The Hardest Working Man in the Car Photo Business
If you saw last week’s video on the Land Rover then you should be familiar with its subject, Mr. Pawel Litwinski. We’ve been big fans of his work for a long time and the video presented the perfect opportunity for us to sit down with him and find out more about his passion and livelihood. He began as a photo assistant a while back and since then has shot over two-hundred cars a year (frequently over 300 hundred cars a year) for the last ten years. It’s not hyperbole when we say that he has literally shot thousands of cars.
Nowadays, he mostly shoots for auction companies and if you’re familiar with Bonhams or Gooding & Co. then it’s almost certain that you’ve seen his work. But he also shoots commercially for magazines (such as Octane) as well as for private collections and individuals who enjoy his work. We don’t know if he is definitely the hardest working man in the automotive photography business, but if there is someone shooting more frequently we haven’t heard met them.
Q: How did your passion for photography and classic cars begin?
A: As a kid in NY I dreamed about cars all day long. I went to school with pockets full of “Micro Machines” and had car posters all over my bedroom walls. I grew up at the end of Coney Island in the “Sea Rise” projects. It was a tough area but looking back I’m proud of it. My mother’s favorite possession when I was a kid was her old 35mm camera. She would constantly be taking pictures of my brother and me. I remember being fascinated with that camera. I must have been just a few years old because I remember that at first she wouldn’t let me touch it. I would point to the things I wanted photographed and she would shoot them for me (She was probably afraid I might break the camera or just wanted to make sure things were set properly). Either way, I think I was being trained to be a director rather than photographer! Later she would have the film developed and I would just stare at those pics. At some point though, I got my hands on that camera and that was it I suppose.
I read a lot, literally every book on photography that I could find. I first started working around car photography when I was about eighteen-years old. I got a job with Mr. Bill Ashe, who was one of the top commercial car photographers at the time and owned a giant car studio on the west side of Manhattan in NYC. He shot major ad campaigns for many auto manufacturers from the ’80s through 2000 or so. I started as a photo assistant and became the studio manager. This is how I learned to photograph cars the classic way with 4×5 and 8×10 film cameras with huge thirty foot light banks in massive photo studios. Bill and I are still great friends and since my parents divorced when I was young, he’s basically the closest thing I have to a father.
Q: Was it hard to start your career as an automotive photographer?
A: Yeah, after Bill, it felt like the industry was dead… most of the huge, cavernous auto studios in NYC shut down… But the classic car market revived it. I went through a low period where I tried a few different things like cinematography, camera work, etc… but then I was hired by an auction house and things took off.
Q: How do you most enjoy shooting?
A: I really enjoy shooting cars in a proper studio environment but it’s rare. Whenever I get a chance to shoot a car in a studio I love it though! I’m well known for location, and no matter what I can get it done, but it’s incredibly stressful. But I like pulling off good location shoots and when it works it’s great, but when it doesn’t…
Q: As a photographer, when you look at a car what do you see?
A: I look for personality. I don’t always see it right away. I guess I wait for the car to scream at me or something. That’s what it feels like, the moment I imagine it placed just right with the background I want feels loud and I get focused. Suddenly I become incredibly impatient to get it done. Because after that its just a process that’s under way of completion. I only need one or two shots to feel satisfied that I have what I personally want. Everything on top of that is just coverage depending on the client’s needs. I guess I think of it more as getting a great and telling portrait with layers of personality rather than a series of cool looking shots.
Q: How does the creative process start?
A: With the typical shoot on location, first thing I like to do is spend a bit of time with the car. Something happens in that time that puts the ghost of the car in your mind and helps you when scouting. It helps develop the character of the car for the shots. I like when the car fits in its element and trying to draw the personality out of it. Scouting is key… If I’m limited location-wise it’s about making everything look intentional. You gotta find another perspective, or angle, so that it comes out strong…
Q: Do you use any special techniques?
A: I started on film, so I’m very particular about the angles. Even though I have the luxury of digital now, I don’t go shooting the shit out of a car, hoping to get the shot. I don’t use filters or effects… In the catalog world, you can’t mess with stuff too much… Some people have actually told me, “you make the car look too good.” So you have to make the car look as good as possible without cheating.
Q: Do you have an all-time favorite car?
A: I absolutely love early Series Land-Rovers. They look incredible because design followed function. Any car that follows that rule I tend to appreciate. On the sports side I’ve always wanted a Porsche 930. They look like monsters with these giant back ends to compensate for the turbo and tires. And even that is not enough to make them a “safe” sports car. They demand respect and again, form followed function. The engine is in the back, and now there’s a turbo, “shit, we gotta increase the grip in the back people!!!” Hahahaha, I love it.
Q: Besides the Land Rover, do you own other vintage cars (and which ones)?
A: Yeah, an ’84 Porsche 911 Carrera, the first year for the 3.2 liter. But the Land Rover is in my heart… I needed another car and the Porsche gets me down the road quickly and can hang on modern streets. But I’d never sell the Land Rover, it would be the last thing to go…
Q: What is your favorite road?
A: My favorite spot is definitely Pismo, camping on the beach with my girlfriend, but even just driving it around in the early morning to get coffee, there are so many small communities in LA that I feel like I’m driving all over the world. Design: form follows function (the design brief predates the styling), I can’t stand shit that isn’t functional… Fav road: PCH, south of Monterey, Carmel… I like higher speed, sweeping turns… I never want to forget how awesome it is to drive so I take PCH at least one way every time… at least 50 times to SF… Mulholland Hwy locally…
Q: Given the chance to photograph anything (automotive or not), what would you like to do, that you haven’t yet?
A: My first thoughts that I get really happy when I shoot a car I’ve never shot… I’ve shot thousands of cars over the years, no bullshit. Just the other day, I was shooting a Mercedes [300SL] Gullwing at sunrise, drove about six hours and then shot another Gullwing at sunset. The owner of the second car kept telling me how to manipulate things on the car and my feeling was just, “I wish I could tell you this is the first Gullwing I’ve shot today.” I know these cars, I’ve been around. So yeah, it’s awesome to shoot a new car, and I don’t care if its worth five grand or ten million. For me it’s about shooting something different.
Q: Where do you like or would you like to see your shots displayed most?
A: I like the idea of sharing my photos with everybody. Especially if they inspire people or take them back to similar thoughts we’ve all had as enthusiasts growing up. It might be because I learned on 8×10 film cameras just before digital took off, but I am obsessed with high quality–quality high enough to print very large. I feel incredibly honored when friends want prints on their walls. I enjoy printing big. That is the biggest compliment for me especially since I grew up staring at all those car posters as a kid.
To check out more of Pawel’s work, click here.