Jesse Alexander

Iconic Images of Moto Racing's Heyday from a Master Photographer

By Chuck Graham, Jesse Alexander Back to

Jesse Alexander, Chuck Graham, sports photography Giacomo Agostini, champion motorcycle rider, is posing on his bike at a slow speed, shot from the back of a convertible FLAT, a perfect solution for capturing the action and facial expression. The camera was a Leica and the shutter speed was probably 1/60th.

Strolling through photographer Jesse Alexander’s Carpinteria, CA studio of black and white motor racing images is like taking a step back in time to the sport’s infancy. Mostly self- taught, Alexander has been a photographer since high school, evolving into a photojournalist and fine art photographer. His primary focus on motorsports began in the early 1950s, with the birth of the sports car movement in the United States.

The walls of his studio are adorned with portraits of legendary motor racing personalities and dramatic action imagery throughout Western Europe and America. Racecar drivers such as Phil Hill, Alfa Romeo, Johnny Neumann, Karl Kling, Juan Fangio and Hans Herrmann were always favorite subjects.

However, motion is prevalent in Alexander’s work, certainly in a sport that thrives on speed and precision. Some of Alexander’s most compelling imagery is captured on rain- soaked racetracks like Le Mans, France and Monte Carlo and through the course of his career, a throng of Grand Prix races. Whether freezing the action of a race car at 150 mph, or easing the action down with a slower shutter speed, the droplets of water spinning off saturated tires captures the feeling of speed as well as the risky nature involved in a dangerous sport.

“Action is captivating,” he says, “but portraits capture the ambiance.”

Alexander’s work has been featured numerous times in Car & Driver, Road & Track and Automobile. In 1967 his images appeared in Sports Illustrated in a feature on motorcycle racing. During the 1996 Summer Olympics, Alexander’s work was part of an exhibit of sports photography. Scores of other images that aren’t visible in Alexander’s studio have been available in his books: Porsche Moments, Driven, Forty Years of Motorsport Photography and Ferrari Grand Prix Moments. From his neatly organized and elaborate archive that not only fills his studio but also three storage rooms, Alexander completed the painstaking task of selecting imagery that appears in a new book. Inside the Archives was recently published by David Bull Publishing. Many of the images have never been seen before.

Now at the age of 81, Alexander shows no signs of slowing down. The passion is still there, evident in his eyes even after 60 years behind the lens. When I asked him if he ever thought of retiring, he scoffed at that notion, as well he should. “No, are you kidding? I’m still very active.”

His iconic images are currently appearing in galleries including the Patty Look Lewis Gallery in Santa Barbara, CA the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, CA and the Staley+Wise Gallery in New York.

Jesse Alexander, Chuck Graham, sports photography
The Ferrari mechanic is holding the signboard to tell the driver his race position, and I hold the camera on him as I push the button when the car passes. This is an example of a lucky shot when the image works. Shot with a 35mm Leica and a 50mm. Shutter speed is probably 1/125th- perhaps slower, as the car is quite blurred.

“I feel very fortunate,” said Alexander as we discussed his life’s work over lunch at Sly’s Restaurant in downtown Carpinteria, where more of his work is prominently displayed. “I’ve had a great life, and I’m still going strong.” Here are some highlights of our conversation:

Chuck Graham: What attracted you first, motorsports or photography?

Jesse Alexander: I’ve always been attracted to automobiles. My dad had an old Packard. They were awesome.

CG: What was the draw to photographing motorsports?

JA: I was photographing an activity which I really enjoyed. It was exciting. I didn’t really have any sense of a career, or any ambition of making a career out of photography. It was fun just hanging out next to the cars.

CG: When did it become a career?

JA: When I went to Europe in 1954. I needed to earn some money. I had a friend who had a car magazine, so he wanted me to send him photographs from Europe. It began to steamroll from there.

CG: You photographed at Le Mans in 1965 for News- week. What was the biggest challenge for you shooting that race?

JA: It’s a 24-hour race, shooting at night. It’s a photo- grapher’s delight because it usually rains, so you get wonderful wet imagery and good action. There was a huge crowd there like a county fair.

CG: How did you go about choosing which races you wanted to photograph?

JA:Back then I didn’t have to choose. I always had an assignment. My favorite tracks are Spa in Belgium and Nürburgring in Germany. Access was never a problem. I worked for magazines who gave me a letter from the editor. Once one establishes a reputation, access is never a problem. However, this is not true today, as the freelance photographer is up against stiff competition from the numerous agencies. It’s a different world today.

CG: What kind of camera gear were you working with back then?

Jesse Alexander, Chuck Graham, sports photography
The drivers are running to their race cars in a Le Mans type start at the 1959 1000 Kilometers of the Nürburging. There was time for just one frame and then wait until the cars begin to roll to click another shot to make a sequence.

JA: Beginning in the 1950s, a Leica Rangefinder, and an old Rolleiflex Twin Lens medium format camera, which took beautiful negatives. Later on it was Canon SLR cameras. Film, I was using Super Double X, Kodak’s Tri- X Film and Ektachrome. My last film camera was a Canon EOS 1N. I went to digital five years ago. Now I’m using a Canon 5D Mark II. I’ve used Canon equipment since they began. The lenses are great.

CG: What types of techniques did you use to photograph races?

JA: Often times I did not want to freeze the action— shutter speeds are a creative tool. Speeds as low as a 60th or a 30th of a second were perfect. Today the pros use much slower shutter speeds. It all comes down to the creative skills of the guy behind the camera and his or her enthusiasm. Pictures taken from the grandstand can often be as exciting as those taken from the pits.

One thing that’s important is that I welcomed rain. The combination of a slower shutter speed with water coming off the tires was a natural. I used the Leica F Series and Kodak Super XX at 400 ISO max. Kodachrome was wonderful, and you really had to pay attention to metering. After all these years, those slides still look great today.

CG: You used to process your own film when you were working with black and white negatives?

Jesse Alexander, Chuck Graham, sports photography
The portrait of Sir Stirling Moss was taken in practice for the 1958 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The camera was a Rollieflex, and the shutter speed was 1/125th. The Rollie was a great portrait tool – beautiful negatives and even more beautiful black and white prints.

JA: In the early days I did have my own darkroom. I’d airmail images to New York where the magazines were. The result was archives of images. It’s very hard to throw away stuff.

CG: You are mainly a self-taught photographer, but who were some of your early influences in the field?

JA:Edward Steichen’s photojournalism of World War II battlefields was great, as was Robert Frank’s post World War II imagery of America. I also enjoyed Eugene Smith for his vivid World War II photos.

CG: Do you have a favorite car that you’ve photographed?

JA: That would be a 1955 Mercedes sports racing car, a very famous car. They only made a few of them. I like old cars, Porsches, Ferraris.

CG: In stark contrast to your motorsports imagery, a small section of your website is devoted to bird photography, particularly birds in flight. There’s a lot of motion in your photography though, so in that sense the two subjects go hand in hand.

JA:My wife and I bought a home on Sand Point Road in Carpinteria in the early 1970s. We lived there until 2009. That’s where I discovered shorebirds. I love watching birds. A lot of my best bird pictures were taken there. Some of my favorite birds are the black- crowned night herons, brown pelicans and elegant terns. What can be more wonderful than capturing an image of a beautiful bird?

Jesse Alexander, Chuck Graham, sports photography
Sir Stirling Moss is practicing for the Belgian Grand Prix in the rain at Spain 1955. I am panning my Leica with a 50 mm lens.

Product Resources: Cameras: Leica Rangefinder, Rolleiflex, Canon EOS 1N, Canon 5D Mark II; Film: Super Double X, Kodak Tri-X, Super XX, Kodachrome, Ektachrome.


About the Authors

Chuck Graham
CGraham
Chuck Graham is a freelance writer and photographer living in Carpinteria, CA. His work has appeared in Outdoor Photographer, Shutterbug, Nature Photographer, Men's Journal, Backpacker, Canoe & Kayak and The Surfer's Journal.
Jesse Alexander
JAlexander
Alexander has authored numerous books. His work has been exhibited in museums, galleries, and as part of an exhibition of sports photography at the 1996 Summer Olympics. A retrospective exhibition including more than 70 images travelled the world in 1998, sponsored by Chrysler Corporation. Over the years his work has appeared in most of the worlds prominent automotive publications including Car & Driver, Road & Track and Automobile. In 1965, he covered the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Newsweek, and in 1967 his work was used in Sports Illustrated for a feature on motorcycle racing. Most recently, Jesse was commissioned by Nissan and it's Infiniti luxury division to photograph the drivers, crew, and race cars that made up the 1997 Infiniti Indy Project.