Bob Shell: Car Reviews in a Photo Magazine?

Cars. Rush Hour Boston, Mass. Photo: David Pang, Copyright 2018


 Bob Shell: Letters From Prison #24


Letters by Bob Shell, Copyright 2018




At some point in the mid-90s, Don Cooke, our national sales manager at Shutterbug, had an idea to diversify our advertising base. Glenn Patch, Sbutterbug’s owner, had a policy that there would never be any tobacco ads in his magazines, so we turned away their money, but what about car ads? The car companies had crazy money to throw at magazines, too. Don had worked for car magazines in the past and knew everyone in that business. He thought a series of articles on cars for photographers would get the attention of the right people.

That’s why I found myself early one cool desert morning in a parking garage at McLaren Airport in Las Vegas picking up the keys to a sparkling new black Land Rover Discovery. Don had arranged this through the president of Land Rover U.S.A., who was an old friend. I was to take the car out into the desert for a week and put it through it’s paces as a field outfit for a nature photographer. I’d brought a bunch of outdoor gear with me on the overnight “redeye” flight from Charlotte, and I loaded it all into the Rover’s cavernous back.

In the 70s and 80s my “go anywhere” vehicles had been Toyota FJ-40 Land Cruisers, first a 1966 that I bought from Arthur Godfrey (now there’s a story for another time) and later a 1972 that I bought new for $ 3,400. That sounds cheap today, but in 1972 that was a relatively expensive vehicle. The FJ-40 series were built to withstand rough use and to last, but in common with other Japanese vehicles of the day, the steel used to make the body panels was prone to rust. Both of mine suffered from body rust. I see that restored FJ-40s are commanding high prices today.

I backed the Rover carefully out of its parking place and headed out for Highway 15 northeast and let the big V8 open up (I love to drive fast!) My destination, The Valley of Fire State Park. I’d conducted photo workshops there for years, ever since Wayne Collins and David Brooks had hipped me to the location back in the early 80s. The Valley of Fire is one of the prettiest places on the planet, and in all my world travels I’ve never found a better place for photography. The red rocks and clear desert air cast a warm glow on anything and anyone you photograph there. Of course, if you’re doing commercial photography there you need to jump through some hoops, get a photo permit, and pay into workman’s comp for any assistants and models you use. I was keeping it simple this time, no assistants, no models, just me and the car, and a basic photo permit. I did have to get special permission to go off road, and the rangers gave me a limited selection of places where I could do that, and a couple of brooms to hide my tire tracks going off and back onto the road.

You may not know it, but unless you’re that rare person who never watches TV, you’ve seen The Valley of Fire. It’s a favorite location for commercials for cars, and many other products, and as a standin for other planets in SiFi programs.. At the time of writing there’s a commercial for “tactical” sunglasses airing on ESPN that was shot there. Being located not far northeast of Las Vegas, it’s convenient to Los Angeles and the photo and movie businesses. If you saw the movie Star Trek: Generations you’ve seen the Valley. The climactic scenes of the two Captains fighting Malcolm McDowell was filmed on the red rocks there. It was near those rocks that I chose to position the Rover, on top of a big rock.

I’d decided to shoot medium format in case we wanted to use one of the pictures on the cover, so I’d brought my Mamiya 645 Pro and 50, 80, and 150 Mamiya lenses, and several “bricks” of Fujichrome Provia in a Styrofoam cooler. Of course I’d brought a sturdy tripod (I don’t recall which one, probably a Manfrotto) and my Sekonic light meter for both spot and incident readings. I didn’t anticipate needing any wider or longer lenses, but had a 30 fisheye, 40 and 300 in the bag just in case, and I turned out to shoot most of the photos with the 150, a few with the 80. The light was perfect, a high overcast sky serving as a giant softbox. We did use one photo on the cover, and some detail shots with the article. We got a lot of reader feedback, most of it positive, with a few, “Whaddaya think you are, a car magazine??” letters. Unfortunately, the hoped for advertising never materialized, and we never ran any more car tests. But a while later my friend Scott, who worked for Nikon, stopped by my house in his brand new — Land Rover Discovery! He said he’d bought it on the strength of my review. So Land Rover sold at least one car from our experiment. Too bad the advertising didn’t follow, I was looking forward to test driving other cars in a variety of locations.


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Shell was recently moved from Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia to River North Correctional Center 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA 24348.  Mr. Shell continues to claim his innocence. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here


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