WHY I LOVE TO PHOTOGRAPH CLASSIC CARS
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY SAMUEL CUTHBERT
At first glance, this is a rather unremarkable image. It might seem an odd choice coming from a car photographer who was asked to explain exactly why he loves his work. You'd think I'd choose the flashy shots. Say one from the album captured while crouched inside the tiny front luggage compartment of a 991 Carrera S, shooting on the move as we chased a Ferrari through the Swiss alps. The driver of the Porsche peering through the tiny gap between the car, myself, and the lifted bonnet for his limited view of the road. It was a tad dangerous, but it allowed me to get my 24mm out in front of the car's bumper for an unusually dramatic view of the chase unfolding. Totally worth it. Those are memorable shoots - and those kind of photos certainly represent a big part of why I love automotive photography - but classic cars are different.
They simply make brilliant subjects. Full of visual interest and sometimes (if not overly restored) displaying a beautiful natural patina that has been created over its life. Also, with the rarer cars you can often find that the existing images online were shot a long time ago, or not captured in their best light, so I like the aspect of introducing a new car to people online with albums that give them a great look around some cars they might never see in person. Say this 1935 Fiat Balilla Coppa D'Oro 508CS being driven through a forest by its 82 year-old owner. The car is amazing, the colors work, the owner an interesting and pleasant gentleman who flew planes in WWII. Being able to work with people that own these rare and valuable cars is nearly always a great environment. If we're working together it's because you either own a very interesting car, or love your very normal car an extraordinary amount. To me, both are enthusiasts of different sorts and simply need or value high quality images of their car, and either way, we're going to have enough in common to get along just fine.
A lot of my work is with collectors of rare and valuable cars. They want to have the car shot in the typical style shown here on The Whole Car (album of static shots, details, interior, engine bay) either after a restoration (wanting to document it at it's absolute best) or in many cases, in its natural condition before it leaves their collection to be auctioned for sale. The latter makes a lot of financial sense. When your car is worth more than my house, you're damn right you should get some professional shots to get the best selling price. Otherwise it's working with people that simply obsess over their cars and enjoy having a "magazine feature" style shoot done where we capture shots of them driving their car in beautiful locations. Both types of clients are fun, but there's just something neat about hanging out the back of a camera car, my lens just a few feet away from the front bumper of the subject I'm shooting - those are my favorite days. Especially when you manage match the subject and location perfectly.
But I didn't choose any of those. I chose a shot of a seat belt buckle. Scroll up and take another peek, not because it is a striking image, but because it gives you all sorts of visual clues at the car's age. Instead of the timeless lines of classic bodywork, it's often elements in the interiors of these cars that draw me in for a closer look. They really help "place" the car in my mind, and let me imagine the driver in whatever era the car was born in. They complete the time machine effect by taking all modern backdrops away and just focusing on little things, like manual-wind windows and dated typography on the dials and switchgear. It might be a bit surprising that something as simple as a buckle could play a role in the visual story of a car's album, but I think simple images are often the most appealing. Perhaps it's because your brain isn't bombarded with information as it would be if it tried to take in an a busy or highly detailed image. Imagine a shot of a fighter jet cabin - there's so much detail in all those controls and dials, your eyes wouldn't know where to start processing it all.
In contrast, you've got just six recognizable elements in the image above - two seats, two buckles, a handbrake gaiter, and some carpet. Your mind is thankful for the simple focus that draws your eye to the closest buckle, framed by those out of focus elements that help piece together the image as a whole. My eyes were drawn to the unusual shape that the buckle created, sticking out in a rather ungainly fashion - high in the air and away from the driver's seat. Seriously, it's an eyesore if you look through the cabin from the side of the car. But it does get your attention, and it almost forces you to imagine yourself sat in the driver's seat to properly make sense of it. I loved the patina on the metal receiver and plastic button, worn shiny near the slot, little chips in the release from countless fumbling attempts at buckling and unbuckling without looking.
So I contorted my frame into the rear of the car (if you haven't placed it yet, this was an Alfetta GTV Turbodelta, a rare Alfa Romeo famous as being the first Italian turbocharged sports car) to try and grab a shot that will give viewers a sense of what the car is all about. The image shows you that the passenger buckle is hidden away neatly against the base, so we know the Italians could "fix" the interior by giving the driver's the same placement. I like to imagine a heated argument between Giorgetto Giugiaro and his design team over what they should do, and everyone finally coming to agreement that the higher placement, together with the flexible stalk as its base, meant that it was simply better at allowing the natural driving movements to take place at the wheel. Keep in mind we're talking about the days before power steering here folks - you do move about in your seat a bit more than in modern cars and with light steering. I'm getting carried away again, waffling on about seat belts - but this is what classic cars do to me! They force me to imagine what the demands of a driver were at the time, the technology available then to keep the safe and comfortable, what the experience would have been like for those people who drove these cars decades ago.
See the way the the metal plating is buckled inward toward the slot? It makes me imagine an excited driver jumping into the drivers seat and buckling up with such force that over time, they managed to bend a shallow valley into the plating. I know that's a bit odd. I'm sure most people just see a junky old buckle and increase their scrolling speed. But for me, it's a great example of those tiny details that abound in classic cars that make them so much fun to photograph. You're able to capture not only what the designers originally created, but the details the drivers themselves have produced by enjoying these cars over the years.