Brian Bowen-Smith Frames Pandemic America in a Beautiful Vintage Ford

“I actually never even thought about looking at the world through my car until the pandemic,” photographer Brian Bowen-Smith tells us. “It’s a 1958 Ford F100 that can’t sit too long so every once in a while I will take it out for a spin…When I was photographing my neighbor I noticed that it looked really cool through all of the windows because of the curves.” And that’s how BBS Drivebys was born. So Brian took his truck and went on a true road trip around America during the pandemic. The result is a timeless look achieved by shooting with his Leica.

This story is presented in partnership with Leica. All images by Brian Bowen-Smith and used with permission. Check out his website and BBS Drivebys. Be sure to give the Leica M10 Monochrom a try for yourself!

The Essential Gear of Photographer Brian Bowen-Smith

“But one of the saddest moments and most emotional dealing with Covid is when I went and visited these Dairy Farmers. They were really, really, really having a rough time because of the pandemic with no one buying any milk. So sad, they couldn’t stop their operation because cows need to be milked every day. Even having to dump it sometimes because there weren’t trucks coming to pick it up. They were working with just the family and it was a massive farm. Everyone was pitching in just to keep their heads above water. It has been in the Family for generations. And they are in danger of losing it.”

Brian Bowen-Smith

Talk to us about how you first got into photography.

I originally got into photography through my gymnastics coach in high school and classes. That’s the only class I got an A in. Later, I revisited when I started dating my wife who at the time was a model and needed pictures for her portfolio. That trickled down to doing more pictures for her agency. Which eventually led to my internship with Herb Ritts.

What made you want to get into fine art?

I would assume that anyone who wants to be a photographer wants to get into fine art because that’s where you sI would assume that anyone who wants to be a photographer wants to get into fine art because that’s where you seem to shine the most. When it comes to fine art, if you are creating things that you think are beautiful, whether they’re riské, beautiful, abstract, etc., the ultimate goal is to create something that blows people’s minds. More importantly, your own.

BBS Drivebys is a fascinating story. You funded the book for it on Kickstarter. But besides the pandemic, what made you want to look at American culture from a car?

I actually never even thought about looking at the world through my car until the pandemic. It’s a 1958 Ford F100 that can’t sit too long so every once in a while I will take it out for a spin. That day when I started it happened to be one of those days, merely by coincidence. When I was photographing my neighbor I noticed that it looked really cool through all of the windows because of the curves. Then I thought, “wow that would be an amazing series, maybe I should do a couple more.” Next thing I know I was on the road across the whole country viewing it through my windows. I had no idea what this would become but I knew I was on to something special.

“I saw this as a timeless piece that I wanted to create where you wouldn’t know where some of these pictures came from it could be 1943 it could be 1988 or it could be 2020. Just one last thing I had to think about”

Brian Bowen-Smith

When you went around meeting these folks on the road, how did you go interact with them and gain their trust? How much of a limiting factor was COVID-19 for this project?

That’s a good question. I actually would Instagram what city I was heading to next and ask people to DM me with their ideas if they wanted to be a part of it. I got tons of them, all with great ideas so I would filter through which ones I thought were the most interesting or important. There’s no way you can do them all. I would call them on the phone and then we would work it out. I would literally drive up, shoot through the window, and then drive away. A true drive by. Covid wasn’t a factor because I never got in close contact with them and always had my mask on. It was the perfect pandemic shoot.

Why do this project in black and white? I can imagine that some of these would’ve looked fantastic with like an old Kodachrome look, no?

I was testing out the new Leica M10 Monochrom and thought this is the perfect camera for the trip because of the high resolution and not having to think about, “is it better in color or better in black-and-white?” I saw this as a timeless piece that I wanted to create where you wouldn’t know where some of these pictures came from. It could be 1943, it could be 1988 or it could be 2020. Just one last thing I had to think about

On your Kickstarter page, you said that everyone touched your heart. What, for you, was the most emotional moment on the journey? And how did you feel?

Yes, there were a lot of emotional moments, one being just driving through the top of the Rocky Mountains and it being so beautiful I just cried. But one of the saddest moments and most emotional dealing with Covid is when I went and visited these Dairy Farmers. They were really, really, really having a rough time because of the pandemic with no one buying any milk. So sad, they couldn’t stop their operation because cows need to be milked every day. Even had to dump it sometimes because there weren’t trucks coming to pick it up. They were working with just the family and it was a massive farm. Everyone was pitching in just to keep their heads above water. It has been in the family for generations. And they are in danger of losing it. It’s amazing how sometimes one day everything can change and everything you’ve had and was going well can all be crushed. I remember wanting to stay there and try to help them keep it above water but I had to move on. That’s when you really get a scope of what this pandemic really did to America and well the world. So sad. And we’re still in it, I can’t believe it.

American culture is very sprawling, of course. So what made you want to focus on the rural areas? Did you ever spend time photographing in cities?

It was actually a journey where the people took me! I would Instagram where I was and they said where should I go next. Going through towns I want to go to the southern route and then come back on the northern route because I knew that’s where most of the people would be. I didn’t really focus specifically on any area. I never really spent much time in the cities because I was afraid of interaction. There wasn’t much going on so there was no reason for me to stay and dilly dally. I wanted to focus on getting to New York City and getting back home to my family safely. That was enough for me. But now that I’ve done it after this is all over, I would love to take my family on a trip and go to specific areas. I now know how beautiful it is to drive across this great country of ours.

“That’s when you really get a scope of what this pandemic really did to America and well the world. So sad. And we’re still in it, I can’t believe it.”

Brian Bowen-Smith

What aspects of American culture were you trying to specifically focus on?

I really wasn’t focused on any aspects of American culture. I literally went to the ideas that people had that I liked. I didn’t even care if it had anything to do with Covid I just wanted to photograph people and an idea. That’s why some of the photographs look kind of thought out. Which they were; we planned that we even did fittings and scoutings through the phone through FaceTime. It was pretty epic. I didn’t have a specific thing I just went with the flow and it was what it was.

When it came to making this book, what was the most difficult aspect?

Well, I actually did everything by myself; I self-published. I have a friend named Allison Wolfe who I knew used InDesign and could help me do the layout. Then I worked with Iocolor out of Seattle to actually get the book printed. Then a huge 18 wheeler showed up at my house, unloading the books on a pallet, and my wife Shea and I, and a few awesome friends who had packed and sent out each copy. We actually just had our first show and sold out of the book. What an adventure and it was lots of hard work. But I enjoyed every minute of it.

“But now that I’ve done it after this is all over, I would love to take my family on a trip and go to specific areas. I now know how beautiful it is to drive across this great country of ours.”

Brian Bowen-Smith

Obviously, you’re editing the photos down to a small selection. So in your mind, what made you choose these images? Can you tell us more about what we’re not seeing? 

It’s hard to edit down anything because it was such an epic journey and every picture was important and I remember it like it was yesterday. There are so many favorites. It’s like asking what your favorite color is. I don’t know. I kind of dig the rainbow, so it’s kind of hard. Or what your favorite song is. I have so many, depending on how I’m feeling. I don’t think you can go wrong and I still look through the book and find new favorites; so here’s 12 that I just think show my journey and the diversity I enthralled up on the way.

This story is presented in partnership with Leica. All images by Brian Bowen-Smith and used with permission. Check out his website and BBS Drivebys. Be sure to give the Leica M10 Monochrom a try for yourself!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.