brought in an open pan of used engine oil to give the space that grungy garage smell. Old gas cans lend a whiff of petrol to the air.

A pile of junk typically found in garages, including a bowl of dirty oil that gives the gallery an authentic smell. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

He told Molenaar to leave the dirt where it lay.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“If you take it out, we’re going to have to bring it back in somehow,” said Omar-Abba. “Please just leave it.”

Omar-Abba has been taking pictures of car culture in Philadelphia for four years, documenting the community that finds old Caprices, Novas, Chevelles, Crown Victorias, and others from the ’70s and ’80s, gets them running, cleans them up, and shows them off to each other.

“The Philadelphia Car Show” is an exhibition of dozens of pictures taken at Philadelphia garages and informal meetups, showing classic cars in various states of polish – from a 1972 Chevrolet Nova sanded down into ribbons of old paint layers to the chrome bling of a spotless 1980s box Caprice – and the people who love them.

Sheldon Omar-Abba photo of a 1972 Chevrolet Nova owned by Wayne Lemon, sanded down for repainting. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

“One of the things in the Philly car scene is: ‘Built, not bought.’ I feel like that community is definitely built,” said Omar-Abba.“Sometimes it’s connected through their families. Their fathers worked in these cars, they love these cars, and uncles are into it. When you get together, it’s a family event as much as it’s about the vehicle.”

Sheldon Omar-Abba photo of Wayne Lemon and his father ‘Boss’ Lemon, with a friend ‘Wiz’ in the back. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

Ironically, Omar-Abba himself does not have a background in cars. For about 15 years he had been getting around the city on skateboards and bicycles. He got into the scene first by noticing pretty cars on the street and taking pictures of them, slowly forming relationships with their owners.

Car club shows are generally not advertised or announced publicly. They are usually organized through word-of-mouth, often through social media networks. Omar-Abba was not, at first, in those networks. He was able to build trust in part because he works in 35mm film, rather than digital, resulting in a hard copy image that must be physically handed over.

“Is it all right if I get a photo of your car? I’ll come back in like a week or so and make sure you get a print of it,” he said. “That got me into the world of being in the garage and seeing how garages worked, and how rich they were in both stories and different generations of people hanging out.”

That is how he met his partner, Lemon, whose family owns a garage in Southwest Philadelphia. The two of them started coordinating car shows of their own.

“No one really feels like they need to go out of their way to promote it to a larger Philadelphia audience,” he said. “People that care about it that are involved, they already are connected. I love that part about it. It’s such an organic community that’s doing its own thing.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Philly’s car culture inspired Omar-Abba to get his hands dirty with engines. After years of self-propelled transportation, he recently acquired three cars to work on: a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, a 1985 Oldsmobile Delta 88, and a 1984 Cadillac Coupe Deville.

All are in fluctuating states of repair.

“They are definitely works in progress, but they’re my daily drivers now,” he said. “You keep three and you hope two are always working.”

The exhibition is part of the 10th anniversary season of Imperfect Gallery, which Molenaar started with his partner Rocio Cabello in Germantown back when they were fresh transplants from New York City. Its current location at 5539 Germantown Ave. is its second, previously located about a block away.

Renny Molenaar, co-owner of Imperfect Gallery, sitting in a car seat set up the gallery space. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

The exhibition includes two smaller shows: black and white street photography by Mateus Kaplan, and whimsical ceramics – sometimes explicitly sexual – by Ben Peterson who proclaims he wants to “make pottery gay again.”

Molenaar said Omar-Abba is among his favorite artists because, first of all, he didn’t require him to clean up the gallery beforehand.

Also, Omar-Abba’s “built, not bought” approach aligns with the gallery’s aesthetic.

“I was really excited by his project when I met him, and the fact that he is so engaged in searching out passion,” said Molenaar. “Which is what I do as a gallerist, I search out passion. I look for artists who have an engagement with something that turns them on. That generates good art.”

“Philadelphia Car Show” will have its closing party this Saturday, July 16, with an impromptu rally. Omar-Abba has invited his photo subjects to drive their pride-and-joys to the gallery, and show off their cars on Germantown Avenue between noon and 4 p.m.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal