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Art or intrusion? Photographer Johnny Tergo's 'drive-by' portraits

By dpreview staff on Apr 11, 2013 at 01:54 GMT

Street photography isn't everyone's cup of tea, and for every Cartier Bresson, watching from a distance, there's a Weegee, pushing a camera into the faces of their bemused subjects without asking permission. Los Angeles-based photographer Johnny Tergo has taken this approach to a new level, rigging up his truck with a camera and bright studio strobes in order to 'bring the studio lighting aspect to everyday real life on the streets'.

To take his curb-side portraits, LA-based photographer Johnny Tergo pulls up alongside his subjects and takes their photograph from his truck, using a remote-triggered Canon EOS-1D Mark IV rigged up to two studio lights.

In an interview published by Tergo explains that as a freelance photographer he spends a lot of time on the road, and wanted to 'exploit his time behind the wheel' for a series of candid portraits of people going about their everyday lives.

According to an interview published at, Tergo 'leads moving subjects by pulling forward slightly, waiting for them to enter the frame'.

To achieve the studio-like lighting, Tergo has rigged his Chevy Silverado with two high-powered strobes, powered by twin 4000W generators in the truckbed. Inside, a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV is connected to a laptop, and triggered by a Pocket Wizard. Tergo has a dashboard-mounted iPhone for reviewing his shots via onboard Wi-Fi. On a normal day, Tergo claims to take '40 to 50' shots. 

This is Johnny Tergo's Chevy Silverado truck, rigged up with two studio strobes and twin 4000W gas-powered generators which are nestled in the truckbed.
His EOS-1D Mark IV is triggered remotely using a Pocket Wizard, and his subjects are captured from the passenger window on a 16-35mm lens. 

It's no surprise that some of his subjects don't react well to being zapped with high-powered studio lights from the window of a passing truck, and in the interview Tergo claims that 'a lot of people think I’m up to something nefarious'. Despite occasional confrontations, Tergo plans to add a second truck, and more lights to his portable setup, claiming 'I don't want to stop with good enough, I want it to be awesome'.

Although we're impressed by some of Tergo's work, his approach won't be to everyone's taste, and raises troubling questions about privacy. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.


Total comments: 376
By KBarrett (Apr 11, 2013)

So it's a high production value Google Street View?

By kimchiflower (Apr 11, 2013)

Lots of people will no doubt go on about "intrusion" and "privacy", yet nobody bats an eyelid about the 24/7 surveillance we endure via CCTV. The pic above of the Jesus clone is a case in point - check out that sign.

The light gives these shots a real distinctive edge - sort of like a Bruce Gilden environmental portrait.

By wansai (Apr 11, 2013)

Yeah CCTV never puts itself out there as "art" and the people behind CCTV would likely never come out and say they are artists or photographers.

The purpose and intent of the 2 are rather quite different.

By SMPhoto (Apr 11, 2013)

These kind of stunts give photographers a bad rep. Worse, I don't see why it's worth it. To me, I only see one pretty cool and a couple of other moderately interesting shots. The rest look like what they are, random, uncomposed shots of surprised people along the street. To each their own I guess...

By Camediadude (Apr 11, 2013)

Invasive and tactless. Terrible. Where is the careful consideration, the finesse, the heart?? ... here the subject is turned into a victim, as though he or she is framed in the glare of a police search light.

"Despite occasional confrontations" ... indeed. Doing this in L.A., this guy is asking to get his ass beat, or worse. I don't wish that on him or anyone. I hope he soon gets some sense into him. You just don't do sh!t like this, in a time when everyone is stressed beyond belief and on edge.

By Camediadude (Apr 11, 2013)

Imagine you are on a gritty, lonely street corner at night, in the middle of L.A., waiting for the bus or your ride... oh, and it was a bad day to boot.

Now, this thoughtless bozo creeps up slowly behind you in his big pickup truck, and then just as you look, BLASTS your retinas with over 2000 Watt Seconds off light. Terrified out of your mind, and before you have chance to think what the- he zooms off, with a stupid smug grin on his face as he checks the exposure on his iphone while driving. Nice job, Tergo you azzhole.

By qwertyasdf (Apr 11, 2013)

+1 for this guys guts.
Hope we won't get a taste of a genuine drive-by.

1 upvote
Erik Korte
By Erik Korte (Apr 11, 2013)

You have to appreciate the thought that went into that rig.
The photos are really nice too. It reminds me of the correct Inglewood/LA feel.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
By erichK (Apr 11, 2013)

The only thing that his "rig" shows is that this sociopath has a lot of money and an obsession with stalking and assaulting the unwary!

By jackpro (Apr 11, 2013)

cool - people are an interesting subject & as long as he maintains copyright via publishing a low volume coffee table book no harm done. it gets a bit dodgy when sites like dpreview promote the photog by publishing pics that it gets a bit nefarious.

Great Bustard
By Great Bustard (Apr 11, 2013)

Judging solely by the first two photos, I'm guessing Tergo doesn't like feet all that much. ; )

By SRT3lkt (Apr 11, 2013)

with that much light, you don't need EOS-1D Mark IV.

By KBarrett (Apr 11, 2013)

It's the sync speed, necessary for using a flash to overpower the ambient light. Canon's fastest is 1/300, available only on the APS-H EOS 1D IV.

By SRT3lkt (Apr 11, 2013)

for that purpose Leaf shutter cameras are suited better (or using dedicated Flash with HP mode), and there are some strobists' favorite compact cameras (sync speed goes up above 1/1000).

By lenseye (Apr 11, 2013)

When you have no obvious talent, you'd resort to doing stunts like these...

Total comments: 376