PPD Spotlight: George Brainard's Texas Hot Rod Portraits

By David Schonauer   Friday May 1, 2015

One of the things Austin, TX-based editorial and commercial photographer George Brainard  has learned over the past 12 years is that hot rods are beautiful.

But they’re not nearly as interesting as the people who love them.

Back in 2003, Brainard began photographing the souped-up machines at a car show called The Lonestar Rod and Kustom Round Up, little knowing where it would lead him.

“The show was started by a couple of my friends who have a car club called the Kontinentals, and they asked me to come out and shoot some photos for them to document and promote the show,” says Brainard, a PPD reader. “I had a blast and kept going back year after year to that and a vintage drag race they started doing.”

Five years later, the event had become a huge hit—the number of cars featured grew from 100 to over 2,000.  “By then there were tons of people taking pictures of the cars, and I felt like they didn’t need me to document the shows anymore,” Brainard says. “But as cool as the cars were, I was frankly more interested in the people at the shows. It is a fascinating subculture and one that had not really been explored in this way before.”

One year, “just for fun,” he says, Brainard set up a makeshift studio in the middle of the drag race, 15 feet from the drag strip.

“I figured I might get a few good pictures of interesting people and that it would be a fun, different thing to do and get my creative juices flowing,” he says. “I quickly realized that it could be something bigger. I kept going back to make portraits for five years total, from 2008 to 2013.”

The result is his new book All Tore Up: Texas Hit Rod Portraits, recently published by the University of Texas Press. What you will learn from the book is what Brainard learned at the car shows—that a Texas hot rod event is probably the best place in the world for people watching.

“There were so many great incidents and people I experienced during this project,” says Brainard. “There was Ricardo, who has a picture of himself tattooed on his arm. There was  Nadine, who I photographed year after year; she never looked the same twice. There was Steve, who asked me to make his portrait in honor of his brother, who used to come to the car shows with him but had died. One particularly poignant moment came one year when I was having a showing of this work and a woman came up to me and told me that one of the subjects, a guy known as Mad Hatter, had been killed in a motorcycle accident a few months after I photographed him. She sent his widow, Dormouse, to the show the next day. She had no idea this portrait existed. All she had were blurry snapshots of him. She hugged me and cried and thanked me. She even brought me cupcakes later. It made very real the fact that we photographers make permanent a fleeting moment in time and just how powerful that can be.”

Brainard began shooting the portraits with a Canon 5D and later switched to a 5D Mark II, using a 70-200mm 2.8 lens, most often set at 200mm. “I used a 8x8-foot silk to shade the subjects and let full sun hit the white canvas background. The background was two stops over the people, which gave me a nice clean white,” he says. “I didn’t pose the subjects, but merely told them where to stand and which way to look and let them be themselves.”

Which was quite enough.


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