Hot rod frenzy

Story highlights

  • George Brainard was the official photographer for The Kontinentals car club
  • The attendees of the vintage car shows inspired his upcoming photo book
  • "All Tore Up: Texas Hot Rod Portraits" will be released March 1

(CNN)For five years, George Brainard was the official photographer for The Kontinentals, a car club based in Austin, Texas.

He directed his camera toward the spring Lonestar Round Up, the club's car show with vintage "hot rods" and custom rides from all over the country. And he shot its fall Day of the Drags Race, photographing American-made cars created no later than 1963.
Over time, the number of cars at the events increased from about 100 to 2,000. But it was the people, not the cool cars, that grabbed Brainard's interest and inspired his black-and-white photo book "All Tore Up: Texas Hot Rod Portraits."
    "I find pictures of people more interesting than anything else," he said. "The people at these car shows I just thought (were) really, really interesting and cool-looking, and so I wanted to capture that. Also, it was something that nobody else was doing. You know, there were a bunch of people taking pictures of the cars, but there was nobody who was really documenting the people and the culture in the way that I ended up doing."
    Photographer George Brainard
    When Brainard started creating these portraits, he used only white seamless paper as the backdrop. This later created weather-related challenges, such as movement from the wind.
    So he decided to paint a large piece of canvas white to use as the backdrop, and then he secured it to a box truck so it would stay in place.
    He also used a silk-lighting technique, stretching translucent fabric over a steel frame.
    "(Silk lighting) just sort of softened the harsh sunlight, and that way I could get really pretty light all day so I wasn't just restricted to shooting in the early morning and late-afternoon hours," Brainard said. "I could shoot any time. It just makes a really pretty soft light on the people."
    Based on today's Internet culture and the efforts people make to maintain their privacy, Brainard was uncertain about what people's reactions would be to him wanting to create their portraits.

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    "I would just sort of hang out and watch people walk by," he said, "and when there was somebody that I thought was interesting ... I would just walk up and ask them (for their portrait). ... Almost everybody said yes. It was kind of remarkable. I would photograph generally 80 or 100 people in a day, and I'd have maybe one or two people say, 'No thanks.' Almost everybody else said yes."
    Making people feel at ease in front of the camera was especially important to Brainard. He always made an effort to engage in conversations with his subjects and briefly get to know them. He also used a 70-200 millimeter lens, allowing him to maintain a distance of about 20 feet from those he was photographing.
    This was essential to ensuring that each person felt a sense of comfort, because they were provided with their own personal space in which they could let their personalities radiate and reflect straight to the camera.
    "I wouldn't direct (the people) much," he said. "For the most part, I just told people where to stand and let them be themselves."
    When creating each portrait, Brainard asked his subjects to write a description about themselves.
    From short captions -- such as merely "drunk" -- to quotes and page-length stories, the descriptions serve as the captions throughout his book.
    Much thought went into each of the 62 portraits included in the book, and together the portraits show a diverse selection of the people who have attended the events. However, the title of the book was just as important to Brainard, who generated ideas for the title with a friend.
    "The idea of the title was that it was more like the title of a song," Brainard said. "There's a real sort of musical aspect to this scene, and (my friend and I) liked the idea of the title being something that was more like a blues song and that would have that sort of energy to go along with this gritty, real, ultra-realism kind of feel."
    From Brainard's portraits, it is evident that people themselves are like living works of art, externally embellished in expression and internally rich in history and meaning.
    One way of illustrating this is through Brainard's decision to shoot in black and white instead of color.
    "I (feel) like the black and white here, I think that it sort of takes (people) out of reality a bit and makes them sort of more iconic," Brainard said. "I like that it makes them look more like a piece of art. I think these portraits are almost sculptural in some ways. They're very simple, very direct, and I think the black and white helps with all of that."
    Brainard is a sixth-generation Texan whose work has appeared in numerous publications and advertisements. A former working musician, Brainard has also shot more than 50 CD covers, and today he specializes in portraits.
    He said he has learned a tremendous amount from undertaking this project -- about everything from photography and creating photo books to working with people and making his subjects comfortable.
    "In April is the big car show where I've taken a lot of these pictures," he said. "I'm really looking forward to taking the book to that and to the people who are in the book and the people who are part of the culture seeing the book and getting their response."
    "All Tore Up: Texas Hot Rod Portraits" is Brainard's first photo book and will be released on March 1.
    "I would say the overall message of the book is ... about how we're all more similar than we are different and about the connection and real honesty and rawness in these images," he said. "I feel like (the subjects) are really real, and it really comes across. I feel like they're very open with me in these pictures. I hope that (this) comes across to people."