Thursday, January 24, 2013

Can You Know a Man By the Cars He Keeps?

What can you find out about a person through the hundreds of unidentified photographs he has left behind? Not much, I used to think. However, now that I’ve reconsidered those many photos in the case of Bill Bean of Alameda, California, I’m beginning to connect those dots. Unbelievably, a picture is emerging. The big picture, that is.

The process does take time. It sometimes takes lots of breaks, so I can come back to the task with fresh eyes. I’ve left this stash alone for years—forgotten about it, actually—and yet, when the same-old-same-old wore off my eyes, the pictures started telling me a fresh story.

In Bill’s case, cars figured prominently in his life’s story. The very fact that he left so many unmarked snapshots of automobiles behind—visible memories he held onto all those years—was a monument to what was important in his life. This fascination with cars wasn’t just a business for him—it was a way of life.

William Bean California cars 1920s
Of the many pictures in his collection, one thankfully retained a date. Though faded, a date stamp still shows on the reverse of this first photo: August 29, 1920. My best guess is that this is actually Bill Bean in the photo, in the driver’s seat, parked curbside along a residential street looking much like the one in Alameda he called home.

I have no idea whether he was just showing off a new acquisition, or—who knows? I don’t even know enough to tell what make of vehicle it was that he was driving. But I did notice that the car parked behind him bore an insignia resembling that of the product of one of his competitors: Chevrolet.

Esso gas station 1930s car 1920s car
I wish I had a date or other identifying mark for this next photo. Clearly, we’ve moved on from the 1920s into modern times. Parked next to a larger car, looking like it’s packed for an excursion, is a model from earlier days. I don’t know if the couple just hopped in to snap the picture for memories’ sake, or whether they were still actually driving that thing. There's really not that much I can tell about them, for unfortunately, I have no label to guide me in identifying the twosome.

Wherever it was parked, it was by the Phil Foster Esso station. I just wish I had an idea whether this was a stop on a trip from Redwood City to Fresno to visit Bill's mother's Shields relatives, or to Mendocino, or to another town where family lived.

Yes, cars told the stories of Bill’s life. It’s an incomplete story—so far, at least—for I have no idea who the people are sitting in those many contraptions, where they were going, and what events filled their lives.

If nothing else, though, I can tell that cars figured prominently in Bill Bean’s life—and that some of those times were spent doing the very thing cars were meant to do: get people to the places where they wanted to be.


  1. "Horseless carriage" comes to mind as I study that second picture. I wonder if Bill's auto dealership was holding some kind of promotion or festival featuring antique cars.

    1. Now, that's a thought, Wendy. Perhaps. I really need to take the time to Google the Phil Foster Esso station and see if anything comes up. It would be interesting to see whether it was the business next door to Bill's dealership.

  2. beautiful old cars! My Dad will be able to identify them..the next time he is out to visit I will have him take a look:)

    1. Thanks, Far Side. I would love to know the make and model of each of these cars...and the year, of course. I'm seeing quite a variety in the types of cars in Bill's photos. Please tell your dad I would certainly appreciate the help!

  3. What an interesting collection of photos! It sure gives fun insight to Bill and his passion. That makes me ask what story the pictures of me are telling? (I think a fair number of them involve food!)

    1. That's a thought to consider, Michelle. Photos do tell the story of our lives, especially over the long term. I hadn't thought of it that way until you mentioned it. I think most of the pictures of my family were taken on the occasion of holidays and celebrations, but that doesn't necessarily mean we are a family of party-goers. Then again, who takes pictures of family washing the dishes or mowing the lawn? The key is looking at what was important to the person, and capturing that through our photography.


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