BEING THERE AT THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE
The name Marcia Campbell might not be very familiar to you, but perhaps her photos are. Behind the lens of many of the most memorable photos of some
of the most well-known customs during the golden age – the late ’40s to early ’50s – was Marcia Campbell.
Marcia was born March 15, 1932, in Huntington Park, Calif.; a So Cal gal. She began studying photography in her teens and was entirely self-taught. In 1949 she started taking photos for George Barris. She was 17 and a regular visitor to the Barris Kustom Shop. Marcia always brought her camera with her and she would take photos of the guys working on the cars and, of course, of the cars themselves.
The next time Marcia visited the shop she would bring prints of the best photos and hand them over to the guys, or to George. The guys appreciated them, but I don’t think at the time they realized how valuable her contribution was to the custom car hobby. Marcia never sold her pictures; she always gave them away.
An only child, Marcia’s father passed away when she was four years old. Marcia’s mother went on to manage the family business, “Industrial Stationery & Printing Co.” And when Marcia grew up, she became personnel director of the family enterprise. The money she earned, and later inherited, helped her realize her dream – to photograph, own, modify and race a wide variety of cars.
Not your average kind of girl
Marcia was an amazing standup and standout woman. She bowed out of the hot rod mainstream in the mid 1950s. But she continued with her ardent passion for cars as a collector, restorer, and winning racer.
She trained for her private pilot’s license in Long Beach in the mid-1960s just for kicks. She was an avid sail boater – skippering and racing them for most of her adult life, and setting yachting records. She evolved in her career as a professional photographer of cars to include architecture and wildlife. She belonged to several trade associations and clubs. In her later years she was a professional social worker for Orange County Social Services.
Marcia continued these avocations throughout her entire life. Her interests and talents were many, and she didn’t bother being sick – she was too busy having the best of times until she simply dropped from an aortic embolism at the age of 77 in September 2009.
The photos and her work in the magazines
Dan Post discovered Marcia’s talent as a photographer in the late 1940s, and the two became very good friends. Dan used many of Marcia’s photos of custom cars for the last two editions, of his Blue Book of Custom Restyling. From 1948-1952 – for us car guys the best known period – Marcia used a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex 2 ¼”2 camera and a Speed Graphic 4” x 5”. She had her own home darkroom – she processed all her own negatives and prints – allowing her to take as many photos as she liked. Marcia really enjoyed taking photos. Lucky for us she was able to combine it with her other passion – cars, specifically customs and hot rods. Of those cars she took photos of, many are ones we still admire today.
Marcia liked to hang out at the Barris shop where she would chat, take pictures, and observe the bodywork. Marcia was about the only gal around who was into cars. She was mechanically minded and could talk shop. Later, she organized photo sessions at nearby attractive locations, always giving away her prints to the cars’ owners or to George Barris. George gratefully accepted the photos and began using them for promotional material.
The finer tricks of photography
Compared to other photos from the late 1940s and early 1950s, most of Marcia’s images featured nice backgrounds. She always included a full side view so the whole car could be seen, and her point of view was always a bit lower than average. This lower point of view flattered the subject, making the car look longer and lower. Perhaps this was nothing more than the fact that Marcia had to look through the camera from the top, thus the camera sat lower, but I think she lowered it a bit more than needed for the more dramatic effect.
George Barris was very impressed with the photos Marcia took, and Marcia showed George the finer tricks of car photography. George had already started to take photos of the cars Barris Kustom’s had finished or were in the process of customizing, but he knew he could learn from Marcia how to take better photos. She showed him which angles worked best, how to use the flash, and other things – all to make the cars look the most attractive. In several interviews George gave full credit to Marcia for teaching him all he knows about taking photos.
Marcia’s photos were seen in many magazine and books. The first issue of Hop Up magazine in June 1951 included two of her photos on the cover, and more inside. After that, many an issue of Hop Up, Motor Trend and Rod & Custom would use her photos. According to Marcia, she never asked to be paid for the photos that where published. But she did insist that they where credited to her. On one occasion Hop Up – in the January 1952 issue – they failed to do so; an oversight the editors corrected in the next issue to set the record straight.
The cars in Marcia’s life
Marcia’s love for everything automotive showed early in her life. As soon as she got her driver’s license at age 15 she bought her first car – a new 1947 Buick Sedanette. Her second car was a powder blue and white 1949 Chevy convertible, which she immediately drove to Barris Kustom to have customized. Marcia had just started Compton College in 1949 and this Chevy was her daily transportation – you can imagine the impact it had on her fellow students. Her next custom was a 1942 Ford; heavily, but tastefully, chopped with a hopped-up Mercury flathead.
Originally this car was owned by Carl Abajian, but Marcia liked it so much that she traded her one-year-old 1949 Chevy convertible custom for it. After the 1942 Ford there were a couple of Mercurys, a 1950 and a 1951.
She went from Mercurys to Lincolns in the mid-50s, and owned many more domestic and exotic cars after that. Marcia owned and drove 52 cars in her life. And none of those were “mainstream” cars. Marcia also had a soft spot for horseless carriages and owned and restored several early automobiles, a passion she shared with her friend Dan Post.
Hot rods and racing at the dry lakes
In addition to custom cars Marcia also liked hot rods and racing at the dry lakes. Together with the Barris shop, she built her 1929 Model A roadster pick-up truck. Built on a 1932 Ford frame with sectioned ’32 Ford grille and channeled body. The roadster appeared in the January 1951 issue of Hot Rod Magazine with a photo of Marcia wrenching on the flathead engine inside the Barris Shop.
[box_light]with contributions from Michelle M. Yiatras and David E. Zivot[/box_light]
This article shows only a few samples of Marcia’s Custom Car Photography. The Rodder’s Journal issue #51 has a full article on Marcia Campbell by Rik Hoving.