The Secret Life of an Automotive Spy Photographer

Before heading into retirement, Brenda Priddy was part of the mysterious vehicle paparazzi scene.

byKristin V. Shaw|
People photo

Brenda Priddy became an automotive spy photographer by accident.

Her then-husband John was a car guy and she was a photographer, and they would often peruse spy photos in magazines and try to guess the vehicle for the fun of it. She never thought about taking spy photos herself until June of 1992, when she was at a local Safeway supermarket and noticed an unusual car in the parking lot. Being a photographer, her brain was trained to seek out things that stand out. She grabbed her camera and snapped a few pictures from her car, her two toddlers strapped into the back seat.

Brenda Priddy

When Priddy returned home, she showed the photos to her husband, who recognized the car as a not-yet-released 1994 Mustang. He called Automobile magazine to see if they would be interested. They initially said no, but John insisted they take a look. The magazine agreed to check them out, and Priddy sent her work via FedEx. A few weeks later, she called the editor to see if they were going to use her Mustang pictures. As it turned out, they were: Automobile chose one of her very first spy photos for the cover.

“The funny thing was that when I sent them the photos, I was just hoping to get a few Automobile t-shirts,” Priddy recounted in a recent interview with me. “Instead, I got a check plus t-shirts for the whole family. My kids still have them, too.”

That first Mustang was spotted very close to Priddy’s house in Arizona. The engineers liked the roads near her house, she says, because they could drive in circles all day at a constant speed without stops. For the next six spy captures, she snapped photos of them within walking distance of her home.

Soon, she started driving out toward various proving grounds in the area. She learned by observation where they tested, which hotels they would frequent, and where they would stop while driving prototypes. Other magazines took notice that a mom, sometimes with toddlers in tow, was getting spy photos. Before long, they started sending her wish lists of the cars they wanted her to catch on film.

It was important to her to do everything right, both as a professional and to be a role model for her kids. Every shot was taken legally in public places, and she didn’t trespass or touch any of the cars while keeping safety top of mind. Safety wasn’t as easy as just staying out of the way, though: Priddy’s nose was broken once when engineers for a particular model shoved her heavy camera into her face. Men threw rocks at her son when he was a teenager helping out his mom. Others tried to run her off the road. Priddy knew she was doing things by the book and just kept going.

"It was truly a love/hate relationship with the automakers," Priddy says. "Engineers were told 'don’t let anybody photograph your cars' but in public areas, that was impossible to avoid. PR people loved it because it was millions in free advertising; some even thanked me later."

Brenda Priddy

She has a bottomless well from which to tell stories after two decades of spy photography. There’s the engineer from Germany who was driving a Mercedes-Benz SLS with gullwing doors; he wanted to get back into the vehicle after a stop, but he noticed Priddy taking pictures and didn’t want her to see what the car could do, so they had a standoff while he chain-smoked a few cigarettes. Finally, resignedly, he climbed in through the window. Engineers would frequently write down her license plate number and she started having some fun with that, ordering a different vanity plate each year with labels like "GOTCHA" and "SPIONIN," which is the German word for a female spy.  

After many years of spending months at a time in Death Valley and back home in Phoenix capturing photos and anticipating every move of the mules in the area, Priddy finally hung up her spy camera in 2014. Now she leads car-focused excursions to Cuba and participates in art exhibits with her car photography. And she's re-learning how to rest after working 20 hour days capturing and shipping out photos around the world. 

Brenda Priddy

"The competition was fierce," she says. "I didn’t sleep. It’s really funny because if you were a neighbor you’d see me as a very quiet person. But when I’m in the business world doing what I do, I can be very assertive and I get it done; I’m amazed by the contrast. I never pictured myself like this but when I was growing up I wanted to be a spy. I saw myself as a secret agent."

In many ways, she did grow up to be a spy. And she was a damn good one, too. 

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