Find out from automotive photographer, Johnny O, what was his wildest shoot ever. Also discover how Ford, Honda, General Motors, Toyota, BMW, Ferrari et al are taking their cues from hot rodders, street rodders and low riders in this interview with a man who has made photo art out of his lifelong love of the motor vehicle.
Featured Author: Douglas Gorney @Convozine
We Praise the Lowered: Johnny O & the Custom Car Universe
Johnny O is the Avedon of custom cars. His photographs lend a rarified glamor to the exotic, lowered, chopped, candy-colored celebrities of the automotive world. In ten years as a lead photographer and editor at enthusiast print publications like Street Trucks, Sport Truck, Mini Truckin and Tailgate, as well as innumerable product shoots, Johnny has learned how to translate automotive art into photographic art. He also breathes the thin air at the Olympian heights of custom car culture, having forged relationships with almost every important shop and designer in Southern California.
Johnny O has been bringing his photographs, stories and automotive news to Convozine since autumn, 2010 — visit his MyZine at http://convozine.com/johnnyophoto. We caught up with Johnny last week and asked him about life on the custom side — and how he captures it.
Tell me about the custom car world. It’s a whole culture unto itself. How would you describe it for someone outside that world?
This is a great question and to break everything down properly would be a whole post in its own, which is something I will do on MyZine. A short answer to this question though is; the custom community is like modern religion, we have many different factions, but for the most part we all praise the lowered.
How did you end up becoming an automotive photographer? Was it a lifelong passion for cars first, then a flair for photography?
I was born a ‘car guy.’ I’m not quite sure how that happened, but if it had wheels, I was all over it. Subsequently, I grew up in a bedroom full of posters on the walls that featured exotic vehicles like Ferraris and
Lamborghinis as well as American muscle cars like Camaros, Chevelles and Novas. In high school I fell in love with photography as an artistic medium and eventually the two passions met. It helps to know what you’re shooting. For instance, a fashion photographer should know about fashion. I don’t know a damned thing about fashion, so I stick to chunks of metal with wheels.
You seem to have pretty close ties to the custom car world. Ever work in a custom shop yourself?
I have very close ties to the car and truck world. For nearly a decade it was literally my job to have my finger on the pulse of what we call “The Scene.” I worked in the publishing world as feature editor for several automotive magazines, seeking out the very best projects to shoot and write about. Many of my friends own or work in custom shops that build these amazing projects that we see in magazines and drool over.
Tell me about your best shoot so far — the coolest car, the best setting, the hottest women, whatever was most droolworthy?
There are only a small handful of Hollywood-type guys that are what I would consider true gearheads. Bill Goldberg (WWF, NFL, Bullrun host, Garage Mahal host) is one of those true gearhead types, and I had a chance to shoot him and his impressive collection of cars in his personal Garage Mahal. It’s a massive two story, L-shaped, stand alone building with eleven different garage bays. Five of those bays have storage lifts so he can fit two cars stacked in each of those stations. I think the total amount of vehicles he had in his garage was 17, as well as a few custom motorcycles.
Sprinkle in a GTO Judge, Galaxie, Yenko Camaro, Jaguar and you’ve barely scratched the surface of his toys. The most impressive thing about Goldberg’s collection is that every vehicle has a personal story of his attached to it. I can whole-heartedly say that envy is a powerful emotion and I felt every bit of it that day.
And what was the weirdest shoot?
When most people go through my portfolio they tend to stop on one truck in particular and give me that look where their eyebrows almost touch in the middle of their forehead and the corner of their mouth shoots into their cheek. It’s a classic WTF-face for what most people would consider a very WTF-truck.
The truck is a Dodge D50 mini-truck, turned into a roadster (cut the top off), welded the doors, fenders and hood together into one piece, extended the bed, added another axle for 6 wheels, air bags so it could sit on the ground, converted to right hand drive, filled with stereo equipment and then topped with a custom beach cruiser.
What’s the most gorgeous car you’ve ever photographed?
I’ve shot a lot of exotic vehicles that roll off of the assembly line as gorgeous cars, but what earns my utmost respect is when a shop takes a vehicle that may have rolled off the assembly line as a tall, fat, squared-out farm truck and turned it into a sleek, smooth piece of rolling art. Chris Couto’s 1963 Chevy truck is all of that. There isn’t a single body panel on the truck that hasn’t been modified by IF Customs and Grant Kustoms — yet to the untrained eye it looks just “like it should have looked from the factory.”
Do you have a dream shoot in mind? A particular car? Show? Competition? A setting or situation you’d put together if you were calling the shots?
The amazing thing about the world of custom vehicles is just when you think you’ve seen the most incredible vehicle, another one that pushes the envelope even more is debuted at a different car show. There are some amazing custom cars and trucks being built in Australia, New Zeland, Japan, Thailand, France – literally all over the world. I’d love to showcase some of these international vehicles with my style of shooting.
Is there an even more ambitious design/photo project or business you’d like to build someday when the time is right?
One of the hardest things as an automotive photographer is coming up with natural locations in which to shoot. Many cities require permits for commercial shoots, pedestrian traffic can complicate a shoot, private security guards get a kick out of ruining shoots…etc., etc. I would love to build a mega outdoor complex that had multiple prime shooting locations, set up specifically for automotive photographers to rent out. I’ve already got the chunk of land scouted and mapped out. Investors, I’m looking at you.
How’s business for you in this challenging economy?
This economy created my business! As I mentioned before I spent a good chunk of years in the magazine industry, but when the economy tanked, so did all forms of printed media. It was this perfect storm that forced me to create Johnny O Photo & Design. These days I shoot a lot more than just vehicles for my clients. I shoot hundreds of products in my studio each week for online catalogs, press kits, advertisements, etc. Life will always throw you curve balls, it’s how you react to them that will deem if you’re moving forward in life or standing still. Anytime I need a little boost I just remember that some other companies were started during a recession. You may have heard of Microsoft, FedEx, HP and GE.
Do you harbor ambitions of being a car designer yourself?
As a member of the custom community, I’d like to think that I’m already a car designer. Many people are under the impression that the design element starts at the car manufacturers, however after the ’60s that began to change. As the many factions of the car community (hot rodders, street rodders, low riders, etc) began borrowing ideas and concepts from each other the manufacturers started keeping close tabs on what we were doing.
Fast forward to today; why does your new truck come with factory 20-inch wheels? Because of us. Your stock car comes with a touch screen multi-media player? Because of us. Sport tuned suspension? Flip down steps? The custom community designed these, the aftermarket made them available to the masses and then the manufacturers built them into their stock vehicles.
See more of Johnny O’s photographs at his professional site, johnnyophoto.com