Friday, October 12, 2012

Chandra and Jimmie Johnson are an open book

This morning I attended a media tour of On the Road, an exhibit by North Carolina photographer Missy McLamb that chronicles 10 weeks in the lives of Jimmie Johnson, his wife Chandra and their daughter Genevieve during the 2011 season when he was gunning for what he hoped would be his sixth straight win in the NASCAR Cup Series.

It's only on view Oct. 13-20 at Hart Witzen Gallery, 136 E. 36th St. in the NoDa neighborhood. After seeing the photos and hearing the stories behind the creative process, I urge you to race over and see it. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; and noon-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Info: (The photo above is of Chandra and Missy in the gallery this morning).

"It wasn't easy to make ourselves so vulnerable during this process, but it was worth it when I look at Missy's photographs," Chandra said.

She had a lot to look at: Missy took 15,000 photos. Chandra curated them with the help of two of her friends who share her artistic sensibilities, Laura and Perry Poole. They provided the perspective she often needed to narrow the photographs to the best of the best.

During the tour, Chandra  pointed out some of her favorites from the 68 photos that make up the exhibit. "We were blown away by Missy's images," she said. Among them are the sweet daddy-daughter shots that show how Jimmie is able to switch gears from being one of NASCAR's fiercest competitors to doting father of Genevieve, who was one-year-old at the time.

She's also fond of a shot of Jimmie's racing team owner, Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports. "He looks so stoic," she said.

More photos (around 200) are in the Johnsons' self-published coffee table book of the same name. Released in September, it has already been such a hit with fans that it's going into its second printing. (It's on backorder at Jimmie wrote all the captions, so you also get a glimpse into what was going on in his head when a particular shot was taken. He also gave each of the photos their title in the exhibit and the book.

(A funny story about the publishing process: The Johnsons chose to self-publish it because going through the normal publishing house procedures would have meant waiting almost two years for the book to come out. Jimmie wanted it out faster - of course - which they did in an astounding seven months without sacrificing quality.)

The Johnsons originally hired a sports photographer to take the pictures, but a week before the project began the photographer backed out. Chandra thought of lifestyle photographer Missy McLamb, who had taken many of their family photos and had become a friend. Chandra trusted Missy, and Jimmie trusted Chandra to pick the right person.

Missy didn't know anything about NASCAR going into the project, but she approached the sport with respect and with an artist's eye that elevate the pictures to another realm. And because the family was already so comfortable with Missy, during the 10 weeks she lived with them she was able to capture meaningful, and sometimes raw, private moments that show a side to Jimmie and his family that fans don't normally see.

The exhibit and book are, in my opinion, a success on many different levels. The behind-the-scenes life of one of NASCAR's most popular drivers will satisfy race fans. The photos are so personal and powerful that you feel like you're looking through the photo album of two loving families (the Johnsons and their racing family made up of fans and team members ). They also work as historical documentation. But to me, where they really excel are as art.

One of my favorites in the exhibit from an artistic view is of a fan watching the race in bad weather with a fleece jacket pulled over her head that resembles a nun's wimple. Since some of my family members are longtime NASCAR fans, to me it symbolized the devotion of those fans and the way they make pilgrimages to races. And also their devotion to the one driver that resonates with them and whom they pick to cheer for at the track.

There's a photo on page 64 of the book that I keep turning back to again and again because I can picture it on the wall of a museum 100 years from now. It shows the family leaving a car to walk across the tarmac to fly home after a race. There's something about the way Chandra is in motion and the way Jimmie is cradling Genevieve in front of a stormy sky. It seems to personify the hurried pace of our century, the ominous danger of forces beyond our control, the beauty of a loving family, and the hope for the future in the way Genevieve is looking straight ahead.

The exhibit and the book are also reminders that just like Jimmie, sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose, but there's always a lot more going on under all our hoods than the public normally gets a chance to see. So celebrate it, document it and enjoy every lap as we all speed around this track of life.

Follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviafortson