Shoot to Thrill

Fast cars, naked women: Ed Dellis loves his work

Prologue: In which we meet one Ed Dellis, a gentleman whose name you have not previously known, but his occupation being one of which you are likely already jealous.

Photographer Ed Dellis never stops smiling, and if you lived his life, you wouldn't either. From the exhaust—swept pits of the Indianapolis 500 to the boudoirs of Little Saigon, he's been everywhere a red-blooded heterosexual male has ever wanted to be—and put smiles on plenty of faces just by making his living.

That grin doesn't even disappear when he says, "I'll show you where I got killed."

Dellis: Speed freak
John Gilhooley
Dellis: Speed freak

Dellis is driving past white, generic-looking, one-story buildings in the shadow of the 22 freeway, with its attendant dirt mounds on either side, separated from the buildings by chainlink fencing. They had just started widening the 22 here three years ago when it happened—New Year's Eve, at precisely 4:32 p.m. (he knows this because his watch froze).

"I was shooting with a Vietnamese model for a motorcycle organization, and I remember the client asked for a picture of the model on the dirt bike in the dirt when we had gotten done with our studio work," Dellis recalls. "So I decided to fire up this motorcycle. I looked for a hole in the fence to get over onto the dirt. I remember turning around and getting in second gear, and next thing I know, I'm waking up in a very strange room with tubes and wires coming out of me, and things weren't adding up."

Dellis would later find out he'd been hit by a drunk kid in a truck, that he'd been pronounced to have no vital signs by the police who arrived on the scene and on the hospital-entrance report. Dellis refers to the incident as a "whack and back" and has even set up a website, whackandback.com, for people to share stories of near-death experiences, though all that's up there currently is a photo of him in his coma.

When Dellis regained consciousness, he had a permanent ringing in one ear—and a new outlook. "Life is intended to be a process that's meant to be enjoyed, so you can't be focused on goals," he says, noting that prior to the accident, everything for him was "black and white, and you set goals, and you achieve them at any cost. The type of lifestyle that methodology led me through is not something I want to do here in the second half. I wanna enjoy it because you never know when you're gonna get that tap on the shoulder."

So what does Dellis enjoy? Fast cars and hot chicks. With a newfound vigor, Dellis was determined to make his post-coma living from these indulgences. And he's done just that, carving out what he calls a very comfortable living by shooting pictures of beautiful women in nude and semi-nude states, as well as occasionally teaching his other passion, stunt driving. An 11-year resident of Tustin, he has now made enough money that he plans to relocate to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies, near Dellis Cay (yes, it was once owned by his family).

He's living a dream. But he had to die to make it happen.

*     *     * 

Chapter the First:In which young Edward uncovers the raison d'Ítre of his life, determines to mold all items of tangibility to suit his form, and somehow wins the Indy 500, kinda sorta.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ed Dellis wasn't always a photographer. He graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, specializing in vehicle dynamics for race cars. But as much as he loved engines and fast vehicles—his official biography boasts that he had more than 40 traffic tickets by his 17th birthday—something wasn't quite right.

"I knew from watching the other engineering students that I didn't wanna be like them," he says. "They were too left-brained." Determined to be more of an artist, he tried painting. "I picked up a brush, and I realized I couldn't paint, so then I added a mechanical element to the brush, and I bought an airbrush, and I realized I couldn't do that either!"

But there was one last option for merging machinery and art: photography. "Back then, photography was very expensive, so my first purchase after I graduated was a Canon camera, and I started processing my own film," he says. Living in Pittsburgh in the late '80s, he managed to arrange exhibitions of his work for auto magazines, the second of which was attended by Barry Bonds and the Pennsylvannia attorney general. "It was a good opening," he says. "That's when I realized that my interpretations might be something other people might find attractive and want to buy."

Dellis also began writing about racing for Roundel magazine, with a column called On Driving. This led to a job at Automotive Engineering, which, he says, "was reserved for people with engineering Ph.D.s, but because I was such a gearhead and built my own engines and raced my own cars, they saw value in that. So for two-and-a-half years, I flew around the world, testing cars on the Arctic Circle and on the autobahn in Germany, and I got a chance to see why I got my engineering degree—to find out how cars were put together."

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