Greenville, South Carolina-based William Crooks is an editorial and commercial portrait photographer. He has brought his authentic photographic style to publications such as British GQ, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and NBC News. Yet it is his latest project with returning client Road & Track that shows the magic in stepping outside of the familiar.
Road & Track is an American automotive magazine covering the newest cars headed to the market, vintage models, and drive reviews for race cars. Their stories come from all over the world, which is how William found himself traveling to Japan for this particular project. Along with Road & Track writer and senior editor Kyle Kinard, he captured Japan’s greatest car artisans in their own environment. After landing in Tokyo, they headed a few hours outside the city to visit the motor visionaries at Mine’s Shop and Built By Legends.
Something interesting about this project is that Road & Track is obviously an automotive publication. Yet they have worked with William, who specializes in portraiture, on multiple occasions. A look through William’s portfolio, however, shows something much more nuanced. William’s imagery often captures real individuals in their workshops, rooms, studios, and other spaces. They are surrounded by what they are passionate about, giving an intimate view of their personalities and lives.
For this assignment, I think the Road & Track team tapped me for a couple of reasons. One, I have shown in previous assignments for their magazine an ability to deliver dynamic and intimate images regardless of how difficult the circumstances may be. Another reason is the story included a mixture of portraiture of dedicated craftsmen in their spaces as well as car photography. My experience in environmental portraiture and my non-conventional approach to automotive photography made me uniquely equipped for the assignment.
The subjects of Road & Track’s article are revered for bringing Japan’s underground racing culture to the rest of the world. Designing and building the vehicles, most notably GT-Rs, these craftspeople blew up the import market in America. Their creations would also inspire not only Japanese culture but American as well. The Fast & The Furious franchise is perhaps the most notable example. This makes for an interesting plunge into a different world for a photographer so dedicated to capturing personal stories.
I had actually never photographed anything in the automotive space before my first assignment with Road & Track a little over a year ago. I give so much credit to the Road & Track art department. They saw my personal work on boxing and thought my style and intimate approach to portraiture would translate well to the automotive space. The trust they have given me on every subsequent assignment has been an absolute dream. I think of photographing a car no differently to how I would approach a portrait. I joke that I am the non-car-guy car-photographer.
My intent with these images was to capture the craftsmen and their incredible creations with a sense of intimacy that captures the time and attention to detail they put into building these custom cars. I want the viewer to feel what it was like to be in their presence. Car photography can feel sterile or overly perfect at times and I wanted to push away from that and give the imagery a more physical and emotive vibe.
The art department team pushes for distinct visual voices and often hires photographers who do not usually work in the automotive space to bring their individual photographic style to the automotive space. They really have pushed me to creatively problem-solve how to bring my style into the automotive space. Road & Track brings such unique visuals and conceptual frameworks to an industry that is often dominated by a few very specific visual approaches.
Some of the most striking imagery in William’s project are the photographs of the cars being driven. Even though his experience is grounded in shooting still settings, William embraced the challenge of capturing movement. And, in this case, the subjects were on the extreme end of fast with some going as fast as 196 miles per hour as well as 0-60 within 2.5 seconds.
For the driving shots, we were very fortunate as Katsu and Masa of Built by Legends had decided to bring us to a storied section of mountainous road in Hakone. The road has incredible curves and steep climbs that helped create more dynamic angles and a sense of movement in the images. The tough part was the majority of the road was only two lanes with very short sections where we had an extra lane to grab different angles for shooting car to car.
The hardest part was shooting out the sunroof of the van and trying to stay braced while we took sharp curve after sharp turn. While that is all going on you are trying to get a great composition with just the right amount of motion blur. I think I shot over 1,500 frames trying to nail just the right driving shots. I felt like I had been at sea for too long when I finally got out of the van and back onto solid ground.
It’s one thing to be a car photographer while not being a car enthusiast. It’s another story to work in Japan while not being a Japanese speaker. Yet within this, a different kind of communication was discovered.
For this job, the unique challenge I faced was the language barrier since several of the subjects spoke little to no English. I usually rely on my ability to connect with people by spending time talking with them before I ever pick up the camera. For this project, I instead relied heavily on hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate what I wanted in regard to body positioning. I believe the wordless trust that formed between me and these incredible craftsmen was based on our shared obsession with our crafts. I believe it was my own attention to detail with lighting and gesture that allowed me to create such emotional authenticity in these portraits.
Time was the most important factor in this shoot. William and Kyle had to visit three different locations in about a day and a half, which included many hours spent driving. Also, the difference between the East Coast of America and Japan is 13 hours. This resulted in debilitating jet lag with no room for adjustment.
The locations for the shoot were quite varied. From a small engine-building shop to hairpin-turn mountain roads to a massive warehouse space out in the Japanese countryside. When we arrived at each location I would quickly scout and create a concise shotlist of the standout ideas. This process allowed me to maximize time while also ensuring I captured the essential images needed for the story. Once those images were captured I would allow myself time to play and I always kept shooting until the very last moment at a location. You never know what little moment may turn into an incredible photo.
After wrapping the second day, William and Kyle found themselves in the chaos of desperately trying to find an ATM. They needed to purchase their Shinkansen (Bullet Train) tickets back to Tokyo in time for their flight home. Art loves to imitate life, yet sometimes it’s the other way around. After what William could only define as “an EXPERIENCE,” they made it home successfully. This goes to show the level of the unknown William was willing to put himself into.
This job showed me the value of diving into the deep end. I had never been to Japan or worked overseas on assignment. It was amazing to see how far I could push myself and what I could create even when jet lagged to the max.
See more of William’s photography on his website.
CEO & Co-Founder of Built by Legends: Masaharu Kuji
Co-Founder of Built by Legends: Katsu Takahashi
Rock & Track Writer: Kyle Kinard
Deputy Creative Director Road & Track: Cassidy Zobl
Creative Director Road & Track: Nathan Schroeder