Say Cheese, Chevy

People have portraits made of their babies, right? Babies take considerable preparation and require lots of loving care and regular checkups. Plus, you always have to keep an eye on their fluids. So it makes sense that some people might want to have formal portraits made of their automobiles. Right?

Mark Culbertson, auto-portraiture artist, thinks so. As a sideline to his regular job as an architectural, industrial and medical photographer, Culbertson is trying to establish himself as the local guy to call when you want to capture your vehicle on film. For about $150 (and up), he'll produce a high-quality color print of your baby.

Culbertson, kind of a car nut himself, owns four vintage Chevys and claims that one of his favorite leisure activities is photographing broken-down beater-mobiles in wrecking yards. He thinks that an occupational combo of cars and cameras would make for an ideal livelihood.

"I've always been kind of intrigued by the styling of the early postwar cars," says Culbertson, 35. "I'm rather partial to the mid-Fifties Chevrolets. I thought if I could combine my two favorite obsessions, it would be kind of a fun thing, plus I could turn a few bucks."

His technique often requires painstaking setup, and some of the shots (executed with a large-format camera) take several hours. "Lighting, of course, is everything," he says.

Despite all the careful craftsmanship, business so far has been slow. Culbertson has advertised in the Firebird Raceway newsletter, and does regular work for several of the Valley's hot rod shops, but so far there doesn't seem to be a market here for a full-time car photographer. Considering the slavish auto-devotion visible on a typical Saturday night at the intersection of Central and Thomas, there should be.

"It's not unusual for an individual to spend a period of years working on a car," Culbertson says. "It's certainly more than a means of transportation. You can get around town in a Daihatsu, for God's sake."

Culbertson says his favorite shoot so far has been a '55 Chevy Nomad, which he posed at night in front of a local 1950s-style diner. In this picture, the car is the star, and that's the way the artist likes it.

"I had a guy one time who had a rather sexy wife, and he wanted to have his wife in there, too," he says. "You see, in all the hot rod magazines they usually have some model in there. I would just as soon deal with the car, and photograph the woman on her own. To me, the woman becomes an accessory, like a tree or a statue."