The most effective spy is the one you don’t suspect. That’s Brenda Priddy, the world’s most infamous auto spy photographer. The unassuming mother of two went from a quiet bookkeeping job to shooting test vehicles undergoing secret evaluation in the Arizona desert. If you’ve ever seen a shot of a car camouflaged with wild geometric shapes on its black-and-white body panels, there’s a good chance Priddy took it. We talked to her about sneaking around the desert, wearing disguises, and being intimidated by the big, bad Germans.
How did you become a spy photographer?
It started quite by accident. I was a mom with two toddlers, and I was driving in a local neighborhood past a grocery store and there were a couple of slightly camouflaged test cars in the parking lot. I was not a car person, but I know my husband would want to see them, so I ran home, got my camera, came back, and took some pictures. And it turned out that it was the ’94 Mustang, and this was early in ’92. And so when he came home, he called Automobile magazine and inquired if they were interested, and they said no, initially. And he said, “Well, you have to see these anyway.” So we sent them to Automobile and it was actually the cover photo for that November. And that’s how I started.
What town were you in?
I was in Phoenix. I lived close by. I live in another suburb now.
How did you turn one photo into a career?
It was so unintentional, but everything just kind of fit into place. I kept on seeing more vehicles to shoot after that, and I shot them. I was working as a bookkeeper at a jewelry store and I would go to work with a bag, and in my bag would be camera equipment, two-way radios, radio scanners—gosh, all sorts of things. And I’d get a call from somebody, because people would be on the lookout for test cars, and somebody would say, “There’s a test car at the Subway, and it’s three miles from you.” And it’s like, “OK, I’m going to take my lunch now.” And I would just pick up my bag and drive to the Subway and get the photos. And then I started getting calls from European publications. And other publications would start calling me and just giving me wish lists. So that’s how it started. There was one day, probably about a year and a half after my first photo, maybe not even that long, when I woke up in the morning and I told my husband, “You know, I think I’m going to do this full time.”
What outlets run your stuff?
My outlets include publications such as Road & Track, Car and Driver, and their respective websites. We also sell to Automotive News, AutoWeek, Insideline, Edmunds, and occasionally newspapers such as the New York Times, and USA Today.
Do you have to engage in subterfuge?
When I started out and we shot our first photos, I would come home, and I’d call my husband if he was home already, and I’d say, “Open the garage door, somebody might be following me, I need to pull in quick.” And then we would hide the film and the negatives. I mean, that’s how paranoid we were. I remember hiding the negatives under the microwave oven—all sorts of places—just in case.
Why were you so paranoid?
Well, when I started, there was a time that I was shooting another Ford product, and I followed the guys. They exited the highway on an Indian reservation and I was in a convertible and I felt kind of vulnerable. They demanded my film, and then they demanded to see my driver’s license, and I wasn’t doing anything wrong—they’re not going to get my driver’s license. But it was things like that that at first were very intimidating. And sometimes now I might get threatened and I don’t tolerate it, whether it’s a verbal threat or a threat where somebody’s going to hit me with a car, because it’s not called for. If they’re driving ridiculously, or if I feel threatened with the way they’re driving, somebody will hear about it up on top.
What were some of your most harrowing moments?
I remember shooting a Lincoln Continental, and the guy appeared as if he was going to take his pants off and didn’t realize that I was still shooting. I have been mooned by some Frenchmen. I was assaulted once physically, where my camera was pushed in my face.
What company did that guy work for?
Um, let’s not discuss that.
Was it a while ago?
It was before digital, and we got the film developed real quick and FedExed it to Detroit. A picture of the car was in the Detroit News two days later, and that’s how I got even. My son, when he was about 14, we were taking pictures in a completely empty parking lot, and a car just raced toward him and almost hit him. He got that on video. I was behind taking stills and I could hardly see anything. He had a broken arm at the time, and he had to jump away so he wouldn’t get hit. It was a German manufacturer and we sent the video to Germany—not to publications, but to the manufacturer—because we just don’t tolerate that stuff. It just wasn’t called for at all. Some people in the industry will say, “Wow, we were flying down the highway because they were chasing us.” And they have a completely different attitude than I do, because if I feel like somebody’s chasing me, I just stop. I don’t play those games.
Has all of the drama died down?
It really depends on the engineers. Sometimes the engineers can be very hostile. They know me, obviously. They address me by name when I get out of my car. A lot of the spies, they feel like the best way to shoot is hiding in the bushes far away. I don’t do that. I just walk up and I shoot. And if the car’s covered, then I’ll sit and wait around for them to uncover it, because they’re going to have to do it eventually.
Do you ever disguise yourself?
I usually wear a baseball cap out in the sun that says “espionage” on it. But there are times when they’ll be doing a television shoot or an ad shoot for a brochure or something, and times like that, there’s a good chance that the entire crew has my photo with them on a clipboard. There are times they bring in security. We just recently shot a Porsche Boxster, and it seemed from what we observed that they brought in security from Germany and they were all looking for me. So I stayed very far away at that point. But I might do something different with my hair, different with my hat, big sunglasses. My biggest disguise, if I needed to, would be to rent a car. I actually borrowed my son’s car in May to shoot something, because I thought, “Oh no, these guys really know my car.” It worked really well until his battery died. But I tend to believe that I’m not the kind of person that stands out. I’m not the tall blonde bombshell or whatever. I’m just somebody’s mom. So a lot of times, if they don’t see the car and they don’t see the camera, they won’t know it’s me. I can just kind of blend into the situation. And blending in is part of it too—when I’m out shooting in certain places, if it’s Sunday, I might choose to dress up a little bit, because everybody else I see in the streets is just coming from church. If I’m in an area where there are tourists, I’ll want to look like a tourist. So I just want to kind of blend in with everybody else.
Was it hard going from a bookkeeper to spy?
It’s a different role. Because in real life I think I am pretty shy and quiet. If I go to the local PTA meeting or something like that, I’m very, very quiet. But when I play spy, it’s a much more assertive and sometimes aggressive person—or some of the guys have other words for me as well. But it’s like a complete personality reversal. But I love it.