Florida photographer highlights ‘American Icons’

Matt McCarthy grew up loving cars and history, and after receiving a 35mm camera as a high school graduation gift, classic cars and photography seemed … well … a picture-perfect combination. Years later, McCarthy owns an online automotive business, “American Icons,” selling posters, t-shirts, hats and mugs.

“Photography is something that fell into my life when I was a college student taking graphic design classes,” said McCarthy, who lives in St. Augustine, Fla. “I’ve loved vintage cars for a long time. They’re living pieces of American history. They mean a lot to people. So as people started seeing my work and got excited about it, they encouraged me to do more.”

The result is McCarthy’s classic car photo gallery at mattmccarthyphotos.com and his business at zazzle.com/americanicons. He also runs a popular Instagram account (AmericanIconsClassicCars).

“My budget is essentially the spare change and lint that I find in the couch,” McCarthy joked. “It definitely hasn’t made me rich, but I love doing it.”

McCarthy, 47, grew up near New York City, an only child of working parents. His love for cars (and airplanes) came from his graphic-designer father, who has a particular fondness for 1955 Studebakers, Jaguar XK120 Drophead Coupes and prewar cars with French coachwork. As a kid, McCarthy collected “Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Corgi and Buddy L toy cars like most American males,” but as his love for automobiles grew, so did the actual size of his dream cars.

In 2002, McCarthy moved south to St. Augustine, FL when his parents retired there. He accepted a job as an educational tour guide and became immersed in St. Augustine’s history. The city, founded in 1565 by a Spanish admiral, is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the contiguous United States.

“Naturally, as a tour guide I started taking a lot of photos, and a fellow tour guide – a grad student – saw my work, and that led to helping him on a project related to extinct Native American people who once lived in the Ocala National Forest. We were awarded a grant, but then our funding was canceled for a number of reasons and the project eventually fell through.”

As a gift to an auto dealer who had provided a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the project, McCarthy put together a portfolio of classic car photos that he’d taken. “The pictures got me thinking, ‘Hmm, I’ve got something here,’” and that led him to create a website to sell limited edition prints. That eventually evolved into his web gallery and Zazzle online shop.

McCarthy’s head-turning posters are mostly American muscle, and most are in black and white. His t-shirts are more colorful, but they generally highlight the same genre – pre-1972 American cars and trucks.

McCarthy drives “a cosmetically challenged Miata,” but he hopes to someday upgrade to “a cosmetically challenged Mustang.” But that dream is pretty small compared to his classic car photography aspirations.

“I’m always looking for other venues to sell and promote my work and always hoping that someone will suddenly appear from out of the blue and say, ‘We’d like you to work for us,’” he said. “Or better yet, buy the rights to my work for enough money [so] I can retire to a small island in the Pacific that I visited a number of years ago. A guy can dream, can’t he?”

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