craig mcdean loves fast cars and fashion
The renowned photographer has collaborated with Byredo to create a photo book and capsule collection that fuse the two.
How does someone capture the spirit of both Rihanna and a race car with an equal amount of passion and insight? Ask Craig McDean, Mancunian legend of fashion photography. He seems to have mastered it.
For his latest project McDean Manual, the photographer and i-D regular has worked with Rizzoli and the luxury lifestyle brand Byredo to create a world around his new photobook. While the book itself is available worldwide, there are a bunch of different extras that allow everyone to own their own part of its legacy. Like one of the 400 limited edition covers designed by Byredo, or a piece of their capsule collection -- comprised of scarves, t-shirts, hats and beer-holders -- that goes alongside it.
But back to the book: a dazzling collection of McDean’s past fashion work paired with slow-shutter shots of muscle cars skidding around corners at drag races. It’s a fascinating trip through the heartlands of America juxtaposed with a lifestyle so far detached from it. Naturally, Craig McDean has found the connection and married them seamlessly.
In celebration of the book’s launch at London’s Byredo store (it rolls out worldwide throughout September), i-D sat down with Craig to talk about being out of his comfort zone at the race track, his poetic take on the muscle machines and the song he listens to while travelling the wide open plains of the USA.
A lot of your work is kinetic, and in the case of this book, it captures bodies – both people and cars – in a state of movement. Is that a conscious decision?
I studied dance, so I usually ask models to dance in front of the camera, but I guess the cars might look more alive than the girls because of their movement! I consciously do that. I shoot [the cars] at a slow shutter speed so it’s more of a painting than a frozen frame, but it’s actually very hard to freeze a car that’s going down the strait at 160 miles an hour, to tell you the truth! It’s a technique.
What was the experience of shooting these cars at drag races like? It must be interesting to photograph something you have almost no direction or control over.
It becomes quite hectic. One car comes after another down the strait, because it’s drag racing rather than hurtling round lap. Everything happens in this short period of time where you’ve got to stay focused and hope you get lucky with the shot. Beforehand, you’re picking cars that you’d like to photograph. I purposely choose the ones I’m attracted to, be it the colour, the models or the stickers. You just have to plan it a little in your head and then everything after that is freestyle.
It must be a really fascinating way to work when these cars are careering at you so fast and you have to act instinctually.
The first time I ever went to a drag race I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how anything worked, it was only as I started to do it more and more that I understood that. I was out of my depth, shooting film with an RZ67 camera. There were people who worked for, like, National Hot Rod magazine around me wondering, ‘‘What is he doing?!’
Is there a combination of cars and fashion in here that you look at and think, "That’s exactly how I wanted it to look"?
Yep. It’s the spread of two cars together! The book got very car-heavy at one point and Rizzoli were like, ‘There are too many cars in this book!’. I had to go get some more fashion. Personally, I’m very fond of the shot of Kate and the blue car.
Cars are something you and Ben Goreham of Byredo both share a love for. Was that the primary motivation for working on this project together?
I’ve known Ben for 10 years and worked with him for six. A while ago, I made a capsule collection with Ben, of handbags based on my car photography, which ignited me to go back and look at my them again. As I started to look through them, he said, "Why don’t we do a fashion line that we can launch in shops?" When I started to put the book together, I realised that this was the time we were going to make it work. So we decided to do different merchandise [for each Byredo location]: the Paris shop will have different merchandise from the Montreal one, which will be different from the things you can buy in Seoul. Ben thought we should drive it all around the world in a muscle car, but I convinced him otherwise because I was sure it would break down on the way! It would be a nightmare.
What piece from the Byredo collection are you really happy with?
There are a few pieces with the flame pattern on it. When I was younger, I thought flames were naff on cars, but I think they’re quite cool now! I liked the beer cooler that didn’t make it here as well. It had flames on it too! For me, that was so tongue-in-cheek and genius and love it. It’s been made but I think it’s been stuck somewhere.
What’s really interesting about this book is that it contrasts a hyper-masculine activity like car racing with an entire collection of images of women in fashion. Was that juxtaposition something you wanted to play with?
You’re right. [Drag racing] is a very masculine, macho thing to do, and the people that go to these events in the US are quite hardcore. I didn’t take my hat off for the National Anthem and just about got killed – a guy knocked it off my head instead! So yes, it is quite macho, but I wanted it to have a bit more of a poetic movement because it’s called a muscle car. Everything was big and ostentatious.
Witnessing this in real life was sort of a fantasy for you, right?
It was a journey I wanted to take: going to America and driving muscle cars. The American dream.
And I guess there’s something fluid and feminine about the way you’ve shot them. They’re not as domineering as they look when they’re standing still, and in the way they’ve been shot in the past.
It's not. There’s a certain poetry to watching cars and watching these films in which these cars drive off into the distance. There’s a nostalgia to it.
Do you have a go-to driving song?
I have a lot of old cars and a lot of them have radios that don’t work. One used to have an 8-track that had Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin stuck it in it. Eventually it just ate that 8-track too, so I listen to the engine now. It’s more fun!