From Darkrooms To Tuner Mags To Manufacturers, James Lipman’s Automotive Photography Is Always Evolving
The poster for our Drive Tastefully: Monterey road rally up the coast to Car Week featured a dreamy image of a widebody Porsche. Heading downhill and deeper into the lush hillsides and the twists of tarmac in between, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking this scene was just a fantasy put to paper. Someone lived it though, as the artwork is actually based closely on a photograph taken years earlier by acclaimed automotive photographer James Lipman.
It is 2010, and James had recently traveled to Northern California with a journalist friend of his to look for features to sell to Porsche magazines back in the UK and Europe. The “widebody Porsche” is a carbon-fiber-bodied 912. With a 997 GT3 Cup car’s 3.6L flat-six in the back. Built by renowned engineer Hayden Burvill for Pete von Behrens, it is a car with a constant appetite for the space in the front of it. James is happy to be behind it, hanging out the window of a Prius rental as Hayden fires the 912 forward into the scenery with the engine popping and banging out an infernal notification of each gear change. The Toyota does its best to keep up as James drills shots into the dusty sensor of his battered Nikon, and one of them makes the cut.
In the years since taking this shot, James has gone on to a rewarding career with some of the world’s most recognizable automotive brands. Be it modern supercars in Tokyo, Mercedes-Benz museum pieces in Stuttgart, or GT race cars on the Nürburgring, his love for his subject has taken him around the world and back a few times.
It’s been a long and nonlinear journey from his first day in the school darkroom to now. Ask James to start from the beginning and you’ll find yourself over in England, brought to a muddy field 30 miles south of London and plopped behind the steering wheel of a rusted hatchback which may or may not have been on its roof a time times. (In case you thought an Englishman named James who takes pictures of Uhlenhaut Coupes for a living was out of touch, he sent over that video before a single shot from his portfolio.)
He grew up with a few family friends packing some cool kit in the garage—a Supercharged Range Rover, roofless Alfa Romeo, and Martini-striped 911 stand out—but James credits the true catalyst for his interest in cars being the teenage years he and his friends spent destroying them.
Take a friendship with the son of a local car dealer, mix in a very damp island and an annual roadworthiness test that renders terminally rusty cars worthless. Then take a steady supply of terminally rusty cars, add just a bit too much free time and open space, and introduce a group of bored teenagers who liked taking things apart. This group of Britain’s youngest and least qualified group of crash test engineers did regular battle with physics. “Many shitboxes were killed. It is a Christmas miracle that none of us were too,” James recalls, “But it taught me how to drive and work on cars, and I absolutely fell in love with it all.”
An element of mechanical appreciation found its way into all of James’ hobbies from that point. When he was in school instead of a sideways Volkswagen, he learned to avoid gym class by hiding out in the school’s well-equipped but seldom used darkroom. Enamored with how a camera let him see and think about the world, James devoured every photography magazine and message board he could get his hands on.
Photojournalists like David Alan Harvey and Alex Webb, along with early proponents of Photoshop such as British fashion photographer Nick Knight, served as paragons of what James aimed to achieve in his work, and after a chance introduction by email to the art editor at National Geographic, he set about finding a way to turn passion into a profession.
Opting to take a brief industry-based course rather than being saddled with the debt of a typical four-year degree, at age 19 James joined a small class of aspiring photojournalists in the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ (NCTJ) press photography curriculum. It wasn’t long, however, before he found that he made “a truly dreadful press photographer,” and a sense of doom surrounding newspapers in general at that time did nothing to spur his enthusiasm.
While working at one of these newspapers in London, James chanced upon a copy of Performance VW magazine. “At the time I had no idea car magazines existed outside of the staples like Top Gear, Car, and Evo.” The internet had yet to swallow smaller print publishing as thoroughly as it has today, and niche tuner magazines were still doing good business. After getting in touch with the editor of Performance VW, James was given the go-ahead to shoot a car of his choice with the offer that if they liked the work, they would pay for the images.
That was the start of a five-year relationship with the magazine as a regular contributor, and a definitive period of growth in James’ role as a photographer. He shot for a number of enthusiast publications with everything from Fast Fords to turbocharged Rolls Royces in front of his lens, while he always kept an eye on the ladder’s next rung. Expanding his talents and portfolio as he went, doors began opening to more mainstream titles such as the Top Gears and Cars and Evos of the world, and it wasn’t long before the car manufacturers themselves began to call. In 2017, citing concerns regarding being perennially cold and wet, he moved to Southern California.
Now working with brands like Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, and Jaguar Land Rover, James is provided with the opportunities to live out the fantasies that played in his head in that school darkroom twenty years ago. After a decade of shooting some of the most luxurious cars on the planet, his love for machines still runs deeper than just aesthetics. “Right now I’m twin-plugging a Porsche engine in my office, and rewiring an aircraft on the patio outside. After those are done, and provided the plane behaves as it should, I’d like to put an LS3 in my Buick Roadmaster. That’s the ultimate answer to a question nobody asked.”
“You can put me in front of all the supercars on the planet in the best locations on it, but I’ll always have a foot stuck in that muddy field in Southern England, holding a three-eighths socket set in one hand and a shattered driveshaft from a Vauxhall Astra in the other.”