Ardently interested in cars since age 12, Ken Altes reports a peculiar recurring dream.
“I am a car,” the Austin Realtor says in all seriousness. “My hands are holding the axles. I’m the body. I’m the frame. I wake up slowly and tell myself: I’m not the car. I’m not the suspension. I’m flesh. It takes me a while to convince myself that I’m flesh and blood.”
When not dreaming about being one, Altes, 62, is looking for cars. Everywhere he goes, on the job and off. When he spies a particularly memorable one — rusting in a field or lovingly customized and parked in a protected locale — he photographs it.
The results, seen at ATXCarPics.com, are pretty amazing.
Austinites can spot vintage automobiles almost any day, especially on certain corridors such as South Congress Avenue. Altes goes further. He chats up the owners, records the makes and models, then documents the exteriors and, sometimes, the interiors from different angles.
“It’s like people watching,” Altes says. “The cars that interest me evoke memories. They certainly represent an era, also a technology. Art and science and culture all in one.”
On the car hunt
Some readers might remember Altes from his days as an early public advocate for alternative redevelopments of the old Seaholm Power Plant. Hopes long ago faded for some kind of museum or other civic function to occupy the hulking engine rooms, which opened recently as office space for Boston-based Athenahealth.
Dallas-born Altes’ mother published a magazine; his father dealt in ready-to-wear garments as a traveling salesman. Their son majored in history at the University of Texas, focusing on the ancient Mediterranean and Russia (his father’s ancestors were Russian).
He started selling residential real estate, mostly in Central Austin, in 2008. Before that, he was a licensed real estate inspector for more than 20 years.
“This is the center of the world,” he says over coffee at Fair Bean on South First Street. “Everyone in the world wants to be cool in South Austin.”
Four or five years ago, Altes started taking pictures with a buddy. That sparked a blog to better facilitate an exchange of images. Two years ago, he founded what became ATXCarPics.com.
“I simply wanted to chronicle and remember what I saw,” he says. “Architecture and cars are very much parts of place and elements of our environment. I wanted to hold onto them and share them. They are very much part of the three-dimensional world.”
He also found that photography was a way to interact with people.
“When I’m driving around doing my real estate thing, that’s when I find cars,” he says. “I stop and take a picture of cars I run across, sometimes chat with the people about their cars. They are all very, very interested in talking, mostly men. It’s like football. It’s a way to let men be close to one another.”
While not all the car collectors are men, Altes notes that, to them, cars can become an integral part of their social culture.
“Males seem more interested in movement, power and speed,” he says. “We see ourselves in our cars. Gender doesn’t tell the whole story. But cars are like having bionic legs, like horses made you a more potent man.”
Car art rather than art cars
Many of the cars Altes photographs are works of industrial art.
“I want them to be attractive, but they are not all attractive,” he says. “I appreciate a car as one might a building. I know about the mechanical aspect of them. It goes deeper than skin or culture.”
One of his favorites is the front-wheel-drive Citroën DS-19 with hydropneumatic suspension.
“The French are eccentric,” he says. “When it came out in 1955, it was 20 or 30 years ahead of other cars.”
The day of our interview, he documented a Corvette sports car from the mid-1960s.
“That’s one of my all-time favorite cars,” he says. “It looks potent, racy. Also, it’s from my era.”
Among the oddest finds was an Austrian Mercedes 280 GE, a car suggested to Mercedes by the Shah of Iran, a shareholder, and originally used as a military vehicle. It was parked at the Goodwill store on North Lamar Boulevard, decorated with a bumper sticker that read: “Come and Take It.”
These days, Altes drives a BMW sedan, but he still loves Cadillacs, the luxury car of his youth.
“My dad was a Cadillac man,” Altes says. “I grew up with Cadillacs. From 1960 to 1976, we got a new Caddy every other year.”
Rather like Christopher Sherman, the technology event planner — recently profiled in these pages — whose drone views of Austin can be seen at OverAustin.com, Altes is strictly a hobbyist, albeit an unusually skilled one.
“I’m trying to please myself,” Altes says. “These cars are so full of charisma. I try to capture that. I take pictures of what I like. If other people like them, that’s great.”