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