John Thawley: Automobile Racing Photography

John Thawley is a photographer who is best known for his automobile racing photography. Thawley travels extensively throughout the year shooting the full schedules of American Le Mans Series, SPEED World Challenge Series and select Grand-Am, and Indy Racing League events. Thawley’s racing images have been featured in print for companies such as Acura, Cadillac, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lexus, Maserati, Mazda, Raybesto in the pages of Autoweek, USA Today, SportsCar, Vette and others. Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe  conducted this interview.

Q: Hi, John, how did you get started in photography? When did you realize that photography would be your job?

A: Well, fortunately photography never feels like a job… but as far as it morphing into a career, I suppose it happened sometime in the early part of the new millennium. I’ve been a serious enthusiast since the early 80′s shooting with Pentax SLRs and a Leica R2. While I did get to dabble in the darkroom back in high school, I sort of pulled away when that became the next logical step for me as an enthusiast. First, I preferred shooting transparencies and second, I wasn’t prepared to start dedicating part of the house and budget to a darkroom. I’m known for not doing things half way…. a darkroom just wasn’t in the cards. For a few years, photography fell by the wayside.

Ultimately, it was digital photography that allowed me to jump in all the way. My graphic design company shifted to Internet based initiatives in the early 90s building web sites and intranets for commercial entities. We built sites for the Detroit Lions, the Cranbrook Educational Community and Penske Motorsports, among others.

The Penske project is the one that pulled me back into photography. That project required “live” updating. We were managing the web sites for the five speedways owned by Penske at the time. They wanted the web site to feature event photos of people and activities taking place on race weekend. Armed with a digital camera, I made that happen. I was back having fun with photography. And since I had a full grasp of Photoshop, I now had my darkroom. Shortly thereafter, Canon released an affordable DSLR – the Canon D30, and I’ve never looked back.

Q: You are specialized in trackside photography, covering from American Le Mans, SCCA World Challenge, Grand American Series, Trans Am, and IndyCar and other several races. What is the knowledge that a photographer of this kind must possess?

A: After working with Penske, I was able to add other clients and expand my customer base in the motorsports community. Keep in mind I was based out of Detroit, so automotive clients were also part of my customer base. Things just kept evolving. I found I was able to provide turnkey solutions managing photography, web sites and public relations for motorsports and automotive-based clients.

Like any business, I’ve had to adjust and evolve. Given we were in on the ground floor of the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, business changes were fast and furious. Photography moved to the forefront of my business and I’d have to say my design and marketing background has allowed me to leverage it successfully.

Over my fourteen years covering auto racing, my favorite place to shoot, by far, is the American Le Mans Series. I’ve attended over 100 events and something like 90-95 consecutive races as a credentialed photographer. I also shoot as the official photographer for the Trans Am Series.

Shooting trackside is a very unique experience. Like anything else though, it takes time to grasp your role. Shooting commercially, editorially and artistically are three different things. As an artist, you have to find a balance of delivering product that pleases your client while feeding your personal aesthetic needs. Of course, your aesthetic needs change and grow over the years. If you’re truly a creative type, you’re never really satisfied. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the customer often gets in the way of the creative. But that’s the dance you dance.

What I think is amazing about shooting motorsports is the demand it places on you photographically. The opportunities for producing “art” seem to be endless. Yet, by the same token, they’re not always in reach. You have boundaries. Safety is always an issue. Photographers constantly find themselves pushed further and further away from the track. We’re continually losing access to shooting locations. And promoters give video, specifically television, priority over still photography. So we’re always working to hold our ground both trackside and on pit lane. Tracks provide designated locations called “photo holes” cut into the fences for photographers to shoot through. The good guys think outside the hole.

Technically, motorsports throws everything at you. First, your shooting conditions aren’t within your control. Races often start early afternoon… the light is awful. Second, things happen faster than fast. Your equipment is very important. When I’m trackside my 500mm f/4 is always mounted on a body and with me. In motorsports, a 500mm is your standard lens… seriously. I carry a second body with a 70-200 f/2.8 mounted and a third body with either a 24-105mm or 16-35mm.

The 500mm is the staple. But it’s not simply used for tight shots or filling the frame. It’s an incredibly creative tool… once you understand it and learn how to take advantage of it. For instance, candid headshots with a 500mm are drop dead gorgeous. The subject isn’t aware of you and wide open at f/4, the bokeh can rival a Noctilux. They’re stunning. The compression of a 500mm gives the lens a look of its own. The narrow focal angle (5 degrees) gives you opportunities to thread it like a needle through fences, trees, fuel rigs… even around corners. Not really, but it sometimes feels that way.

The action in the American Le Mans Series is amazing. Since it’s endurance racing, we shoot races that are four, six, ten and even 24 hours long. Shooting sunsets and after dark can be a creative orgy. You get flames, glowing brake rotors, cars jumping curbs and pit crews leaping into action. The cars are traveling the length of a football field in less than a second. It’s a rush.

I honestly feel motorsports can prepare you for almost any other form of photography. But, you’d better know the fundamentals, both technical and compositional, and you’d better know your gear. It’s fast, furious and there are no do overs.

Q: Apart from the car racing photography what genre attracts you the most?

Glamour and portrait are my favorite and primarily using available light.

I love shooting women. They are fascinating. I think there is a mental side of working with women that is uniquely satisfying. I like the one-on-one working relationship you can have with a woman. They’re complex both visually and emotionally. They are very much invested in their appearance and they really want to give you their best. You find yourself wanting to return the favor.

I always feel a strong obligation to protect the feelings of a woman. I never want them to look bad. I love when a woman sees her picture and says “wow… I look amazing.” That makes it fun and extremely satisfying. But to get there, you have to have respect for the woman. Know she’s intelligent, strong and not just fluff or eye candy.

I think in this day and age, society tends to want to play down “pretty,” and I think women are sensitive to that. Sitting for glamour shots means a woman is going against that notion and allowing herself to celebrate her looks and her sex appeal. You have to respect that and be a supportive friend throughout the process.

Q: Do you work on assignment at the car events?

A: I work on annual contract with teams, manufacturers and drivers. While you’ll see my images in online galleries, I don’t do editorial work or assignments. Most of my work will end up being used for promotiona or commercially. Images are used for everything from a driver’s “hero” autograph poster to use on the side of a car transporter. Commercially I’ve had ads appear worldwide for Mazda, Lexus, Cadillac, Jaguar etc.

Q: Is there a car that you still are not able to photograph and would like to capture in a picture?

A: Not really. I’ve shot some amazing cars. And while I like cars and I like racing, I’m not a major race fan. I don’t watch racing on TV.

If there were anything automotive on my bucket list it would be to shoot The Goodwood Revival in England. I’d probably love to shoot the entire event with a Leica and in black and white, but it would be a bit foolish to risk not taking my motorsports gear as well.

Q: In your blog you write, “the making of the photo with a Leica is an experience only the Leica owners understand,” and still “shooting with my M9 is as enjoyable as a good cigar or single malt scotch”: this is a total declaration of love.

A: I’ve learned not to be a gear fanatic and often preach against new photographers getting all wrapped up in equipment.

I don’t feel owning a Leica contradicts that philosophy. Sure, there’s something to be said about owning the best. But when you look at what makes Leica “the best,” it’s not about auto focus, mega pixels, face recognition or the usual bullet points listed in most camera ads or brochures. While a Leica product will still provide plenty of meat for the pixel peepers out there, it’s not what the Leica is about.

I don’t smoke cigars as much as I used to. But when I do, that’s what I’m doing. I’m sitting there enjoying the taste and the time to myself. It’s the same with single malt scotch. It’s a selfish personal indulgence… it’s my time and I’m going to sit there and simply “log-off.”

For me, my time shooting with the Leica is similar. It is about the personal shooting experience. Yes… a Leica camera produces beautiful images through the disciplined build and design parameters of a company committed to a single product / brand philosophy. But for the user, the process is deliberate; holding the camera in your hands, seeing and assessing a scene, bringing the camera to your eye, applying your creative thoughts to what you see in the viewfinder and ultimately squeezing the shutter. Leica makes sure you’re rewarded for your effort.

I’m not thinking about the camera when I’m shooting with a Leica. Sure,  shooting with a rangefinder is an acquired taste and by all means, there’s a learning curve. I just like how the tool becomes transparent in the picture taking process. I love the analog controls. The typical gadgetry of taking pictures is gone and out of my way. I’m left with a calm sense of confidence that comes when you work with the best.

As a Leica user, it’s a satisfying experience using a tool that remains true to its heritage and its founder’s philosophies. Certainly, anyone who has struggled to be the best they can be while searching for customers willing to compensate you for your efforts, has to admire Leica and the Leica brand.

When you’re into it, shooting with a Leica is like nothing else. It’s crazy, but it’s all I want to do.

Q: Do you use Leica equipment also for your commercial work?

A: I do try to integrate the Leica when I can. Using a rangefinder to shoot motorsports is very difficult. Not impossible, but extremely challenging. Obviously, you don’t have the conveniences of newer DSLRs. Even when you’re shooting off track, everything and everyone is moving quickly.

Still, I’ll keep the camera with me and always make sure I use it throughout the weekend. It provides me with a different and often fresh point of view. For the most part, I’ll shoot only black and white. I do a lot of people shots with it. Surprisingly people who might know me will recognize when I’m shooting with my M9. I’m often asked by drivers to take their picture with “that” camera. It’s become a bit of a trademark for me.

I described shooting with my Leica to someone the other day, this way; “It’s like I drive a bus for a living. At work with my DSLRs I’m driving the bus. When I’m at home or on my days off, I like to drive the Leica.” I rarely shoot with a DSLR when I’m home.

Q: Have you tried the Leica M Monochrom? What are your thoughts about a camera that produces only black and white images?

A: I have not had the opportunity to shoot with the Monochrom. I hope to later this year at Leica Akadamie in Miami.

I can tell you in advance, I want one. The higher ISO capabilities are very appealing and I have no hesitation about owning a camera that shoots only black and white. I also believe in the philosophy behind the technical rationale of having a “naked” sensor. I think the Monochrom has the potential to open up new digital territory for fine art black and white printing.

As an audiophile, the approach reminds me of early CD recorded music. Unlike analog (vinyl) playback, the end user couldn’t tweak equipment endlessly at the playback end of the equation. With records you could tweak and change things to your heart’s content hoping to reach listening nirvana. Not so with a CD. You put the disc in the player and you were done. What you got was what you got. It took recording engineers to ultimately address the equipment and methods at the front end of the recording chain to really begin rivaling analog sound.

As I see it, we’ve been looking at digital printing mimicking the analog results. And we’ve done that well. But Monochrom seems to be more like a clean sheet approach aimed at providing new options at the “performance” end. To use Ansel Adam’s analogy, “if the negative is the score, the print is the performance.” At least that’s my take on it.

I admire Leica for taking a leadership role using their position in the industry and making this sort of commitment. I don’t think anyone else could have pulled it off. I’m sure others could have committed technically… but it probably would have been received as a novelty, given the size and goals of their markets. Leica has established itself as the leader in quality image making devices. I think it behooves all photographers to have them continue pushing the envelope and improving image making… rather than mindlessly producing endless new models just to feed the needs of a gadget hungry marketplace.

Q: How would you define your style?

A: I would like to think ‘honest.’ I want to see something and show the viewer what I saw.

That said, we all see things differently. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld sees the same world we all see, but he has a way of making us see humor in the reality of everyday events. So, while I want you to see the scene, I want you to see it as I saw it. As a photographer, that requires that you be brutally honest with yourself.

I process my images using Apple Software’s Aperture. I haven’t upgraded Photoshop since CS3. I don’t want to engage in heavy pixel manipulation. I simply want to coax the details of an image only to strengthen what I saw… the interpretation that was in my mind. If I’m shooting a sunset and am standing there in awe, I want the viewer of my image to experience that same “wow” factor.

Of course, the point of view in the final image is often exaggerated. We all embellish our stories… we’d be cheating our viewer if we didn’t. But I don’t like post-processing fingerprints. I want to show images that are exciting, a touch surreal, while remaining honest.

Q: Your blog is really interesting. I enjoy reading your articles. Is it important for a professional photographer to stay in the Internet today?

A: My blog unfortunately falls victim to my lack of time and discipline. But, yes… web presence is a must.

If you’re a musician and no one hears your music, what’s the point? You’ve got to get your work in front of people. It’s like the old argument about a tree falling in the forest… if no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Photography is like that… and digital has made it even more so. You can’t view my work if it is just stored on my hard drive, right? Photos should be seen and shared.

Many photographers worry to a fault about images being stolen. I’m not concerned. It’s part of the landscape. Sure, I’ll pursue a violation and take action if an image is misused or used without authorization, but I’m not going to build my business model around it. I want people to see and enjoy my work.

One of my favorite features of Facebook is photo sharing. I do a gallery after each race called Faces at the Races. I tag the names of drivers or personalities so the image appears on that person’s personal page. They enjoy it, their friends enjoy it… and guess what, I enjoy it. I’m not losing money… and I don’t take photos wondering if I’m going to make money.

Q: What is so far the milestone in your career?

A: Wow… I don’t know how to answer that.

I think it’s meaningful to receive comments and encouragement from other photographers – photographers I admire. The fact that there photographers I admire also referred to as peers is very satisfying. It’s a nice thing to know you’re included in a select group.

That said though, I’m never satisfied. I shoot 5000 images on a given race weekend. Maybe 750 of those are viable “inventory.” Of that 750, 200 or so will go to clients, maybe 60-80 will go in online galleries, then edited to 20-30 on my web site. After that, if one or two of those images make it to my portfolio it was a good weekend.

I’m never really happy… well, no, that’s not right, I’m happy. I’m never really satisfied. I always see something in an image I might have done better or differently.

My favorite quote is by Robert Hughes – “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

Q: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

A: I want to do a collection of driver portraits using available light and all in black and white.

I don’t want candid shots. I want to do sittings. I also don’t want to end up with promo-style “thumbs-up” headshots. I want the style to be personal… so it may take a couple of years to gather the images.

I’m working toward it, but the logistics pose a problem because everyone is focused on their job during race weekends. Even me.

Thank you for your time, John!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of John’s work, visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.