Bette S. Garber, the Cartier-Bresson of big-rig trucking, died on Nov. 13 in Philadelphia. She was 65 and lived in Thorndale, Pa.
The cause was pneumonia, her brother, Joel Friedman, said.
Among the small but lively fraternity of photojournalists who specialize in documenting trucks and truckers, Ms. Garber was considered the foremost in the country. She was known in particular for her images of custom semis, the lavishly decorated tractor-trailers that ply the country’s highways like sleek, rolling works of art.
A former fashion copywriter who taught herself photography, Ms. Garber spent the last three decades chronicling the lives of long-haul truckers for the country’s best-read trucking magazines, among them Truckers News, American Trucker and RoadStar. Besides custom trucks, she also immortalized humbler vehicles like garbage trucks, dump trucks, flatbeds and tankers.
Her work helped bring an overlooked, often marginalized segment of the American workforce to wider public attention.
Ms. Garber wrote four heavily illustrated coffee-table books, published by MBI Publishing, “Custom Semi Trucks” (2003); “Custom Semi” (2005); “Custom Semi Trucks 2” (2006); and “Ultra-Custom Semi Trucks” (2008). At her death she was the editor at large for Heavy Duty Trucking magazine and also ran a stock-photo agency, Highway Images.
In her photographs Ms. Garber captured tractor-trailers painted along their lengths like murals — depicting panoramic landscapes, ornate medieval dragons or sweeping scenes from “Gone With the Wind” — their hoods and fenders sinuously sculptured, their bodies and chrome trim polished like mirrors.
She shot the elegant interiors designed to ease the burdens of the road, some with rosewood steering wheels, custom cabinetry and gilded fixtures. Shooting after dark, she caught light-festooned convoys gliding through the night like illuminated armadas.
For all their splendor, these were working trucks. Ms. Garber spent hundreds of hours riding with their drivers — “the knights of the road,” she called them — as they hauled refrigerators, iron pipe, live pigs and more. She ate with them at truck stops; interviewed their families, some of them members of multigenerational trucking clans; and visited the custom shops where the trucks were painted and chromed. She even went to trucking school, earning a license to drive big rigs herself.
Ms. Garber was a fixture at custom-truck shows, familiarly known as truck beauty pageants, at which truckers vie for trophies for the finest rigs of the year. There she watched, gratified, as truckers passed copies of her books among themselves, proudly signing the pages on which their rigs appeared.
Bette Sharon Friedman was born in Chicago on Nov. 18, 1942. (Her first name is pronounced “Betty.”) She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Illinois in 1964 and afterward was a copywriter for Bobbie Brooks and other apparel companies.
With her husband, Charles Garber, Ms. Garber founded Structure Probe, an electron microscopy company, in 1970. She was often on the road for the company, and in the mid-’70s acquired a CB radio to get local traffic reports. The radio opened up the truckers’ world. Fascinated, Ms. Garber began to listen. Then she began to talk, and little by little, the truckers answered.
Ms. Garber’s marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by her companion, Leo Trotman; her brother, Mr. Friedman, of Highland Park, Ill.; and a sister, Myra Friedman of Los Angeles.
Besides photographing truckers, Ms. Garber wrote about their lives. Her article on the dangers of sleep apnea, published in Heavy Duty Trucking in 2002, is credited with prompting many truckers to seek preventive therapy. That year, for RoadStar, she photographed and wrote about the drivers who carried steel salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade Center to a Louisiana shipyard, where it became part of the warship U.S.S. New York.
As a photographer,
Ms. Garber was known
to do anything to
get a shot, from
lashing herself to
the roof of a moving
truck to dangling
above traffic while
suspended from an
down a highway, she
would radio trucks
that interested her
and ask them to pull
over. Early on,
truckers thought she
was a lunatic. Once
her work became
known, they eagerly