Every so often, a photo shoot comes along, and in the middle of it, you find yourself taking a step back and mentally trying to reckon with the idea that you should be paying just to be there. Sometimes, it is the subject, and sometimes, it is the experience; the photo shoot I’m talking about today was a bit of both.
A while ago, I was contacted to photograph a very special car for a very special person. The car was a 1934 Chrysler Airflow, and it belonged to Jay Leno. It was also on this photo shoot that I would first meet Jay and spend time in his garage taking mental notes about the many facets and eclectic wonders of his car collection. Walking through the many aisles of cars is as if you are looking into Jay’s creative mind and seeing the idiosyncrasies that exist when he lays eyes on an automobile. Most garages are vapid when the cars are off, and you are alone, but in Leno’s garage, there is always life as it exists within the collection itself. There was a peace that lived in that warehouse; it propagated into the photo shoot, making for a sense of calm on set.
After a very relaxing (not a common descriptor of a photoshoot) day, we wrapped, and I headed to the Burbank airport, which is less than a five-minute drive from the collection. Speaking of the airport, one of my final moments in California, before heading back to Arizona, was spent at a hidden gem in one of the lesser used terminals where there is a non-assuming restaurant that has one of the best Mexican taco salads I have ever had. Yes, I took pictures of it, but we will keep this article as a cars-only piece when it comes to the visuals. But I digress.
Some time passed, and the images of Jay’s Chrysler Airflow were received well, not just by the client and the client’s audience, but by Jay himself. It was only a short time after that I would get a call from the same client with a very similar request. This time, I was to go to Jay Leno’s garage and photograph a selection of his Duesenbergs (you know you have a solid car collection when one can refer to a “selection” of a specific mark). I immediately agreed, thinking not of the job or budget but how much I wanted to return to that Mexican food place in the airport. Nonetheless, I was at Jay’s garage within the following month.
This photo shoot was not going to be as calm or as straightforward as the last one, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t make for an even better story. Upon arriving at the garage, the production crew of his YouTube series was wrapping up their day and were running behind schedule. We were supposed to photograph the Duesenbergs (four in all) the next day. Unfortunately, this was not going to be possible as they needed extra time in the garage to finish filming their episode.
I was standing outside the garage, talking with my client, the writer of the story, and Jay Leno (who was actively looking at the Airflow images from the previous shoot as we chatted) when we found this out. I knew that capturing all the cars we needed within the timeframe that we had was going to be difficult, and I made the comment that it would be great if you had an extra set of hands. Without any second thought, Jay said, “How about I assist?”
As you can imagine, the idea of his proposal found me both flabbergasted, confused, and elated. It still, to this day, doesn’t make sense that someone so successful and influential would be willing to do a chore that is well below them. That is unless you look at it through the lens of who Jay Leno is. Jay is obviously the celebrity and talk show host that millions around the world know him to be, but on his more private side, he is a car guy through and through and a man who possesses a level of humility that is rare in this world. He’s a person who truly can understand what life is like for everyone, no matter the strata they exist in. More than anything, Jay Leno is a man who cares.
With my very surprising crew, we proceeded to prep the lighting in the studio portion of the garage while Jay prepared the cars and personally drove them onto the set (and even around the block with the writer). Where this surreal experience takes a step into the complete befuddling of my consciousness is that Jay didn’t just move the cars but proceeded to do the single funniest commentary of a photo shoot the world has ever seen. Where I usually could have photographed one of the cars in 30 minutes, we would have taken an hour because Jay would have all of us rolling on the floor with the details he would tell us about the car. It was like taking a tour of a car museum and going to the stand-up comedy club combined.
One example of this was a maroon Dusenberg that had some kind of history where a famous debutante had swooned against it. Jay wasn’t about to just describe the event in words; no, he swung himself up against the car, laying over its hood and falling towards its front wheel. It is a very good thing that he is the owner of said car, as no one in their right mind would do such an action on a sheet of metal that costs more than most of our houses. However, for Jay, I could tell this was a way of letting us know we were welcome to be there and making us feel, even if just temporarily, a part of his life. It should go without question that we were laughing our asses off.
Another time, I had the lighting perfected for a side profile of the automobile when Jay walked up to the back door, opened it, and said, “Blair, come check this out.” Inside was one of the very first radios to ever be in an automobile. Not only did he know every part that existed on that car, but he knew the history behind it. The complexities of his mind baffle me as there seems to be a breath of knowledge so great, yet complemented by an interpersonal brightness. It is a combination that is rarely seen and a privilege just to be in the presence of.
As far as the setup went, one of the beneficial factors of photographing in a car collection, where a show is filmed, is that there is an abundant amount of lighting gear. However, Jay’s production runs off hot lights, and we needed to use strobes in order to close down the aperture.
What we ended up doing was taking Profoto B10X’s and pointing them at the overhead 30-foot softbox that is installed in his warehouse. That way we could control directionality, as well as the softness of the light. Complementing those, I had four to five direct lights and smaller softboxes used to dial in a style and tone for each car, as the lines differed greatly between a couple of them. The camera I used was the Nikon Z7 II. Little did I know, this would be my first experience with the camera I would take to the edge of space for a photo shoot. I loved the color and the dynamic range and lived on the 24-70mm f/2.8 S, dipping into the 70-200mm f/2.8 S and 14-24mm f/2.8 S for occasional details and interior shots.
It was truly the photo shoot that I never wanted to wrap. And now you can probably understand why, during many times onset, I took a step back to pinch myself and wonder if I should actually be paying just to be here.
What resulted were beautiful images of timeless automobiles, and I am grateful that Jay, amongst others, appreciated them. I say this not because of the want or desire to impress a celebrity but because of the satisfaction that comes with doing justice to the kind gesture of a humble man.
Thank you so much, Jay.