Art or Intrusion? Photographer Johnny Tergo’s ‘drive-by’ Portraits


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.



As to privacy, just wait for Google Glass:


Well, if you look at his photos, they are pretty much like the above two: Not well-lit and not really interesting because all of them are looking at the camera (I suppose he says “hi” or something and gets their photo as soon as they look.

What he’s doing could be done just as easily (with as-good results) with a point and shoot. The lighting isn’t that good. The pictures aren’t that good. There is no story in those photos because it’s just a bunch of people turning around to look because someone said something or honked.

I think the guy is getting all this attention because of the elaborate (and unnecessary) rig he set up in his car.

There are better lighting situations (daytime) in which you could get these shots, and in that case you could just sit across the street with a larger zoom lens.
To his credit: He’s trying to do something interesting. I don’t think he succeeded, but he’s trying. I think he needs to go back to the drawing board. He’s doing nothing unique.

Paulo Ferreira

What a waste of time… and space. Until the day he triggers (literally) an epileptic fit in one of the subjects and gets sued to oblivion.


So-called “fine art” photography has always been rife with photographers who come up with a gimmick. Mr. Tergo is just another in a long list of people who attract attention (and sometimes Big Bucks…) “creating” meaningless photographs with artistic pretensions.

No one is going to remember this photographer when his 15 minutes of fame have passed because aside from the novelty of his approach to his subjects the images lack soul. If it wasn’t for the computers, WiFi, high-powered strobes and generators in his pickup Wired would not have bothered interviewing him and we wouldn’t be discussing his images.


This is a total gimmick by a guy without talent.
As mentioned before, Winograd, Friedander and others are much better.
Currently tho, is the great work of David Bradford, featured on CBS Sunday Morning, and his book ‘Drive by Shootings’. He worked as a cab driver in NYC and during his shift he shot photos with a simple Olympus Stylus Epic film camera and the photos really depicted the ‘heart’ of the city.
Tergo is terrible. How about photos shot from an armored vehicle. His threatening vehicle could easily be shot at with the shooter claiming ‘self-defense’ and he would win under Homeland Security act.
Tergo is probably a former paparazzi without any conscience or values.


Talent? Maybe not photographic, but look at the amount of verbiage he has generated, even in this forum. He may have a future in advertising.

Reilly Diefenbach

A new low for a genre that has nowhere to go but up.

Geoffrey S Baker

Not worth the effort in my book. Here’s a guy doing it different and better I.M.H.O.

Joe Braun

That is a ridiculous amount of gear to get rather average out-the-window shots. REALLY? Where’s the cappuccino dispenser in that monstrous rig? 🙂 Did this article only make the cut because it’s a Rube Goldberg machine? An article about holding your camera out the window just wouldn’t be that exciting.


At least if these people were celebrities we could say they forfeited their right to privacy. I’m sure any proceeds from the use of the photos are given to these non-volunteering subjects.

the Mtn Man

Nope. In the US, so long as the photographer is standing on public property, they can take a picture of anything they want (even through a window, if the opportunity presents itself) and do whatever they want with the photograph short of defaming the subject. Laws may be different in other countries.

Jeff Greenberg

>>In the US, so long as the photographer is standing on public property, they can take a picture of anything they want
False! Its still possible to illegally invade privacy
in US public places, e.g., if someone was carrying
prescription bottle or private papers in non-overtly
exhibited fashion, but the image allowed one to
zoom in & read details…
The legal test is “expectation of privacy”.
It is clearly expected in public restroom.
It is clearly expected within one’s clothing.
Many many other examples.

This drive-by freelancer is going to have his hands full
if he does this to minors, IMO, whether or not legal.


I think its funny. this is better then some street photogs ive seen in portland!


Sounds like he’s taken his photography cue from the 1986 movie “The Boss’ Wife”


Alastair Thain


Different style of shooting ..not my style but pretty interesting motionless toy like people. Comparing these with Iphone images is laughable.

Jimmy jang Boo

Isn’t this kind of activity/distraction tantamount to texting while driving? Hopefully a cop will pull him over and have him taken off the road before he crashes his truck or kills a pedestrian.


Am I the only one finds “street photography” generally insipid and uninspiring? This just takes it to a new level of tastelessness.


There is clever and thoughtful street photography like Gary Winnogrand, Lee Friedlander, Elliot Erwitt and some would even say Cartier-Bresson. But then, there is Eggleston, etc.


I agree 100% with SDH
This brings nothing whatsoever to photography


And I agree with AbrasiveReducer. Well-conceived street photography lets us look at ourselves and maybe learn something. However this truck monstrosity is not the way to do it, IMHO. I think it’s a way for Tergo to get his 15 minutes of fame. Would he dare put a 35mm lens on his camera and go talk to someone? I agree with Ornitho1 too. And see Provia_fan’s comment below.

Mike Sandman

A little weird. I’ve taken photos from buses and trams on occasion, although I was interested in capturing a store front rather than takings a grab shot of a person. It must feel threatening to have a pickup stop next to you and then have a bright light come on. Even if it’s legal, it’s still rude and intrusive, and while the results are fun to see, they’re not so spectacular as to justify upsetting the subject of the photo. But maybe in 50 or 100 years someone will look at these and marvel at the way they capture early 21st century LA street life.


The question here isn’t whether or not this is right or wrong, but whether it will produce compelling work. Seems to me the real reason behind the truck is that it’s a “getaway vehicle” that allows the photographer an easy exit. If this elaborate rig exists solely for the purpose of keeping the photographer from having to interact with his subjects, then I doubt it’ll deliver the content desired.


That said, it’s interesting that he’s chosen to leave a piece of the mirror in the images, communicating how the photo was taken to the viewer. He’s not attempting to present this to the viewer as something it’s not. So in the end it simply comes down to whether or not the photographs resonate with people, and I think some of these are good – subjective processing decisions aside. Whether or not this has legs remains to be seen. I don’t think the Wired article, or anything here, presents a particularly comprehensive outline of the photographer’s intent.


If the set-up were on a bicycle I’d be impressed. It would give the subjects a chance to run him down.


what happens when
a. Police pull him over
B. someone shoots back


b) someone shoots back

If you mean with a gun, then justice will have been served.

This insipid trend of “street photography” can’t fade soon enough IMO.

the Mtn Man

It seems that technical excellence is either not valued or aimed at by most modern street “photographers”, which is why I think it has become so trendy.


Worth the effort of all this paraphernalia, at least he found Jesus in Hollywood.


Good example to discuss about the morality of the street photography and cheap digital film effects. Interesting, indeed.


I don’t know if anyone else has pointed it out (lots of comments!) but “tergo”, in Latin, translates as “behind”.
Ergo (groans) “Johnny Assh0le”


In my experience of years of street photography, what annoys people really is big SLRs and Flashes. I now stick to rangefinders or occasionally a small film SLR. When I used flash it is never directed at people, I always bounce it off somewhere and you get better results too. Also, your demeanour when you take a pic. If someone refuses to be photographed respect it. If you already got the shot, good for you they are usually interesting and legally you are not breaking the law as the law says in public you lose the right to privacy. Simple as.

If it wasn’t for street photography a lot of the social history of the 20th and now 21st century would gone missing, would have been just words.

Thank you Bresson, Winogrand, Meyerowitz, Gilden and the lot of you, for your dedication and art.


If he want to use a truck. He should use a large format camera. The result doesn’t look better than one taken by a compact point and shoot.


Alastair Thain


At first I was horrified but at least he’s being brutally blatant about the street photography problem. Unlike Philip-Lorca diCorcia who an Orthodox Jew tried to sue for the same kind of street portrait approach in Times Square a few years back. But that guy didn’t know it had been done until he saw it in an exhibition catalogue afterwards.


It is a picture… of course, but not really a portrait. A portrait should tell us something about the subject.

On another bent, I’m surprised no one has taken a couple of shots at him

Gordon L

This clown is certainly rude and obnoxious. Kind of a high tech small balls version of certain street photograhers who do it up close and on foot.

Cailean Gallimore

What rubbish.


Tens of thousands of dollars in gear, and that’s the result? There are iphone photographers that do better.


Good shot of Jesus 🙂


Jesus mows my lawn.


It’s certainly intrusive. Which is fine. I wouldn’t call it art. But that’s not because of the technique. I’m sure another photographer could do better using the same technique (and others would do worse). There’s nothing in most of them to hold my interest.


I would not be comfortable doing this.

More importantly, I think you get better photos from co-operative subjects, and you find many more opportunities and stories by going up and talking to your subject first.

Cy Cheze

“Excuse me, Ma’am. Can I take your picture?”

“My WHAT?”

“I’m a ‘street photographer.’ I want to win an award and make money from sales of prints at auction. You remind me of a Munch painting.”

“Eeeeek! Heavens no. With my hair like THIS? How about if I take YOUR picture? For the COPS to see!”

Cooperative subjects: dogs, ducks, flowers, ants, grave markers, or clouds.


Cy Cheze you made my day.

Demon Cleaner

StevenE I wouldn’t be comfortable with it either, however what you’re describing there is portraiture work, not street photography.


Cy – you forgot cats. If there’s anything that dpreview has taught me, it’s that cats are the perfect combination of available and cooperative whenever someone has a camera and feels a burning need to take a picture and post it in the forums.


You just made this thread man 😀 There’s no more simple and blatant way to put it to those who don’t even understand street photography and make statements about it.


Lol the mirror is in every picture. That’s street photography at its finest.


that mirror will soon be a new instagram effect. for the hipster ironically pretending to be a hipster honestly pretending to be an artist.


An old, tried-and-true choice of subject matter (street shooting) with better lighting. Subjects are interesting, though … indicating that the photographer knows how to edit his work. I do question, though, the “surprise attack” approach. I’d be pretty upset if it happened to me. The drive-by technique appears to me to be a complicated issue from a privacy standpoint.


In most countries* it is perfectly legal to photograph anything you like on public places like streets without asking for permission. Studio flashes or not.

*) not in France, though, and in Italy it is illegal to take pictures of minors. I think Norway also has some strange restrictions.


Why doesn’t he use daylight?


Frankly, I don’t care about the controversy.
When the results look THAT bad, why bother?
It seems almost like the controversy is sought, to make up for lack of inherent interest.
Like the photos from the photographer who installs a trapeze everywhere in the vicinity of landmarks and then shoots while doing a sommersault (I am making this up, but I am sure someone will pick up on the idea).
I would be willing to take (a certain amount of) risks or be provocative for the sake of art, but not for the sake of such boring and random results.


Well, the results are not meant to look bad or good, they are meant to look real with maybe a little magic thrown in by the light in this case. I don’t like his approach but people don’t understand that street photography is not primarily looking at finding pretty pictures of cooperative subjects. It is after the rawness of the street, of life. Occasionally magic happens. Before making judgements, one must understand what is street photography.

the Mtn Man

“Before making judgements, one must understand what is street photography.”

That just sounds like a poor excuse for boring pictures. There are much better examples of street photography than what has been provided here.


If you live by drive-by shooting, you will die of drive-by shooting (of different kind).


Typical Canon User


if only BMW made pickup trucks…

the Mtn Man

Am I the only one who thinks the pictures in the article look like boring snapshots? If the article presents itself as “Art or Intrusion?” then I, for one, would like to see compelling examples of both.


In L.A.? Just wait til he photographs a gangbanger, he’ll look like Swiss cheese


The only thing keeping this guy’s windows intact is the “wtf just happened” factor.

Antony John

Also the strobe/flash helps the getaway.

max metz

lol. In Australia, three nights tops an you’d be in hospital eating through a straw.


This concept has been done long before by artists like Philip-Lorca diCorcia. And much better and more intelligently.


Also, Alastair Thain

Cy Cheze

Artists of note are invariably wild or daring. If they don’t skirt rules, there will be nothing to excite viewers or buyers.

Some will disagree. “Look at all the wonderful paintings and photos for sale at Walmart and Target. What lovely images! So soothing.” Works of the late Thomas Kinkade are their model. Good for filling reception area wall space.

Commercial photography is something altogether different: products, posed shots, everything strickly conventional. Everything is representational, composed to suit the pixel-peeper’s demands.

Advertising is something of a hybrid. It has to seduce, excite, alert, or even slightly offend. OK if low-res or off-color.

Tom Goodman

I frequently experiment with subjects and techniques; however, I don’t subject the public to every one of them.


Ah, so THIS is how suburbanites do street photography when they move in to the big city!!!!

Cy Cheze

More innocent than pictures of casualties of war, floods, storms, and quakes.


What a lot of old women there are on this site.


The photographer rude? Some of your comments are pretty rude. Street photography is done without permission daily and it’s okay. But, as soon as someone gets strobes out, it’s automatically wrong? No. I do drive by video all the time of normal every day people on college campuses and in the city without “permission”. If you’re in the public, expect yourself to be public; especially in today’s generation with photo sharing websites.


NONE of that changes the fact that the DECENT thing to do is at the very least ASK for permission to publicly publish the photos.


Just because one is on a public street doesn’t mean that the law should automatically give 3rd parties the right to intrude on your private life. A great number of people want to be able to carry out their lives, including day-to-day unavoidable activities like walking on the sidewalk, without a stranger splashing their faces, health issues and conversations in a magazine or website.

” If you’re in the public, expect yourself to be public”. It’s also to treat the word ‘public’ as something simple. It’s not simple at all. Tomes could be written on the subject of public and private. There is ‘public services’ (ie. government provided), private commerce offered to the public, really offered to other private persons (revelaing hte ambiguities/subtleties of the words); those who expressly live in the public view therefore giving an implicit license to publish, but not necessairly to record and publish their personal conversations, or their private pics of their private parts.


Media is a distinct entity, distinct from day to day living. It should, like any human/on-animal activity, be subject to responsible (and limited) restraints in the service of the greater good and happiness of people leading their difficult lives.


Okay by whose low standards, yours? Being in the “public” doesn’t give you the right to invade someones privacy. People like you can’t make it in the real world of photography, you think art is a lousy picture of a person walking down a dirty street. Do you hide your cameras in bathrooms too? Stick your camera in my face and you’ll be wearing it where the sun doesn’t shine.




Next we will here about how he is being sued because he caused someone to turn an ankle as they stepped off a curb and got blasted by flash or fell down from being startled by the flash while walking down the street or while backing away from a creepy guy pulling up to them in a truck. Or because he caused a seizure or asthma attack or something.

Not to mention what he is doing is very rude even at it’s most benign. He even acknowledges most people don’t like it in the interview. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to say “you know what I could blast total strangers in the face with my flash from my truck but I think I’ll be a decent human being instead and respect their right to privacy and to not be harassed by a dumb ass photographer.”

This guy is a grade A D-bag.

Johannes Zander

Street View on a tiny scale. Google has a job for him.


He should do outdoor weddings.


….at night, for that ‘deer in the headlights look’.

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