CD: Jim you have an incredibly graphic approach to your lighting and approach to cars. You bring out the sexiness, power and strength in vehicles. When I visited your studio a few years back you showed me your lighting kit – which was all tungsten. How did you develop your lighting style and who were your lighting influences?
Jim Haefner My approach to car lighting revolves around the idea of defining the designer’s intentions while making a dramatic statement. With the exception of keno flos in the last 10 years and the soft box in the mid 1980′s, an automotive studio lighting package hasn’t changed much since the 1950′s. Tungsten lighting, flying flats, cyc walls and eggshell coves have evolved but the basics haven’t really changed.
Car photography can be complicated but I was fortunate to have started my career when the photographers who shaped our notion of studio car lighting, Walter Farnyk, Vern Hammarlund, Dennis Gripentrog, Guy Morrison, Dick Reed, Jimmy Northmore and Mickey McGuire were still working. The work that they did is the basis for every studio car shot taken today.
I was also fortunate to have a mentor, the Campbell-Ewald (Chevrolet) creative director, Gene Butera, who constantly pushed me to create unique imagery. The idea was to deliver a finished piece of art on one sheet of film (or close to it), that discipline is what has allowed me to effectively produce the photographs I take now even though the workflow is so different.
CD: Our personal project on Significant Architecture in Michigan is the polar opposite of what many call, ruin porn; the depiction of the fall of Detroit. How did this project come to you and how has the response been – to the show and from clients?
Jim Haefner: I decided to celebrate the incredible architecture that was the result of Detroit’s historic success as the industrial center of the world. I feel that it’s too easy to make images that dwell on the decay of this city and while the images are riveting they only show one side of the equation. I wanted to tell the story of what survived. Right now Detroit is experiencing substantial redevelopment, while the long term problems haven’t been solved, progress is being made daily.
The city hit bottom a couple of years ago and has quickly rebounded in many areas. I don’t think my photography has contributed to this but the positive message is there and appreciated by those who view the images. The work I’ve produced so far has drawn the attention of Michigan’s Historic Preservation Office and I have produced a poster for their Michigan Modern initiative which opened at Cranbrook this summer and will reopen on the west side of the state next spring.
CD: Corvette – the new one is an incredible car. What was it like to be part of this project and to have the scoop on this re-imagined car?
Jim Haefner: The Corvette work I shot was for Road and Track’s cover story on the car. Every buff book was running cover stories for the same issue and was given time with the car, Road and Track was given greater access to the vehicle (I’m not sure why) then the other magazines and we were allowed to have the car a full day in my studio. I was excited about the opportunity because I had bid on the announcement photography (advertising) and didn’t get the project. I felt that the opportunity to shoot a car with so much attention and appeal would make for some great samples and create some interest in my work. The main concept was the cover image which was the car still in the semi’s trailer, we had GM load it with the front facing out so we could knock it off pretty quickly.
What I hadn’t counted on was the corporation deciding to clean the inside of the trailer because it was going to be part of the photograph, consequently they showed up about 90 minutes late. Anyways, we shot probably a dozen different views of the car and the feedback has been great. Probably the greatest compliment was from PDN who decided to run an article on how I made the cover image in the magazine a few months ago.
CD: You are exploring a few avenues outside of the traditional advertising photographer venue. You photographing a few private car collections. How did this come about and are you planning on shows or books from this material?
Jim Haefner: One of the country’s top automotive restoration specialists (Brian Joseph, Classic and Exotic Services) operates his business just a block from my studio. We were introduced by one of his clients, who was a friend of mine, probably twelve years ago and over the years I’ve photographed many of the incredible vehicles he’s worked on. More often than not I’ll stop by his shop (about 18,000 square feet) to see what’s new and discover a vehicle that’s so wonderful I just have to shoot it. Because of our association I’ve become involved with Detroit’s Concours d’Elegance and in addition to exhibiting my work there have now become a judge for the event. Through the Concours I’ve met a number of enthusiasts with substantial collections, I’ve had the opportunity to photograph a few of them which is always a great way to spend a few weeks.
Last month I installed a show of my photography which was primarily made up from the vintage car and significant architecture series I’ve been working on. The show was up for a month at the College for Creative Studies (Detroit’s art school) and the response has been tremendous! It looks as though there’s enough interest to put up a similar installation later next year at the Automotive Hall of Fame. I do have a book concept I’m working on but it’s such an ambitious project I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it a reality, time will tell.
CD: If you could photograph any vehicle in the world, what would it be and how would you approach it?
Jim Haefner: Actually, there isn’t a particular vehicle that I have to photograph but there is a project that I’d love to pursue. Six months ago I was sent files on a Cadillac brochure from the mid 50′s that was shot at GM’s Tech Center which had just been completed. The piece was elegantly photographed by, I believe, Walter Farnyk and consisted of probably a dozen different shots. The Tech Center now is considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of mid century modern design and I’ve had the opportunity to shoot it a number of times. What would be a dream assignment for me would be to recreate the Cadillac images from the 1950′s with Cadillac’s current models.
CD: What advice would you give to an aspiring automotive or architectural photographer entering the business now?
Jim Haefner: I was asked this question recently when I spoke to the photography students and faculty at CCS. I stressed the importance of combining still and motion imagery in your portfolio. I also talked about passion being a prerequisite for making a successful career in this business. I think the every photography market is filled with extremely talented people but that there’s always room at the top, if you have the talent and the initiative (and the patience) you’ll be successful. It does take time though.