Simon Davidson

JournalArt & Culture

Simon Davidson

Photographer's emotive images of extreme motoring...

“You could say I went to the drags and never left” states Simon Davidson as we talk about a chance excursion that began his decade long documenting of muscle and custom car culture.

The New Zealand-born, Sydney-raised photographer – who returned to Australia following a stint assisting fashion photographers in New York – creates images of true beauty from the ferocity of the vehicles he captures. We spoke to him to find out more about his work, and future plans…

Simon Davidson Simon Davidson

Your involvement with motor racing came after a “chance excursion to a street drag racing meet one cold winter evening”. It sounds kind of illicit – was it? Can you tell us a little more?

No nothing illicit… I’ve always had a passion for old Australian and American cars from the 1960s. Growing up as a surfer these old cars were a means of cheap transport chasing waves up and down the coast. It wasn’t just the style of the 1960s cars that was appealing; it was also the ability to fix an old car ourselves, usually in a remote location while away surfing.

About 10 years ago a good friend was heading out to compete in an Off Street Drag meet where street registered cars race for fun, a way getting the racing off the streets and onto the track. I was invited to ride shotgun in Matt’s very powerful and fast street registered drag car. This “chance excursion” was the first time I had ever been to the drags. Something clicked that night sitting on the hill watching Matt and the other cars race; it wasn’t just the old cars but the people who captured my imagination. The catalyst for me to start documenting Australian muscle car and custom car culture. You could say I went to the drags and never left!

Simon Davidson Simon Davidson

It must have had some impact – it’s a fascination that’s seen you document custom car culture for the last decade – have you become a well known face on the circuit?

I guess so. I’ve been lucky to develop many good relationships throughout the scene and across Australia over the years. In the beginning I was aware the access needed as a photographer was never going to come immediately, trust takes time. The trust of people and respect for the scene has allowed me a privileged access as a photographer, whether it be the side of race track, burnout pad or into someone’s garage or shed. I am very thankful for my position.

Simon Davidson Simon Davidson

Ever get in the driving seat yourself?

A few times. I’ve raced a 1934 Roadster across the Salt Flats of Lake Gairdner, South Australia. Driven a 9 second drag car down the quarter mile in Alice Springs. Both times the invitation was by the owners who wanted me to “feel” what I was photographing. I’ve been a passenger in a few of the top Burnouts cars as well. Perks of the job. Great experiences.

Simon Davidson Simon Davidson

From the lunar landscapes of the Bonneville Salt Flats, to the clouds of smoke that engulf the cars in your Burnouts series – there’s a calmness to the photographs that, for me at least, separate the image from the furious noise the vehicles are emitting. Is this something you consider in your works?

Definitely… I’ve enjoyed searching and waiting for these moments… moments of “calm” as you say. A visit to the Salt Flats is a life experience I recommend to everyone… it’s a photography paradise. Bonneville is rich in land speed history, this a huge part of the attraction. The meditative expanse of the vista is just as intoxicating.

The world of burnouts though is just all out chaos. Burnouts are extremely noisy, you are sprayed with rubber while photographing, it’s smelly – but amongst all this sensory overload are the decisive moments when man and machine are graceful.

Simon Davidson Simon Davidson

I’m sensing some mean kit from the retina-busting quality of your images – can you tell us a little bit about your equipment?

My first film cameras were Nikon and have stayed with Nikon into the world of digital. Digital SLR, as apposed to medium format digital, gives me the flexibility necessary for chasing fast moving objects and working in low light. Nikon make superb DSLRs for low light.

Simon Davidson Simon Davidson

Some of the characters you photograph seem a little, how shall we say, eccentric – surely this is prime material for a documentary?

Of course… there is something in the pipeline.

You’ve recently shown a selection of your motor racing works in Salt & Smoke at Bondi Beach’s Bondi Pavilion Art Gallery – any plans for this to tour, or to perhaps form a publication of sorts?

Unfortunately the tyranny of distance is holding back the work from touring overseas in the immediate future but yes, I would love to see the images tour. On the publication side I’m currently editing a massive catalogue of images and can see a few books in the edit.

Simon Davidson Simon Davidson

What else are you working on?

I’ve been travelling out to a remote Aboriginal community in central Australia annually for the past seven years creating a portrait of the community. I’ll be heading out to Mt Liebig this winter to finish the project.