Automotive History Through a Lens – My Canon Workshop At The Petersen

The Petersen Museum has been a big part of my life as an automotive enthusiast. Since I grew up in Los Angeles, it’s one of those things that have been in and around my life. Through my periods of growth, I have unique memories of the Petersen. From when I was a young child to when I was going through college, at each major stage in my life I had a visit to the museum that was experienced in a different way.

Initially, it was my parents taking me to the museum. Then it was my friends that I went with to experience it. Each time, it always felt like it was something unique and bigger than me. It was my dream to have the chance to put my stamp on the Petersen. But was almost like I could not really be a part of it and was only just experiencing it as an outsider. Which I was, of course.

The cars that are there are all unique and have a history. From movie cars like the DeLorean DMC-12 used in the Back to the Future movies, historic cars used by famous or infamous people written in history books I read about in school, to race cars driving by guys like Dan Gurney or Bobby Rahal. It’s impossible to think that you’ll make a mark big enough in history to be worthy of being a part of a museum. I think, to think like that, you have to have a very large ego.

Then you have The Vault down in the lower garage. Here, a lot of the time, these cars are awaiting restoration or waiting to be displayed at the perfect time. Some may not ever be seen. Down here is where the real history begins for the Petersen but you normally aren’t allowed to photograph down in the vault.

That’s what made my second Canon Workshop a special experience for me and my students. The Petersen opened their doors for us and only us for just one night. It was certainly a humbling experience to know that the Petersen would allow this to happen with me leading the way. It made me so happy to know that I was giving some of the students a truly unique experience.

Normally, the Petersen is open to the public and photographing these cars is very difficult as people can suddenly walk in your way. It makes it very hard to concentrate on shooting the cars. That can be disappointing because the cars are not only positioned in a visually appealing way, but also lit up so well over most museums.

I suppose it helps that Robert E. Petersen, the founder of the museum and the Petersen Publishing Company, was also the original publisher for Hot Rod Magazine, Car Craft, Motor Trend and others we take for granted today.

It has always been important to him to keep the cars positioned to be pleasing to the eyes and in photos. While he may have passed in 1997, the staff keeps that legacy alive. With it being closed for us, it allowed the students to get as many new angles as they could.

Some of the cars they were allowed to shoot were part of the Roots of Monozukuri, a Japanese automotive exhibit that featured a few cars that I had shot like the Kenmeri Skyline with a RB26-swap and the 2015 Formula Drift Championship winning Scion tC of Papadakis Racing, driven by Fredric Aasbo.

While the cars down under aren’t positioned as well as the cars above ground, you still can’t ignore the history in the vault. It was also recently expanded with new lighting and over 100 new cars. The students were the first allowed to photograph these cars and were the first public viewers of the updated collection. They had to learn how to work with the poor lighting, tight confines, and the large contrast of cars. You could have a multi-million dollar Ferrari right beside a Volkswagen Beetle and having to find a way to work with that is a challenge.

The one thing that tied this workshop to my Canon Workshop and the Thermal Club was the Alain Prost Honda McLaren Formula One car. At Thermal Club, there was a model of the car on display in one of the garages we worked in. In the Petersen Vault, we got to shoot the real thing. It just shows the opportunities that can open up if you keep pushing yourself and your photography.

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