Brenda Priddy seems like a real nice lady. The Chandler wife and mother, who once worked as a bookkeeper, is friendly from the moment we say hello, and she readily answers my long list of questions despite fighting an awful head cold.
But Priddy is much more than first impressions would lead you to assume. Brenda Priddy is a spy.
“I hate to use the word stalk, but I stalk auto makers. I find them when they’re out testing future vehicles in public places, and I take pictures of their cars,” she says.
The head of an automotive spy photography firm, Priddy is also the artist behind Automotive Artifacts, a free show of nearly 50 photos on view now at the Gallery at Chandler Center for the Arts.
The exhibition features lush shots of gleaming hood ornaments and corroded nameplates, revealing with appreciative depth the beauty of car craftsmanship. The images were shot along Route 66 from Chicago to Flagstaff, at events like the Chandler Car Show, and in Cuba — a hotspot for pre-1959 American-made cars.
“People didn’t expect to see these kind of photographs come from me after the work I’ve done,” says Priddy, who still tracks down new Volkswagen, Nissan, Toyota, Ford, Chrysler, GM and other vehicles being tested at proving grounds near Maricopa, Wickenburg, Yuma and Kingman. She even relocates in the summertime to Death Valley, Calif., to capture vehicles undergoing extreme conditions testing.
“They’re a little hard to track down at times. The auto makers definitely don’t want you taking the photos, so they do whatever they can to prevent you from getting good shots,” says Priddy. “We’ve had rocks thrown at us. My son, many years ago, was almost run over by a test driver in a vacant lot. I’m usually on foot, so I can’t be too threatening to them, just standing on the side of the road.”
Her pictures are sold to major car magazines around the world and occasionally to TV stations. The New York Times, USA Today and other mainstream publications have also bought her work.
Priddy’s paparazzi career was launched in 1992. While driving around Ahwatukee with her toddlers in the back seat, she noticed test cars in a grocery store parking lot and snapped some photos. The cars turned out to be the yet-to-be-released 1994 Ford Mustang — the year of the iconic model’s fourth major revision. Her husband started calling around to see if anyone was interested in the pictures, and Automobile Magazine bought the images for its cover.
“People started calling me from all around the globe. Publications were giving me wish lists of cars they wanted. I thought they were insane, but I wrote everything down. I took several pictures for the next year or 18 months and then decided to give up my day job and do this,” she says.
Automotive Artifacts shows another side of Priddy’s appreciation for autos.
“There is not one spy photo in there. They’re mostly details of old cars. Some are 60 years old and in perfect showroom quality; others have been sitting out on farms for 60 years and there’s corrosion. They’re pretty unique.”