John O’Neill, also known as Johnny O, is the consummate car guy. He is not only part of the Southern California car culture (or Kulture as we like to call it), he has redirected his affinity for cars into his profession. When he isn’t shooting for clients like Vorsteiner, DUB Wheels and Icon Media, he is out shooting supercars, kustoms, hot rods, and off-road vehicles that would make any car guy drool. You can see his work in publications such as Truckin Magazine, Mini Truckin Magazine, Performance Auto & Sound. Just looking at his portfolio, you can tell Johnny O is comfortable working in many different environments, whether it be studio or outdoors. Johnny was good enough to let us into his world and find out what drives him.
It’s pretty obvious you’re passionate about cars. Who or what is responsible?
My Dad was always wrenching on cars while I was growing up. I remember he had a late 70’s Ford Ranchero, it was a terrible body style, but back then I thought it was the coolest thing on the planet, mostly because of this longhorn bull hood ornament that it had on the front. One night we turned onto our unlit, dirt road and he stopped the car and placed my little 7 year old self onto his lap. He said, “Son, you’re gonna drive Dad’s truck. Keep those bull horns in the center of the road, ok?” He worked the gas while I grabbed the steering wheel and concentrated with everything in my little body to keep the horns centered. That feeling of total control over a vehicle ignited something inside of me and the hug from my dad once I pulled the Ranchero into the driveway solidified the experience. Cars were my soul mate.
What made you want to get into photography?
I’ve always loved art, but I’m terrible at drawing anything. I wish I could be a Brian Stupski type of artist that can conceptualize in the brain and then create an exact replica with my hands, but unfortunately I’m more like a gorilla trying to communicate with a road flare. I discovered photography in high school and at first it was more of the process of developing negatives and then printing them in a darkroom that I fell in love with, but over time I figured out how to voice my artistic side through images. At some point in my early 20’s my love of vehicles and my passion for photography intersected and I started placing the two together.
Did you go to school for photography, or are you self-taught?
I spent a lot of time in the darkroom in high school, and when I say that, I mean I used to ditch entire days from school and spend all 9 hours of it in the darkroom. My teacher was a hippy-type and I think she just loved the fact that I wanted to spend so much time in there printing my work or other people’s work.
After high school I went to college and every course I took seemed like they were just rehashing the same material, but I begrudgingly went through it just so I could have more darkroom time. After a few years of college I interviewed for a position as Associate Editor for a truck magazine called Sport Truck and was hired. I dropped out of school and began my career.
Were there any particular photographers you looked up to?
When I first started I was oblivious to photographers names, all I knew was that in my bedroom growing up I had posters of all sorts of exotic cars like a white Lamborghini Police car with a 80’s bikini blonde in front of it. I have no idea who shot that, but I wanted to be that guy. Now I definitely have some photographers that I look up to in the automotive realm; Larry Chen, Douglas Sonders, Dale Martin, WIlliam Stern, Tim Wallace, John Jackson… There are literally so many amazing automotive photographers today that are ten times better than I am, I just feel blessed that I get to do what I love for a living.
Every photographer has a favorite tool they bring for shoots. Do you have a favorite?
I’m not kidding when I say that, but on a more technical side the obvious tools are a tripod and a shutter release cable. You asked for one, but to me those two tools, combined with a camera (and water) are necessary for almost every automotive shoot.
How do you determine what location will look best for each subject?
At a certain point as a photographer your brain just kicks into automatic scout mode. I’ve turned off highways just to check out factories or roamed around industrial complexes. Sometimes a perfect location exists and once you find it, you can throw anything in there and it will work. Others are more specific to a type of vehicle, great architecture can pump up a high end vehicle or raise the overall look of a stock vehicle. For me, a great landscape pretty much covers all of the bases, however these days I do find myself looking for specific surroundings based on the vehicle type.
Most commercial photographers have gone digital. Do you ever go back to film?
I’m 100% digital and I have been for years now, but the notion of building a darkroom tugs at my heart-strings for sure. I know Larry Chen, an amazing photographer for SpeedHunters.net, often shoots black and white film, develops it on his own and then scans it. That seems like a happy medium to me and possibly a direction I would try first.
Some cars have great stories. Have you had one with a particularly cool story?
Memorial vehicles are always amazing to see, especially when you talk to the family and friends that helped build it and get the story. I’ve done a few of those and you tend to spend some extra time making sure that every shot is right since it means everything to the people who built it.
Do you try to tell those stories in the photographs?
No, not unless the specific assignment calls for a “story” per say. Shooting a vehicle in a photojournalism sense includes much more than just the vehicle. Most of my assignments are just to make the vehicle look as great as possible either in a studio or outdoor location. I have nothing but admiration for the photographers that can approach a shoot in a photojournalistic sense, every single time.
You have a very diverse portfolio. Is there a certain type of car you prefer to shoot?
I’ll always have a love for laid out trucks, but I can’t say that’s what I prefer to shoot anymore. I like anything with a great set of body lines on it or even more so, a well designed and wrapped interior. On the opposite side of the spectrum though, I love shooting rat rods too. As a “car guy” I can appreciate anything that is truly built well in any specific genre.
Do you think it was your dad’s Ranchero that was responsible for your affinity of trucks?
It very well could be. I was a doe-eyed little boy that looked up to everything my father did and when he passed away when I was about 10 years old I found myself grasping onto anything I could to remember him by. He was artistic, could craft anything with his hands and had a natural sense of engineering. If the first vehicle I ever drove had a bed on it, chances are the last vehicle I drive will have a bed on it too.
Do you have a wish list of cars to shoot?
I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot quite a few super cars, but a short list would include the Lamborghini Veneno, Zenvo ST1 and a Ferrari Laferrari EvoXX. Body lines? Yeah, those cars pretty much have that covered.
Do you ever go to a car show and shoot for fun, or is it always work?
I go to car shows for fun and I’ll usually snap a few shots of the best looking vehicles, but going to a show and shooting the whole thing is generally work related – even that scenario is few and far between these days. I use car shows to drum up feature photo shoots for magazines, so my main focus is to find the best cars and meet the owners so we can setup a shoot that is off site.
Do you ever think of yourself as an ambassador to the car hobby?
Dear Lord, I hope I’m never considered an ambassador to anything! If my photos helped tell the story of the car hobby or actually got someone interested in the scene then I would definitely be ok with that.
Here we go… Top 10 favorite cars?
In chronological order…
-1953 Chevy Truck
-1965 Cadillac DeVille
-1970 Chevy Chevelle
-1972 Chevy C10
-2002 Toyota Tacoma
-2007 Ford Dually
-2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S
-2013 Lamborghini Veneno
-2014 Mercedes CLA 45 AMG
-2014 Ferrari Laferrari EvoXX
So, Let’s show some support for a great photographer, and a fellow car guy. Let us know which photo in this feature is your favorite!