Jesse Alexander In His Studio – 1983- Jesse Alexander Interview Part 2
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 .
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.
Patrick Dempsey visited Jesse alexander during his four part series Patrick Dempsey: Racing Lemans on Velocity. The segment visiting Jesse’s studio is here: