Larry Chen grew up in Santa Monica, California, where car culture was practically inescapable. Throughout his childhood, he was surrounded by cars, whether he or his father was fixing them, or he was taking photos, so it was only natural that Larry’s interest in cars kickstarted his successful career.
This year at the SEMA Show, an industry event he’s been attending for 17 years, Larry was named Influencer of the Year. Not only did this recognition redirect the spotlight on his incredible work as an automotive photographer, but it gives him a platform to further storytell about cars and the people that drive them through photography.
Pennzoil sat down with Larry Chen to discuss how he got his start as a photographer, what being named SEMA’s Influencer of the Year means to him, and the impact of his relationship with the brand on his career.
PENNZOIL: Was there any part of your childhood that you believe shaped or inspired your career?
CHEN: Growing up, my dad worked on all our cars. The funny thing is he didn’t do it because he thought it was fun, he hated it, but it was cheap. It looked like it was fun when I was a kid, so I picked up on that.
Growing up in Santa Monica and living in an apartment without a garage, everyone could see me working on cars all the time once I started. I’d constantly get asked, “what’s broken?” while fixing a car, but what most people didn’t understand was that I was tinkering with it to make it better, to make it faster.
PENNZOIL: When did you first pick up a camera?
CHEN: I started taking pictures in elementary school with a film camera, but didn’t pick up a camera seriously until high school. I didn’t get much from my film camera because it was automatic, but I still have a lot of the images that I shot back then. I quickly understood the settings of a camera, and what was needed to create a photo.
PENNZOIL: Were you self-taught or was there a class in high school or a teacher that showed you the ropes?
CHEN: Initially, I was self-taught. I understood the basic mechanics of taking a picture. It’s like when you drive a manual transmission car and if you don’t know how it works, it’s tougher to get into it and understand what you’re doing. But, if you already have a basic understanding of how a transmission works, it seems a little easier to get into it. For me, it was the same thing with photography. I understood that you were controlling the light going into the camera and that’s where I was able to understand and learn how to control and shape the light. Otherwise, I did take one introduction class at a community college right out of high school, but that was it because it was just something I did with a couple of friends for fun.
PENNZOIL: Describe the beginning of your career. What were the roadblocks and learning curves?
CHEN: There were plenty of roadblocks, but the main thing was trying to stand out. When I first started, there was no social media. I was so desperate to get photos in front of people that I collected emails at events and sent images out that way. I even posted on forums because back then, instead of going to Google something you went to a forum and searched if anyone else had run into the same problem before. Then, they would be able to explain how they resolved the problem. There were a bunch of car forums, but they were more high-end, so I started posting in the “off-topic” areas because I just wanted people to see the photos I was taking, it was as simple as that.
PENNZOIL: You capture Formula Drift, and it seems like you have a special relationship with them. How did you initially get involved?
CHEN: It came from the car community that was of my generation. They took me into their arms and gave me access and the platform to practice my craft. I made a lot of friends there and still call it my home because any time I’m there, it’s always people that I started with that are still doing what they’re doing, just at a higher level. It’s great to be able to tell everyone’s story, especially someone like Vaughn Gittin Jr., who I started shooting in 2004 and then you have someone like Chelsea DeNofa, who I started shooting during his rookie year and I’ve been able to watch him get to where he is now.
PENNZOIL: You were named Automotive Influencer of The Year at the SEMA Show. What does this accomplishment mean to you?
CHEN: It’s incredible because I didn’t expect it at all, nor did I even intend for it to happen. Over the years, SEMA has been so good to me as a platform that’s allowed me to perform and grow. Naturally, the accomplishment helped my business. But I more look at the fact that SEMA let us tell the stories of these people. This is my 17th year at SEMA, and I’ve had nothing but good experiences with them since 2006 when I first started attending the event. For the first couple of years, it was a struggle. I slept on hotel room floors because I couldn’t afford a flight or hotel let alone be able to afford food. At the time, for me to go and not sell computers and not do house calls for a whole week, was tough. But SEMA was the pinnacle of car culture and I had to be there. I struggled for the first couple of years, but eventually, I found my way, especially because I’ve now built 3 cars for the show. Regardless, it’s unbelievable for them to recognize me after all these years.
PENNZOIL: What type of stories are you hoping to convey with your content, and who are you hoping to reach?
CHEN: I want to create stories that I would be interested in, especially when I was younger. I remember when I was younger, I would scour the internet, or I would look for magazines that weren’t available in the United States and do whatever I could to find this car culture material and media.
But it’s not like that anymore, there are so many content creators that fill the gap for people who want to get into cars. I always tell big content creators, like Adam LZ, thankfully there are so many nerds out there that appreciate how deep you and I get into cars and focus on the tiniest details with us.
PENNZOIL: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
CHEN: Being able to make friends, make connections, and participate in car culture whether that’s driving, building the car, rallies, racing, or drifting. It’s such a great feeling to be a part of the community, and not just photograph it.
PENNZOIL: What is your dream car to photograph?
CHEN: I don’t have a dream car, but I do have dream events that I still want to capture in my lifetime. In terms of cars, eventually, I feel like I’ll get most of the ones that I care about, but there are always going to be new ones and I’ll never get to all of them. In terms of historical events, there’s a finite amount of events that are bucket list ones, but there will always be events that pop up. If I could, I’d love to get to Dakar Rally, Monaco Grand Prix, Bathhurst 12-hour race in Australia, and the Leadfoot festival in New Zealand.
PENNZOIL: What keeps you motivated to stay on this career path?
CHEN: Part of it is that I’m not good at anything else. Nothing makes me feel alive more than what I’m doing with photography. A lot of what I do is to be able to push harder to capture car culture and now, it’s almost like I can’t stop.
PENNZOIL: How has your partnership with Pennzoil impacted your career?
CHEN: It changed my life for the better and elevated what we’ve done, especially because Pennzoil has sponsored our Hagerty show. To be able to move to a platform like Hagerty changed my life and the guys that I work with because we’re creating content on such a different level, and it’s even elevated our brand. Pennzoil being able to fund these projects that allow us to show off our culture and spread the word has been such a big part of what we have done this year. If we didn’t have Pennzoil to support us in these niche projects, I don’t know what we’d be doing.
PENNZOIL: Do you use any Pennzoil products in your builds? If so, which ones?
CHEN: Most of the cars we use include Pennzoil products. For example, with the Baja 1000, we used 2 of our chase trucks, one called the Raptor Tundra, which was built to compete against the Ford Raptor, which uses 0W20 Ultra Platinum, and then a supercharged FJ Cruiser which uses 10W30 Ultra Platinum. We’re pushing these vehicles so hard to chase the race, and we take them out when it’s heavy-duty off-roading. You also must bring spares, just in case because we’re pushing them so hard to keep up with the racer. This year, we followed the Ford Performance team that used Shell biofuels for their Raptor Ranger that finished way ahead of time, and we were able to follow them from start to finish, taking about 27 hours. Otherwise, most of my performance vehicles like my SEMA Car and Supra both use Pennzoil products.
PENNZOIL: Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers/content creators?
CHEN: The main thing I tell people is to shoot what you love. If you’re truly not passionate about cars, but you’re more passionate about something like food or wedding photography, and it’s something you don’t mind being around the rest of your life, focus on that. If it becomes a chore and something you don’t enjoy, your photos will suffer.
PENNZOIL: Anything exciting in the works, that you’d be willing to give us a sneak preview into?
CHEN: We’re going to Tokyo for Tokyo Auto Salon in January. This will be the first time since the shutdown that we’ll be able to attend because the last one was 2 weeks before the pandemic. For us to go back and create content for this event is a big deal and we’re excited to do so. So, stay tuned for photos and videos from there.
Thank you, Pennzoil, for supporting me and so many other creators and people in the industry that want to preserve car culture.
Check out Larry Chen on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter to follow along with all his car culture endeavors.