Michael Furman’s favorite mode of transportation is a bicycle.
That may not seem strange, until you take into account that Furman has made a name for himself as one of the world’s premier automotive photographers. “I don’t know how to repair cars, I don’t know how to change the oil, and I have a minimal concept of how they work,” he laughs. “My appreciation is more from an aesthetic and historical point of view.”
This “mere” artistic appreciation, however, has translated into a world-class client list (Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley), a coveted photographic style, and even a successful venture into book publishing—business goals he’s achieved without having to compromise his shooting strategy.
“My greatest talent is my perseverance,” he says. “I have faith in what I’m doing. I’m going to keep shooting the way I think makes sense, because down the road it will all come together. That’s what they trusted me to do in the first place, isn’t it?” road to success.
Furman, who first honed his craft doing corporate assignments, decided after some 10 years in traditional advertising that he wanted to get back to shooting his personal interests: voluptuous classic coachbuilts and flamboyant prewar Art Deco autos. A single big break from Mercedes-Benz was all it took to send Furman on his way. His dedication and respect for the genre have maintained his clinch on the classic-car scene.
“Why is someone successful at what he does?” he says. “He has a product or service that people want and he knows how to handle himself properly. It goes beyond treating car owners well so they’ll continue working with me. It’s about being respectful of the subject. When someone has spent a lot of time and money restoring that car, I don’t shoot it with a wide-angle lens or make it look goofy.”
Furman believes his unique point of view allows him to see beyond the custom-built fenders and vintage taillights, into the spirit of the car itself.
“I’ve always thought that cars are representative of people, especially females, with many curves and subtleties,” he explains. “And whether it’s a portrait of a person or a portrait of a car, you want to capture the essence of your subject. What was the designer thinking when he made this car? What was his motivation? I want people to look at my images and immediately relate to the subject.”
His lighting mimics what he sees when he’s walking down the street. “All a photographer really needs is light and an idea,” he says. “For studio lighting, we use Broncolor strobes. We have a custom-made light bank that allows us to shoot cars the way we need to shoot them.”
Master of His Own Domain
In automotive photography, there are two major challenges, according to Furman: photographic challenges and everything else. “Can you get access to the car? Who’s paying to have the car photographed so we can underwrite the cost of it? This organizational challenge is the most difficult to deal with, and I do most of the followup myself, so I don’t sleep much!” Furman had difficulty being an employer in the beginning. “You’ve got taxes, insurance, and medical plans to worry about,” he says. “You have to deal with landlords, upgrade your facilities, finagle with banks. If you’re perceptive enough, you hire good people to fill in those spots where you need the most help.”
His determination to use technology to his advantage has helped further Furman’s business success. “I’m willing to use anything out there to help me get my point across,” he says. “It took me a long time to find digital equipment that was good enough to shoot cars. Once I found the Phase One digital backs, I stopped shooting film.”
Furman noticed a shift start to take place in the advertising industry in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, with agency mergers and, ironically, digital imaging stifling creativity across the board. It was then that Furman decided to try and regain control of his livelihood.
“I had morphed from being a photographer to being an appendage of the advertising world,” he says. “These days I don’t shoot ads for the manufacturers. I’m doing more editorial, and we’ve even started getting into publishing.”
The publishing ventures he speaks of: his own publishing company, which is already nearing completion of its first 272-page book for a car museum opening in Colorado this month.
“I’m the publisher, and I did all the photography,” he says. “I brought in the writer, the designer, and the printer.” Furman even bought the rights for his first two book projects—Motorcars of the Classic Era and Automobiles of the Chrome Age—back from the original publisher.