Old Car City… potential bucket list

Pete Collins here filling in for Scott…

I don’t know about you, but when another photographer says to me… “You have to go there!” I tend to nod politely while internally I am thinking… yeah right, it can’t be that good. So for a couple of years now I have heard about Old Car City outside of Atlanta, and how great it was, but I was secretly like “it can’t be as good as they say.” Well, I am here to admit that Old Car City is definitely worth putting on your bucket list. According to the Internet, which only tells the truth, this place is ranked as the third best junkyard in the world behind the Russian space junkyard, and the Airplane boneyard out in Arizona. (of course I don’t know who rates these things or what is the criteria, but at the end of the day this place is pretty darn impressive.)

Fancy sign Fancy spelling. Photo by Clint Brownlee
The inner lair of Dean Lewis... Photo by Clint Brownlee

Located about 50 miles outside of Atlanta in White, Ga. (Yep, way too easy to make inappropriate jokes so let’s move on.) This dixieland automotive museum spans 34 acres with over 4000 American cars covering over six miles of trails. The thing that makes it so unique is that the cars are becoming one with the environment… some of them have been around since 1931 and have been reclaimed by trees, grass and bushes. I could give you a lot of facts, etc… about the place, but I am going to write this from my perspective as a photographer and first time visitor and hopefully you will enjoy the images and the insight with the end result being that you having a new place added to your bucket list. Be sure to check out their website, OldCarCityUSA.com.

The Journey
I drove down from Chattanooga with my buddy and fellow camera junky Mike Daniels; he did the navigating. I tend to get distracted and miss places, so I was glad he was there to guide us. I was then extra glad that he came along since Dean Lewis (the owner) only takes cash and I conveniently forgot my wallet. :D The cost of entry is $25, and Dean is happy to direct you down the road to an ATM if you forget. Dean was busy doodling on one of his cups and talking to a gentleman named Clint Brownlee when we arrived. Dean is what I like to call “a mess.” Now for those of you not from the south the term “a mess” can be used in a variety of ways depending on the tone/inflection and twinkle in the eye of the one speaking. This particular use of the term means “someone who is unique and inspiring, and yet maybe a bit strange.” Sort of like that uncle that you hope will come for Christmas and bring his amazing set of fireworks, but then you spend the whole time trying to not let him drink too much eggnog before he goes out to light them so he doesn’t lose yet another finger. :D (I hope that makes sense… someone you want to watch, just to see what he will do next.)

Clint Brownlee is another one of use crippled with the photography bug and is responsible for putting together the Old Car City blog, and he happens to follow Scott and our crew, so he was able to vouch for me with Dean. Actually, Dean knew of our group because last year at Photoshop World in Atlanta we had a workshop come out, and then Bill Fortney has done a class out there. I told Dean that I was Scott’s boss… but I don’t think he bought it since he then tried to charge me double. :D Make sure to check out Clint’s blog. Clint volunteered to show me around the place… which is a huge undertaking… only 34 acres… meh, we should be done in no time. As we started out, he shared with me that he and a friend of his had been coming out here multiple times a week when they first discovered the place and I now understand whey.

To get a true feel of the place, you need to appreciate this new installment that Dean has placed near the entrance to the cars. Yep, that is pretty creepy. Larry Becker titled it “Youth Springs Eternal!”

Dean says welcome! Don't mind the dolls!

Once past the baby dolls, it became sensory overload… It wasn’t a matter of trying to find something to shoot, it was trying to narrow your focus so that you could actually not spend the entire day just at the front of the place. You know that feeling when you come across something so neat and cool that giggles sneak out spontaneously? It was at that point that I felt like Roy Scheider in Jaws… “We are going to need a bigger boat!” We were going to need a longer day and more energy to be able to take it all in.

Clint was doing his best to be a tour guide, but at a certain point I just needed to play, and so I asked if I could take off on my own to wander around with my camera. It was early morning, hot, humid, wet and I didn’t care… I was in heaven. How good a place is it? I don’t know about you, but I hold my breath when I take a picture, and at one point I realized I was really out of breath from taking too many pictures back to back… it was such a target rich environment. Think of it like a giant easter egg hunt with 4,000 golden eggs.

The old Old Car City office
Just past the baby dolls, the fun begins
A photographers playground awaits
Wonderful mixture of man vs. nature

Let’s talk about my gear and my approach for the day.

I had in my vehicle ready for the day: Canon 1DX (my absolute favorite camera), 5D Mark3, 16-35 f2.8, 24-70 f2.8, 70-200 f2.8, a tripod and a couple flashes and triggers, reflectors, a ladder and a rain poncho. I use the Spider Holster system with extra pouches to hold my lenses and tripod, so starting out I was carrying the 1DX and all of my lenses and my tripod. When I started out, I had imagined finding some good areas of composition and setting up my tripod for some HDR shots and really work the scene.

After ten minutes I realized that I would never be able to cover the whole area that way and I made a decision. I knew that I was going to make an effort to revisit this place many many times, and the best thing that I could do this time is get a feel for the layout and document the area. I was also loving all of the hood ornaments and badges on the cars, so I got rid of everything but the 24-70 so I could travel lighter and faster and started working the entire area.

Basically, I began at one side of the land and tried my best to go up and down every aisle, and if something jumped out at me… snap the picture, then see if it was worth working more into the scene, but then move on to the next aisle. I covered a majority of the place in just over two hours. Which might not sound that impressive to some,  but I was definitely hoofing it. Then it was time for lunch, and by this time my buddy Steve Gustafson had made it and so he, Mike, Clint and myself walked across the street to this great lunch/roadside barbecue place that is almost worth the trip just for their food and sweet tea.

beware of snakes
hidden gems in the back corners of the fields

After the lunch-time food coma passed, we went back out. Before lunch it had beee overcast and pretty flat lighting, but now it was bright/dappled light everywhere. Each type of light has its pros and cons, but for the most part I preferred the flat lighting, and if I was going to spend more time out there I would have pulled out my scrims and reflectors to tame the light falling on the cars. There was enough details in the cars, that any dappled light just helped add to the visual noise for the most part.

Another thing to think about if/when you go… seasons. The amount of overgrowth and leaves created some unique shots of nature buried cars, but it also obscured lots of vehicles that I couldn’t even tell what they were. Fall and Winter will have a different look with less foliage, but each season has its merit. Just remember if you don’t care too much for snakes and critters, you may want to wait till later in the season. :D

I have no idea what kind of cars these are... this is the high green season

One of the things that I try to do when in a situation like this is to stop periodically and just enjoy the environment and then do a quick image review. What that will do it reset my thinking and help me to go back and get something I may of missed or inform my eye as to what I am responding to and to be more aware of that as I go forth. For instance, I noticed that I preferred that less cluttered scenes and the simplistic images of the badges and shallow focus shots, so I spent more time shooting those kind of shots.

I retraced my morning track, but this time a little slower and more deliberate. What I noticed was that the exact same objects/scenes grabbed my attention the second time and reaffirmed to myself that I was on the right page. This is an important point: I was confirming to my own heart that I had made a right choice in how I was shooting the area. The best way I can describe it would be like a visual metal detector… I would walk along and then something would ping in my brain and I would stop and snap that shot.

I wasn’t obsessing over finding images, I was letting my subconscious be my guide. I was trying to let my heart lead without getting so caught up in my head. When I came around the second time and the same objects/scenes pinged in my head, then it was a confirmation of what I shot the first time. We as photographers tend to question ourselves a lot, and this was a great affirmation to myself and another step in my growth of understanding who I am as a photographer. I hope that makes sense.

My name is Forrest... Forrest Gump
At 84 lumber we grow our trees right in the truck to save time
When trucks play hide and seek
This truck wins by a nose
yep, another Ford
Desoto... I couldn't think of a random, weird caption for Desoto
Buick Eighty-Eight
I wish I knew what type of vehicle this is
This looks a lot like the inside of my car
Because I'm Happy
Love that texture
Little tip: bring a small flashlight to help enlighten these type of hood ornaments if the sun doesn't cooperate.
Shameless Tomorrowland promotion even here. :D
Love all the different ornaments
rusted victory
Grill work

I have a bunch more images and I will probably add some more over on my blog at petecollins.com if you are interested. Thanks for taking the time to look at my work. Pete

ps. when you are done shooting outside or just need a break, make sure you go check out Dean’s styrofoam cup museum… he has been getting a cup of tea every morning, and instead of throwing out the cup, he may spend hours doodling on it and creating his own cup art. Upstairs are hundreds if not thousands of his cups on display. Worth a look.

Part of the cup museum... Photo by Clint Brownlee


  1. I went there a couple of years ago. I want to go back sometime soon. I also recommend mosquito protection. I got eaten last time I was there.

  2. You got some great shots Pete. I especially like the detail shots of the various hood ornaments and badges. Did you hire a sherpa to help you haul that gear around?

  3. “I wish I knew what type of vehicle this is”

    If I’m not mistaken that’s a VW T1 =)

    Seems to be an amazing place!!
    I myself just recently discovered an abandoned train-station and had alot of the same feelings you described =D

  4. You have some nice shots from OCC.

    I’ve been to OCC twice, the first time was with Bill Fortney courtesy of Kelby One and Bill. The second time was with the local photography club. Going with Bill it was amazing. He knew all the great places and I sure we only got to a small part of that group.

    One caution I would include for the shooters year round: Watch out for the poison ivy. In some places in the back of OCC the vines are so large you won’t recognize it and think it is some other type of vine.

    I want to make my next trip in the late fall about a week or two after a killing frost or hard freeze to kill the greenery and encourage the snakes to hide. (I’ve not seen a snake in my previous trips.) I think there is never a bad season for OCC.

    1. David, you are right on the money about the poison ivy, I just new I was going to “need an ocean of calamine lotion” but miraculously I didn’t get any… maybe the sweat acted as a protective barrier.

  5. Pete, what a great article. I always like your sense of humor and your storying telling ability.

    Bill and I have did 3 or 4 workshops there and it is a treat each and every time. Here is a link to my website with a gallery of some of my favorite images. Let me know when you want to go back….. http://bit.ly/17IJaxU

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