Jesse Alexander In His Studio – 1983- Jesse Alexander Interview Part 2

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D.K. Out of a given race, how many pictures would you come up with, that you liked?

J.A.  Maybe a half dozen or so. I found it really hard to get the classic shot of the checkered flag falling and the car going by.  Invariably the car would be out of focus.  There were always a lot of photographers there, and you had to elbow your way in.  At Nürburgring there was an area on top of the pits, and you could stand and look down.  That was a wonderful way to photograph, and a different perspective, too.

D.K. You had considerably greater access then.  What about other changes that have happened to racing since then?

J.A. As I was telling you I feel very burned out about racing.  Just doesn’t interest me anymore, because the cars all look the same, and it’s a whole different scene.  I don’t know anybody.  Crowds, so many other photographers, it’s just a big media event.

D.K. So would you characterize intimacy as the quality of the ‘50s?

J.A. Yes.  Even in the 60’s.  It changed, I suppose in the early ‘70s.  I photographed for At Speed in 1971, and it was beginning to change then.

D.K. Can you describe the day-to-day life of the Grand Prix circuits?

J.A. I began to know a few people quite well, like Dennis Jenkinson.  He was extremely helpful and cooperative, generous in describing some technical point which I didn’t understand about a race car.  We all got along very well.

D.K. How about the mechanics?

J.A.  The Vanwall people would always be in the same hotel, and we’d go and chat with them.  We’d visit the various garages during practice.  After practice was over, we’d go to the Ferrari garage or the Vanwall garage or whatever and see what was going on.  Find out what had happened in practice.

D.K. Was there a sense of secrecy in each team?

J.A. Yes.  Sometimes. The Mercedes people were sometimes secret.  I remember one time being quickly hustled out of the garage when I started taking pictures of the new Vanwall.

D.K. What kind of background did you have in the technical side of racing?

J.A. Zero.  I had no technical background whatsoever. So I relied on Jenks to explain something, or I would send the photographs back, and they would be analyzed or evaluated back at the magazine by the technical editor.  If I were going to do that today it would certainly help to have a technical background.  It is much more complicated now.

D.K. What was it about Formula One that drew you to it?

J.A. I knew that it was the height to which drivers all aspired.  The top of the line.  There is no place for them to go on from there.  It was the pinnacle.  It was the most exciting, and they were the Champions, the Top People.

J.A.  There is no question about it: Motor Racing is an art.

D.K. How do you define that?

J.A. It is a creative process.  I am not a philosopher, but I sense there is an artistic element there.

D.K. Movement through space seems to be a key.

J.A. Yes.  You can compare it to a violinist playing a violin.  It is a way of expressing oneself. We all do, in different ways. I use a camera; he expresses himself through the car, whether he is restoring a Packard or driving a Formula One Ferrari.

D.K. It is amazing how much a machine expresses about a person. How much the designer shows.

J.A.  If you suggested to Phil (Hill) that he was an artist, I don’t know if he would accept that.

D.K. And racing is also entertainment.

J.A. It is much more obvious now, in the ‘80s, than it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was active.

D.K. That leads into your observations of Zandvoort this year [1983].

J.A. I’d been to a few races in the ‘70s, to Long Beach a few times.  But I had never immersed myself in a weekend like I did at Zandvoort.  There it’s a whole new ball game.  A computer and a telex machine an umpteen people jus dealing with the press.  The press corps must have tripled since I was doing it.  Many tracks have changed, but Zandvoort hasn’t changed much really.  There are more elaborate pits, the track is wider and there are more grandstands.

I got there on Thursday, got my credentials and went right to the track.  I noticed immediately that there are more abd higher fences, more walls and barriers.  More controlled.  They have huge hospitality caravans and motor homes. They are like gigantic rolling semi-trucks.  Grey hound bus size.  Every team has one of those, plus the workshop area.  It is mind-boggling to see what it has become.

D.K. The last time we talked you seemed negative about modern racing.

J.A. Yes I really had burned out.  But I was so pleased to get an assignment from Road and Track.  The idea was for me to go with a few pictures that I had taken in the ‘60s, and shoot from the very same spot.  Depict and illustrate the scene now, as compared to how it was then.  I found that quite challenging, because the pits were higher, and I had to climb higher to get where I wanted to go.

You couldn’t get as close as you used to, couldn’t stand in one particular spot because of a big wire fence there.  But I got a lot of coverage on the new Porsche McLaren, which I knew was important to have. Anyway I shot about 25 rolls of film for the one race.  I met a few old friends, and that was fun.  One person in particular was very helpful. Jean Sage at Renault.

D.K. How did it feel to be back in Europe, on the circuit again?

J.A. It was exciting, of course.

D.K. Does that make a difference in the Grand Prix?

J.A. Yes.  I think it does.  I had been reading about the forthcoming Grand Prix a week before in Paris.  I was all hyped up.  I had done some homework, tried to figure out who was who, what faces went with which car, who was leading in the Championship.  That helped me prepare for the weekend.

One thing I noted was how people involved in the races these days – the mechanics, the drivers, the press, the tire people – all seem to have uniforms.  Its one way you can distinguish who is who.  The Goodyear guys have a dark green apron, and the Michelin something else.  Each team has its own uniform that they wear in practice.  In the old days the mechanics wore the same overalls and would be dirty for three days of practice.  On race day they’d put on clean clothes.  Now it’s very much a show and very colorful, co-ordinated and fun.

And the camera companies, Canon in particular, have a service where they will lend or even repair your camera on the spot.  One Dutch company hasa service where they process Ektachrome film in a matter of hours – from the track to the lab in Amsterdam, and back to you the same day.  All very incredible.  I was intrigued to talk to some of the younger photographers, who are very hard working.  Almost every weekend they are at a race of some kind.  I asked if they ever burned out.  Some do and need a break.  They were candid about it.

D.K. I think most people don’t realize the physical labor involved.

J.A.  It’s very hard work.  I am 54 now, and just do not have the energy to walk as far as I did 20 years ago.  I should have gone back to the pits during the race and got a good pit stop picture, and I just didn’t do it.  I got a few good shots by staying where I was.  I got the shot where Prost and Piquet tangled.  It was my great achievement of the day!

They had a small fire in the Honda pits at Zandvoort.  Some fuel fell on the ground and lit up beneath the car.  They got it out promptly, but that is a very scary aspect of car racing.  I’ve seen a couple of fires which were really terrifying.  They have huge cranes now which are designed to snatch a car out, pick it up and put it over there.  There were at least three positioned at appropriate spots.  There is a very complex and competent rescue team at Zandvoort, all outfitted with fire suits and driving special orange-painted BMW’s, each car filled with a variety of rescue equipment.

If I were younger, less cautious, I would probably have taken a few more exciting pictures.

D.K. How was it for you watching a modern race?

J.A. Exciting, very exciting indeed. The noise factor now…cars seem to be much more noisy.  I had earplugs in and earphone type things to keep it down as much as I could.  And you could hear the roaring excitement of the crowd over all that!

After the race, Dennis Jenkinson went to watch the videotape in the ELF caravan.  He took notes and was able to have, immediately, a better picture of what happened.  At every race, apparently, the ELF people videotape the television broadcast and it’s there for anybody to look at.

D.K. It’s wonderful to hear the positive reaction you had.

J.A. Yes.  I would love to go to South Africa to see who is going to win the Championship.

D.K. Care to make a forecast about the winner?

J.A. I am hoping Prost will win, because I have some good pictures of him.

“Passion and Precision: The Photographer and Grand Prix Racing 1894-1984” By Dale Kistemaker and Kent James Smith. Copyright 1984 by the Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation, the Long Beach Museum of Art, City of Long Beach, Department of Recreation and Human Services, Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts.

No part of this interview  may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Long Beach Museum of Art, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

Jesse Alexander’s websites:  www.jessealexander.com and www.facebook.com/jessealexanderphotography

Patrick Dempsey visited Jesse alexander during his four part series Patrick Dempsey: Racing Lemans on Velocity.  The segment visiting Jesse’s studio is here:

www.velocity.com/tv-shows/patrick-dempsey-racing-le-mans/videos/jesse-alexander-historic-photographer.htm

Jesse Alexander In The Doorway of His Studio – 1983 – Jesse Alexander Interview Part 1

Jesse.Alexander.door.83.signOstensibly Poetics of Speed is a record of my pictures of mid 1980’s Formula One and Le Mans racing, people, places and technology. Long time readers realize it is equally the chronicle of my personal journey experiencing the heroes and racing events I dreamt of in my youth. It is also a blog about motor sports photography and the people I’ve met who have photographed race cars.

Jesse Alexander’s exquisite photography of the international racing world of the 1950’s and ‘60s is profoundly fascinating.  His pictures are the visual sources that so many of us have used to understand and appreciate of one of racing’s greatest eras.  But equally important is the recognition of Jesse’s extraordinary skill as a photographer. Throughout his long career he has created a body of work that ranks with the finest classic documentary pictures in the History of Photography.

In the catalog of the exhibition I curated in 1984 entitled “Passion and Precision, the Photographer and Grand Prix Racing 1894-1984” I wrote a brief introduction to Jesse’s photographs:   “Jesse Alexander’s At Speed and Looking Back were two of the reasons this project began.  Jesse’s photographs are rich and beautiful.  They are successful documents of racing which probe deeply into the emotions and psyche of those involved.  Jesse had told me of his past summer’s trip to Zandvoort.  A second interview was arranged to record his observations of a contemporary Grand Prix.”

Here are the interviews I conducted with Jesse in his Santa Barbara, California studio in 1983:

D.K. Can you tell me about the pictures you have here?

J.A. They are typical of the images of … particularly Ascari in the Lancia, that was at Pau in 1955 in France  Technically they are not very good.  My work is a lot better now, but the content is still there.

D.K. How did you get started in racing and photography?  Did one come first?

J.A. I guess the photography came first.

D.K. What kind of background did you have?

J.A. Just basically self-taught. As a kid I took pictures, snapshots.  But I was aware of all the great photographers – during the war for example.  I grew up in the war, so I knew of Steichen and Weegee, and looked at Life religiously.

D.K. Did you have any formal art training?

J.A. No, not really.  I took one course at University of Santa Barbara in technique.  It was just a basic darkroom, learning how to soup negatives.  We tried to get into the zone system but I never understood the zone system.  One day I’d like to say I have mastered the zone system and can use a 4×5, but I haven’t.  I don’t know which way to point a 4×5.

D.K. When had you become interested in cars?

J.A. I had always loved cars as a kid. My dad had Packards.  I was in college in California when the sports car craze began, the MGTC’s and TD’s. I had a couple of Mg’s and went to a lot of club races.   At that point I got married and my wife and I drove down to the Mexican Road Race in 1953.  I took a movie camera.  I took stills as well but mainly movies of the ’53 Mexican Carrera.  That was fun.  The next year we decided to go to Europe.  I had read about the developing Mercedes Grand Prix car and wanted to go to some Grand Prix, so I went to Reims for the debut of the W196 Mercedes.  That was my first big race, which was really exciting.

D.K. So you went there on your own initiative?

J.A. Yeah, I didn’t have any passes or anything.  We went with a photographer named Maurice Rosenthal.  Friends introduced us in Paris.  When we went to Reims he got us passes of some kind.  We were OK.  In those days it was much easier to get a pass.  You could almost con your way into getting one.  If you spoke French it was no problem at all.

D.K. You brought up the fact that you had done some club racing.

J.A. Yeah, my wife and I drove some races around California in our MG; Palm Springs, Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach.  But, I was mainly involved in the idea of filming.  I had a 16mm Bolex and I shot a lot of movies.  Still didn’t get a lot of attention.

D.K. So you raced?

J.A. On a club level. I went to the Swiss Racing Drivers School.  I had a Porsche in Europe.

D.K. Is there any similarity in operating a race car and a camera?  There seems to be, in a sense of position, of line.

J.A. Oh absolutely.  Oh sure You have to have really good eyes to be a race driver.  Good peripheral vision.  That is what comes to my mind when I think of all that.  The other interesting thing is that I never dreamt that the pictures I took in those days would have the value they have now.  I was just having fun.  Now they are valuable documents!

D.K. How about the expressive content of them?

J.A. That came naturally to me.  I think you either have it or don’t have it in terms of what you want.  I love people, and I loved the whole scene there.  I played around in the 60’s and in the 70’s I got so burned out that I found myself taking the same picture over and over again.

I loved 35mm cameras.  I had a couple of rangefinder Leica’s in the 50’s.  But then I bought a twin lens Rollei, which I found very useful.  Those particular negatives nowadays are the sharpest and easier to print.  I can really blow them up.

D.K. Do you have a preference for black and white or color?

J.A. Not really.If anything I like black and white.  It gives a vintage spirit and feeling.  I am digging out some old Kodachromes and Ektachromes and getting some prints made up.  They are fun to look at.

D.K. You do all of your own printing?

J.A. Yes. But I don’t do any color printing, although I have just started playing around in Cibachrome.

D.K.  In Looking Back you talked about previsualizing an idea, and searching that out.

J.A. That shot there (looking at pictures) of Graham Hill at Rouen.  Maybe a minute or two before I took the picture, I saw what was happening there and knew what I wanted to capture.  That’s what I meant about previsualizing things, to think ahead of time.  I  purposely went into the crowd and got into a position where I could get the car connected to the people.

D.K. You place an enormous emphasis on the interaction of people.

J.A. It’s much more exciting.  I find a picture of just a car going by very boring.

D.K. Can you tell me about the day-to-day business of earning a living as a racing photographer in the 50’s?

J.A. Fortunately, I had some money saved up so I could use my own money for a while.  Then I got a couple of assignments.  I did a story on spec on the Swiss Racing Drivers school.  That got published in Road and Track.  There was very little money.  Then we began to get a retainer from a magazine to tide us over.  Bernard Cahier was Road and Track’s European editor.  I was lucky enough to get on the payroll of Car and Driver.  Then it was called Sports Car Illustrated (SCI).  John Christy was editor of SCI then, and a friend.  I sent him a story on Porsche or something, and he published it, and we began to get that relationship going.

Eventually I got on the masthead and got a retainer and an expense acount.  It was great – running all over Europe with a trench coat, a typewriter and cameras!  A great life.

D.K. Did you travel for an extended length of time?

J.A. Several weeks at a time, sometimes.  My home was in Switzerland, so frequently I could go to one race on a weekend and come back home.  Go off to France, to Rouen, wherever it was, and come back on Monday.  Get my film processed and then about Thursday of the next week go off to the next event, say it was Nürburgring, and spend the weekend there.

Switzerland was an ideal base.  Perfect.

D.K. What kind of pressure did you have for deadlines?

J.A.  Deadlines weren’t so bad because lead time was so long, almost two months, sometimes even longer, before stuff would appear.  But I had to get it off fairly quickly, so they could set it up.  The race report wouldn’t come out for maybe two months after the race.  Did you see my story recently in Car and Driver?

D.K. So you did writing as well?

J.A. Yes I did road tests, which was fun.

D.K. How many rolls of film would you shoot in a race?

J.A. Maybe 15 or 20.

D.K. What would you see on the contact sheet that would make you interested in a picture?

J.A. Emotion.

D.K. That’s the key issue?

J.A. To me it is, yes.

“Passion and Precision: The Photographer and Grand Prix Racing 1894-1984” By Dale Kistemaker and Kent James Smith. Copyright 1984 by the Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation, the Long Beach Museum of Art, City of Long Beach, Department of Recreation and Human Services, Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts.

No part of this interview  may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Long Beach Museum of Art, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Self Portrait With Dunlop Bridge – Le Mans 1984

selfportrait.dunlopbridge.84signI’ll be back posting in early September.  Enjoy your summer.

Refueler With Venthose – Richard Lloyd Racing Porsche 956 – Le Mans 1985

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Gordon Spice Racing Refueler – Le Mans 1985

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Refueler Waiting – Spice Tiga – Le Mans 1985

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Refueling and Driver Change – Le Mans 1985

driverchange.baldipesca.martini85signMauro Baldi (holding seat insert) is ready as Henri Pescarolo exits the Lancia.

Refueling – Lancia Martini Sportline – Fuel Bottle And Vent Hose – Le Mans 1985

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Refueling – Heinzmann Inco Sport Glove – Le Mans 1985

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Refueling – Lancia Martini – 1985 Le Mans

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