Brenda Priddy has spent 24 years as the world’s top automotive spy photographer. Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to avoid her lens, while gear heads and competitors have delighted in sneak peeks of her camouflaged-car photos, as they’ve landed on international magazine covers and news.Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to avoid her lens, while gear heads and competitors have… Click To Tweet
Here’s the story of Brenda Priddy’s accidental break into the automotive-spy photography world, and why she’s now trading spying summers in Death Valley for leading group tours to Cuba, exploring and capturing its famed classic car culture.
What’s your background, and how’d you get your start as an automotive spy photographer?
I was always into photography, since I was 4-5 years old, when my brother gave me my first camera. But I wasn’t into cars.
I’m originally from Cleveland, and moved to Arizona when I was 20, at the spur of the moment. I was tired of the snow and blizzards. In 1992, I was in Arizona, working part-time as a bookkeeper, and staying at home with my kids a lot, as well as owning a small commercial photography studio in my home.
One day, I was heading home from an appointment, and had my two toddlers in the back seat. We passed a grocery store, and I’d noticed two camouflaged cars in the parking lot. So I went home, got my camera, went back, and took some pictures of what was a very lightly camouflaged 1994 Ford Mustang. I sent the photos in to Automobile, and one wound up on the cover of the magazine. At the time, I figured that would be it: my 15 minutes of fame.
I lived four houses down from a circular road where Ford used to test its vehicles. It was a residential street with a 35mph-speed limit and no stop signs. It was just a nice circle for them to drive and do some testing. Because of my prime location, I got calls from the top European car magazines. They’d given me a list of test cars and prototypes they wanted photos of. The first two summers, I saw the Mustang, Thunderbirds, European Ford Mondeo, a minivan, and Lincoln Continental.
It wasn’t necessarily easy – I was threatened, followed and received upset phone calls. But at the same time, I thought, ‘Wow I can do this for other companies,’ and so it just kind of happened. Ken Gross wound up interviewing me for a Playboy story, depicting me as the mom with the babies in the back seat, beating out the pros.
The first big assignment came from a European car magazine; that wanted me in Death Valley for two weeks, during hot-weather testing, so we took a so-called ‘family vacation’ to Death Valley. When my kids were younger, we’d spend one week there, plus a long weekend in the summer. Once they were adults, I’d move out there for about four months every summer, and have spent many long weekends there. I’ve spent 20 years doing that.
Over time, I brought on a partner in Europe in Germany, and we must have both had at least ten people working for us, full time. Our team has spent time all over the world – Canada, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in Sweden near the Arctic Circle, Australia for hot weather testing, Germany, you name it.
What were some of the biggest “gets,” or favorite cars, you’ve spotted as automotive spy photographer?
It’s hard to choose. Some of the biggest moneymakers were unexpected cars. One was a car called a Subaru SUT. It was being test-marketed on the east coast, in New England, and there wasn’t one anywhere else. I found out about it, called a car dealer, and spoke to a salesman, telling him I’d pay him to send me some pics. He did, and it was a rainy day, so the photos weren’t terrific. Anybody could have gotten a photo just like that, and even though the car was technically out, magazines and industry publications couldn’t get enough of it!
Also, shortly after I started, in the mid 90s, I captured a Ford minivan that was heavily camouflaged. For some reason – I have no idea why – it was a big photo.
Then, one of longest selling photos was of the Isuzu Amigo. That photo sold every month for 18 months around the globe. It was rather humorous. It was old news, but somehow it was of interest to the readers and the editors.
My motto is, ‘Shoot first and ask questions later.’ Especially early on, I could never know what would interest any given editor.
How has the industry changed over the years?
Back when I started, about one-in-ten photos used to sell, and now it’s even fewer. So much of what people see on the road has already been seen.
Another way it’s changed is that editors and publishers encourage their readers to shoot photos. A lot of publications don’t pay professional photographers for spy photos anymore.
And it’s happening everywhere – if you watch the news, or the weather the anchors are saying, ‘Send us your weather photos,’ requesting photos of what viewers are seeing. 25 years ago, those outlets would have paid professional photographers to cover the news, or weather, and now they don’t. That’s the biggest thing that’s changed. A lot of publications won’t even pay people off the street unless they ask for it. They take what people will give them for free.
I love the work, but it wasn’t paying the bills like it used to, given it required so much time. I decided a couple of years ago to do, see and experience different things. I even stopped going to Death Valley, even though summers there had become a part of my life, because truly it didn’t make sense anymore.
What’s your next step?
I’ve decided to work on developing photography more as a fine art. I’m working on my portfolio. I’ve had one wonderful exhibit, and have spoken, along with some other photographers, at the Peterson Museum.
I’ve also been leading tours to Cuba, on people-to-people cultural exchanges, called “Cuba’s Classic Cars with Brenda Priddy.” We spend time with people in the car culture of Cuba.
2013 was my first trip to Cuba, and at the time, I wasn’t aware that Americans could go there on these cultural exchanges. I’d gone through a local public-radio station, which had hosted a tour. I came home and thought, ‘This is a wonderful place. I know so many people in the car business, and I want to take them back and share this with them,’ so have begun hosting tours there. It’s interesting because we can witness change every time we go. We meet different people, and visit different places.
The next trip we’ll take is in October 2016, and we’ll be staying in people’s homes, like a B&B. We embrace the true spirit of the cultural exchange, and really do interact with the Cubans. Our Cuba trips are awesome. They’re usually about one week long. We fly out of Florida, and can even get our passports stamped. The Cuban people are wonderful, and it’s a very safe place.
Now that the regulations have loosened up, people think they can just book tours to Cuba right now. But it’s still illegal to go from the U.S. as a typical tourist, and then hang out at the beach for a week. Legally, you have to fit into certain categories, and there are regulations around what you can do. Airlines will open up flights to Cuba soon, but still, to travel there, you must be engaged in one of the 12 sanctioned activities.
I’m working with a small agency, so we can do completely custom trips to Cuba. For example we’re planning a trip in February, where we’ll recreate a retired Ford designer’s parents’ honeymoon to Cuba in 1938. We transferred all the old honeymoon photos from 8mm photos to DVD, and looked through and realized: wow – nothing has really changed since 1938! It was exciting to confirm, ‘I can take you to all these places!’ so he can experience what his parents had done, and try to reproduce it. We’ll look for all the landmarks – the buildings all look the same, and only the clothing is very different. It was much more formal back then, with women wearing dresses, and men wearing suits.We’ll recreate a retired Ford designer’s parents’ honeymoon to Cuba in 1938...nothing has really… Click To Tweet
I work with Matt Smith, who does all the hard work of organizing the tour, the licensing and visas. And if members of our group have any special requests – say they want to go to baseball game – Matt will get them baseball tickets. My job is to share the experience with wonderful groups of people. So far, it’s been a great mix of auto-industry people and car enthusiasts. The groups are usually around ten people, and can be as large as 18. A lot of the other tour companies have 40 or more people. We have a really well sized group, and each tour is a little different than the last, partly because I want to see different things.
Matt has probably been to Cuba 60 times, and he’s based in Austin, Texas. What makes him different is that he establishes friendships with the Cuban people. Last time I was in Cuba, while our tour was visiting an art museum with a Cuban tour guide, Matt took me to visit his friends at a local apartment, so we could see their home. I don’t speak Spanish but I was so grateful that they shared their home with me, and they were glad to have an interested visitor. Matt’s familiarity with Cuba and with the Cubans, offers unique opportunities for me, as well as for those joining our tours.
How do you promote your Cuba tours?
I promote the tours via my social media, and at events. I’m in Michigan this week for a concours, and will talk to people about it. And I’ve printed out some postcards with pictures of Cuba. That’s it! I haven’t done advertising or anything – it’s all been via word of mouth. People who’ve gone on trips before tell other people.
Is there anything you bring with you for the locals?
Average Cuban citizen makes about $25/month, so we always try to leave something behind, whether they’re car parts, or things people often request. It’s only 90 miles away from Key West, but it’s completely different world.
Sometimes we ask before we go, we’ll ask who needs what. If, along the course of a trip, there’s a taxi driver who needs something for his car – like fuses or light bulbs – Matt will hunt down the guy and bring him the parts on our next trip. We try to do little things like that. Or if someone we know has a baby, we’ll bring baby clothes. Matt knew someone who had a 5-year old daughter, and brought her a suitcase of toys for her birthday.
Two popular items to bring to Cuba are writing pens and bars of soap. Apparently the soap that they receive, along with food rations, is very harsh on their skin. So when we see people on the street, they’ll ask for soap or for writing pens. Before I go, I stock up on pens and pencils.
There are lots of little things that we take for granted, that they don’t. We don’t want to be the typical tourists. Our groups try to interact with people like we’re supposed to. We really get in and meet the people, and we sing songs… it’s amazing. We try to keep it like it was meant to be.