Brian Bowen Smith is renowned for his celebrity portraits, having snapped stunning images of Jennifer Aniston, Cindy Crawford and Demi Moore in a career spanning more than two decades.
But when COVID-19 hit the United States last spring, the famous photographer decided to ditch the studio and set out on a road trip to capture the country in the midst of the pandemic.
Smith, who is based in Los Angeles, had purchased a 1958 Ford F100 pickup truck several months earlier from an elderly man in Portola, California.
Armed with a Leica M 10 Monochrome camera, he left L.A. on May 3 for a six-week journey in the truck, traveling 11,000 miles across America and back again.
While most people were hunkering down in their homes, Smith took to Instagram to ask followers around the country if they would like to be featured in socially distanced snaps taken from the window of his vintage vehicle.
The result of the journey is a breathtaking new book titled Drivebys, self-published by Smith, which captures America in the midst of a nationwide crisis.
Despite the turmoil the country faced in the early days of the pandemic, Smith’s images highlight the beauty and resilience of both America and her people.
‘The trip reminded me that there are bad things happening in the wold, but there are also a lot of good things happening at the same time. I saw hope, and that’s the important message of the book,’ Smith told DailyMail.com in an interview on Sunday.
‘This is a photo of my truck’s previous owner, Bob. He wanted me to come interview with him in Portola, California because he wanted the truck to go someone that he knew would love it. He was dying of cancer and had to sell it. He built his truck from the ground up. Unfortunately he passed away before I could show him my book’ – Brian Bowen Smith
‘This is Bob’s daughter who we did get to show the book to. I got to snap this photo at their house. Needless to say they were tears shed’ – BBS
‘This fun photo is of [the actor] Josh Brolin and his wife, Kathryn. It was taken under the bridge in Malibu, California. Josh honored me by writing the forward to the book. He is a brilliant writer and a great friend’ – BBS
‘This is my family friend Tea. I planned a shoot with her via Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic and rolled over in my Ford F100. This photo – taken through the window of my truck – inspired me to take the whole road trip and create the book’ – BBS
‘This is Tea’s mom, Kim. She had been trying on her old wedding dress with friends on Zoom as I knew we had to take photographs of her in it’ – BBS
In early May, Smith captured this image of a man in suburban Washington state who had set himself on fire while holding a sign which read ‘COVID-19’. The man survived the stunt
A dust storm is seen upon the horizon as Smith travels across a flat highway in the American west
‘This is my friend Snake Dumpster and his wife Emily on the back of his Chopper motorcycle. I think this picture perfectly tells the story of them’ -BBS
‘This is Nic dancing in the desert. It was just about sundown and I went to take a picture of her and she just started dancing. Beautiful’ – BBS
‘When I left home to start off on my adventure heading towards Vegas I came up on this accident. Then I hit a tornado. And then another accident. I thought, “Was this worth it? Am I doing the right thing?'” – BBS
‘On the way to Vegas this Elvis impersonator hit me up. He said he was dying to put the suit back on as he hadn’t worked in months’ – BBS
‘This is chef Eduardo Garcia. He has an amazing documentary titled Charged which explains how he sustained the injury to his left arm. What an incredible human and full of life and love. We took this photo in Montana’
In addition to meeting many ordinary Americans along the way, Smith called in on some of his A-list friends, including Hilary Swank and Josh Brolin – who wrote the forward for the new book.
Smith says he was blown away by the generosity of all the colorful characters he met on his journey, several of whom helped him out with vehicle repairs free of charge.
Even when Americans were fearing for their own health and livelihoods as the grim reality of the pandemic set in, they were still offering their kindnesses.
Smith met a man who had lost three family members from COVID within the space of a week. He also met a mother battling cancer amid the pandemic, as well as a family of Wisconsin dairy farmers who struggling to hold onto their business.
‘A lot of people wanted to be involved and wanted to help. The generosity was crazy. One girl even baked us a lasagne,’ the photographer told DailyMail.com.
In addition to his portraits of people, Smith also captured landscape photos showing closed down towns and emptied-out cities amid stay-at-home orders.
One spectacular image shows Smith’s pick-up truck parked in an abandoned Times Square.
The retro vehicle is seen sitting in the center of the square without a soul in sight.
‘I got out and shot pictures of the truck for about five minutes without anyone there. It was absolutely astonishing. It felt like a movie set,’ he stated.
A dog is seen chasing after Smith’s Ford pick-up as he drives out of town
Smith cruised through small towns that were completely shuttered amid the COVID-19 crisis
‘This is the infamous Rowdy Roudebush from Telluride, Colorado. We organized a photoshoot, and when we finally got there he was got there he was sitting in his driveway on his horse telling us we were late. Then, he took off on the horse… ‘
‘I managed to wrangle my camera out and capture this photo of Rowdy. The rest is history’
‘Hilary Swank knew that I was in Telluride so she said “Please come over and shoot us”‘
Four siblings in rural America are seen posing for a photo as Smith drove by in his truck
A boy is pictured out on his bicycle in suburban Kentucky. With schools shuttered amid stay-at-home orders, kids across the country have had to play by themselves
‘This is another one of those lucky shots. I scrambled to get the camera ready. I pulled it up and when I clicked there happened to be a strip club behind a classic car. How can you go wrong?’ – BBS
‘This is the DeVoe Family Farm in Wisconsin. They all been together to try to work and save their dairy farm which is dangerously close to being bankrupt. Farmers got hit hard in the early part of this pandemic so badly’ – BBS
‘I came up on this cool old truck graveyard. The gate was open so I went in’ – BBS
‘This is New Orleans completely shut down. One of the busiest tourist attractions in the United States and not a soul around’ – BBS
‘Driving into New York City in late May. I had made it from coast to coast’ – BBS
‘I went to Times Square and parked my car in the middle of the road. I got out and shot pictures of her for about five minutes without anyone there. It was absolutely astonishing. It felt like a movie set’ – BBS
Just days after Smith left New York City and headed back west for his home in Los Angeles, George Floyd was killed at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The event – captured on video and shared around the world on social media – sparked a nationwide reckoning on race.
Black Lives Matter marches commenced across the country, with demonstrations sometimes turning violent as tensions boiled over.
Smith told DailyMail.com he did not want to shy away from including the issue in his book, as his goal was to capture a snapshot of America in 2020.
‘More than ever, all this is in our face now. I think we need change immediately,’ he stated.
However, Smith’s book highlights that race relations have often been fraught throughout American history.
On his journey, he stopped by the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four black children we killed during a KKK bombing of the building in 1963.
‘It is definitely one of those spots that serves as a firm reminder that we need to change,’ Smith reiterated.
Two friends are pictured posing for a photo in rural America. Smith’s book captures the diversity of America without shying away from the troubles the country still faces. Partway through Smith’s journey, George Floyd was killed at the hands of police officers, sparking a reckoning on race in the United States. Smith says he did not want to eliminate that from the story. ‘More than ever all this racism is in our face now. I think we need change immediately,’ he told DailyMail.com
‘This is the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963, the KKK put a bomb under the steps killing four beautiful young children. It was important on this trip to seek out things I’ve always wanted to visit. And this is definitely one of those spots that serves as a firm reminder that we need to change in our world’ – BBS
‘This is Alicia. During the pandemic, she was raising two children and battling cancer. Just a reminder that things can be worse but when you’re strong and have faith to move forward things sometimes things can turn out OK’ – BBS
‘This is Salvador and his family. Salvador lost two brothers and a mother in a week due to COVID-19. Seven other people in his family contracted the virus but survived’ – BBS
‘[American singer] Brandon Boyd sitting in a pool in the back of my truck. His idea’ – BBS
‘[Actress] Hayley Law just a bundle of joy’ – BBS. The Riverdale actress is seen posing at the passenger side of the old pickup truck
‘An Alabama family that weren’t too happy I made them stand out there in the rain on bales of hay’ – BBS
‘Quincy showed up for the shoot and brought his beautiful python. I thought he would just hold it but now he made a hat out of it’ – BBS
While Smith is not naive about the crises that are currently fac the United States, he has been buoyed by the people he met on his journey.
‘I got to see the country through the windows of that truck. What a country we live in, how vast, how beautiful. There’s so much diversity,’ he stated.
‘People treated me like family, I think it was because they knew I were trying to do something good.’
Now back in Los Angeles, the photographer believes that Americans are equipped with both the grit and generosity of spirit that will help them to solve serious problems.
And as his own city comes out of lockdown, Smith says people are starting to smile again.
‘I see the hope of things getting better. People are so happy to be outside again sitting at at a restaurant.
‘When you’re coming out of the dirt and the grit you have to look up to the sky and have hope, and I hope that’s whats happening in the world now.’
Drivebys is for sale here
‘After driving through Yellowstone park you come out to this beautiful view of the Teton mountain range’ – BBS
‘When I arrived back in California I was able to catch the tail end of the BLM movement. Just another crazy thing that happened in 2020. Again reminding us we need to change’ – BBS
‘This is my son Jona skating in front of the school that he won’t be in his whole freshman year due to coronavirus. But I’ve always taught him to try to make the best of things. He really wanted to be a part of this book. I love this picture’ – BBS
‘My beautiful wife – the only photo taken in the interior of the truck. Without all her help and support I doubt this book would ever be made. That included packaging, shipping, taking orders – she did it all. I love this woman’ – BBS