Journal: Photographer Celebrates Automobile Design Through Film

Photographer Celebrates Automobile Design Through Film

By Petrolicious Productions
April 10, 2013

With the rise of inexpensive digital cameras, amateur photography’s popularity has exploded in the past few years, and thanks to apps like Instagram, everyone with a cell phone now suddenly sees themselves as the next Ansel Adams.

Real results, though, are not accidental, but rather the result of an artist’s eye and a technician’s skill, both seemingly disparate fields combining seamlessly to bring dynamic new life to commonplace objects. This ability to find a fresh and provocative point of view, to highlight familiar forms and details in an unfamiliar and stimulating way is the mark of a true artist—skills well known to photographer James Haefner. We love Haefner’s automotive photos, and along with a small gallery of his work in this field we’ve asked him a few questions about what makes him tick.

Click here to visit James Haefner’s photography site.

Q. How did you get started in photography? What was it that attracted you to shooting cars?

A. I started taking pictures in high school, photographing bands and friends. I had failed as a rock and roll musician and thought I’d try my hand at photography. At the same time the movie “Blow Up” had just come out and the life of a photographer looked pretty exciting. I didn’t start photographing automobiles until I was studying at RIT, although my main interest was fashion and still life. I returned to my hometown of Detroit after graduating in 1976 and started to work as an apprentice at a car studio, in 1979 I started my own business. As a professional photographer in Detroit, the natural arena for me was the automobile industry, I wanted to work on the largest accounts with the most talented creative groups.

Q. What is it that you look for on a car when determining what will make a good composition?

A. Every car is a bit different. My job is to celebrate what makes each one unique and to define the designer’s intentions in a dramatic fashion.

Q. I understand you’re not necessarily a “car guy”, but you certainly must have at least an aesthetic appreciation for cars in order to photograph them at a high level like you do—what is it that you appreciate about cars? Did any of those things play a role in choosing your personal car?

A. Proportion is what matters the most in automotive design, then the confluence of shapes, after that it’s the integration of the parts: headlights, taillights, wheels, and grills that come together to finish the design. I drive a 2006 BMW 535 wagon so my design sense hasn’t dictated what I drive!

Q. Have you found that photographing cars has given you a deeper appreciation for them than you may have previously had?

A. Having the chance to study these designs the way I do is pretty incredible. The precision that went into creating these automobiles without the benefit of today’s technology is amazing. The coach builders were true artists and those that shaped the sheet metal were sculptors. The work done today by the restorers is phenomenal too, if parts are missing or broken they have to be recreated, which is no easy task.

Q. What are some of your favorite cars that you’ve shot?

A. Strangely enough, usually my favorite photographs are the most recent I’ve taken. I don’t try to imitate or duplicate what I’ve shot in the past, although after a while, I’ve found that there are certain views I feel best describe a vehicle. I’ve just finished a studio Cadillac project that I think really portrays the vehicle elegantly. Looking back, I can say that I’m quite proud of my work on the Stout Scarab, one of the first vintage cars I photographed. I also really enjoyed photographing the Mako Shark. In the last year I’ve started working on a book that will involve the world’s top automotive designers discussing the iconic designs of the last century which they will determine and I will photograph. That should give me plenty of opportunity to round out my portfolio!

Join the Conversation
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dan Woodward
Dan Woodward
11 years ago

In a world filled with automotive photography with little or no artistic flair, these stand out beautifully.

Definitely makes me realise I should look to make car shots about more than just the car.

Zippy Gordon
Zippy Gordon
11 years ago


john tolle
john tolle
11 years ago

Beautiful work ! I’ll look forward to the forthcoming book.

Petrolicious Newsletter