Burnout: The photographer who found beauty in hot rods

Story highlights

  • Simon Davidson has built a career photographing bizarre but beautiful hot rods
  • His photos are inspired by the passion of the people behind Australia's unique car culture

(CNN)They are loud, proud and surprisingly beautiful despite the acrid smell of burnt-rubber that lingers in their wake.

Australia's hot rod cars -- custom-designed vehicles built for land speed racing, burnouts or drag racing, among other motor sports -- are as colorful and varied as the people that create them.
    And photographer Simon Davidson has spent the past fourteen years capturing that beauty, and the unique culture and people that surrounds it, in spectacular detail.
    "Cars are so powerful to us as humans and I find that a really interesting part of car culture," he says. "I just found something here in Australia that no one else had looked at. And it's a culture that wasn't celebrated I don't think."

    Street car inspired

    Davidson, a car-loving Australian who spent many years in the U.S., originally honed his photographic skills on years of fashion and music shoots in Los Angeles. When he returned home, he says he was looking for something that would help him build his own artistic style outside of his corporate work.
    "One thing I did learn from all the top photographers that I was working with and who I admired out in the field was that they had these strong bodies of work and personal work that told a little story about themselves," says Davidson.
    Although a sharp contrast to the carefully manicured world of fashion, a trip to watch off-street drag racing one night with a friend proved the spark he needed and left him intrigued by the beauty of the cars and the "really blind passion' of the people who build and race them.
    Post-burnout
    "I looked around at the cars and loved them but it was the people that got me," he says. "I'd never seen so many weird and wonderful people."
    That chance drag-race lead to a long career photographing cars, both in Australia and the U.S., for commercial and editorial commissions, but Davidson says it's his personal work capturing Australia's car culture that has allowed him to grow and define his body of work as a photographer.
    "I go searching for the snippets of peacefulness in these photographs and I try and rip everything else away and show you something that is quiet and serene," he says.

    A shared passion

    Many Australians are wildly passionate about cars, with the culture fueled by the nation's vast open spaces -- Australia's national Highway One that skirts the entire coastline is approximately 14,500 km long -- and once-healthy domestic car manufacturing industry.
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    It's also sparsely populated compared to many other nations and, as Davidson explains it, most Australians have fond -- or sometimes fraught -- memories of at least one very long, scenic road trip cocooned in a car with family or friends.
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    People's fierce allegiance to either Ford or Holden -- two of the country's founding car manufacturing brands -- is also a quirky national bond that runs as deep in many Australians as their passion for the football team they support.
    "Having the space in this country, having our own manufacturing, having access to fossil fuels that helped define what car culture is but it's always shaping and changing and that's what I've found interesting," says Davidson.
    Speedweek Australia
    Davidson says that as he became more involved with photographing car culture, he came to understand that it's a world where cars are more about design and grace than a utilitarian need and that they become a shared purpose that bring people together.
    "It's that love of vehicles and it's a great big family -- I'm the media, they are car builders or car designers or promoters or racers or spectators or merchandise, we all fit into that great world somewhere together and without each other we don't have a go at it," he says.

    Beauty in the bizarre

    While people feature prominently in his work, Davidson manages to find grace in the hard and sometimes threatening world of hot rods, and many of his photos highlight the intricate construction of the cars, which ranges from the subtle to the totally outlandish.

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    He says the careful attention to the design of the cars and the often intricate paint work that adorns the vehicles -- be it murals, delicate pin-striping or the in-your-face candy-colored paint jobs -- are a work of art on their own.
    "When something is designed really well, there's a sense of harmony and balance. It's like a perfect song or the right tone, and it's the same with the lines on a car," says Davidson.
    It's this sense of balance between the metal and smoke of the cars and the light and the dark of the people that makes Davidson's work so eye-catching, although he thinks its another element altogether.
    "I look for the images that make my heart sing and that's how you find who you are as an artist," he says. "The only way I can photograph anything good is to photograph what I love."
    Scroll through the photo gallery above for a look at Davidson's work, and Australia's unique love of cars.