Jesse Alexander 1929-2021

Photo: Ken Manfred

Originally posted to RACER.com by Marshall Pruett

He was Dan Gurney with a Leica M3 camera in his hand. Jesse Alexander, who inspired generations of motor racing photographers with his work covering the early days of Formula 1 in the 1950s and 1960s, died last week at the age of 92.

Born between world wars, the native of Santa Barbara, California, was too young to serve before the end of WWII, but his remarkable journey through a rebuilding Europe – covering Formula 1 in its infancy – captured our country’s imagination.

Like Gurney, who made young boys and girls, and grown men and women to dream of becoming racecar drivers, Alexander inspired racing fans, young and old, to visit their local camera stores and pursue amateur and professional photography. It’s impossible to calculate how many cameras and lenses were sold as a result of Alexander’s peerless work.

As Alexander wrote in the forward of Forty Years of Motorsport Photography, one of the many books he published, “Since 1953, I have focused my camera on the cars and drivers that make up the great sport of motor racing. It all started when I traveled to Mexico to cover the Carrera Panamericana, better known as the Mexican Road Race. A year later. I went to Europe and became an expatriate until I returned home in the late ’60s.”

Featured in the pages of Car & Driver, Autoweek, Sports Car Illustrated, Road & Track, and other seminal auto and racing-themed magazines, Alexander’s style was immediately recognizable.

Start of the 1962 Monaco Grand Prix. Image courtesy of the Alexander family

His black and white images of F1 drivers in action, and in candid moments, helped transport readers to into the frame, making them secret witnesses, peering over his shoulder as the shutter snapped open and closed. Alexander’s ability to infuse his work with era’s ever-present feelings of danger, or flowing speed across tall fields of grass, or frozen moments in time in the pits or on the starting line, continue to evoke powerful responses.

Alexander wasn’t the only great photographer covering F1’s formative seasons, but he was certainly our greatest shooter. He added sports car racing with spectacular imagery from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and other legendary international events. His Grand Prix work, however, is where Alexander reached the pantheon of legends.

A connection existed between Alexander and his subjects that produced epic photography in ways that can’t be explained or taught. Unguarded and exposed, his finest images weren’t heady demonstrations of artsy techniques; Alexander, and by proxy, the readers and viewers of his work, saw the heroes of the day in their raw form.

Jim Clark, Spa 1962. Photo courtesy of the Alexander family

Alexander’s photo of an emotionally spent Jim Clark, taken after winning the 1962 Belgian Grand Prix, is upheld by many of my fellow shooters as the greatest motor racing photo ever taken. I couldn’t possibly count the amount of time I’ve spent staring at the image; it’s mesmerizing, haunting, piercing, every little detail a story of its own.

Among the many extraordinary aspects of Alexander’s primary body of photography is it was produced across just 97 races spanning 1953-1967. A busy professional shooting IndyCar, IMSA, and NASCAR today might reach 97 races in two or three years. The fact that Alexander was able to generate so much beauty over a relatively small number of events is yet another example of his brilliance.

Fully grasping Alexander’s impact on racing photography is made easier with the reflections of those who used his example as a blueprint for their lives, starting with California’s Terry Griffin, who emulated Alexander as one of the only Americans shooting F1 in the ’80s and ’90s.

“Being the old man that I am, some of my earliest memories of racing photos were from the magazines that my dad got every month,” Griffin said. “Names like Fangio, Clark, Hawthorne , Hill, and Moss. After a while, on some of the more dramatic photos, I would read the photo credits and noticed that many of my favorites were by a guy named Jesse Alexander. When my dad told me that he was an American, I was really surprised. The fact that he was from America and working in Europe was incredible to me.

“His photos, particularly his action shots and his personality shots, motivated me as a young photographer. I used to think to myself when I was roaming the pits or the track, ‘How would Jesse compose that?’ His photos of some of my early heroes, particularly Jimmy Clark and Juan Fangio, were always the ones that influenced how I approached trying to capture the emotions of the moment in a portrait.”

Carroll Shelby, Le Mans 1959. Photo courtesy of the Alexander family

Another Californian, championship-winning rally driver and revered photographer and director Jeff Zwart, found his calling at the age of 18. Not long after Alexander’s transformational book At Speed was published in 1971, the Long Beach native had a clear vision of where his purpose in life would be found.

“When I first open the book, its sheer size was impressive, but the photographs of Jesse Alexander were what captivated me,” he said. “At that moment, I focused my future and somehow being around racing and taking photographs was my destiny. Later, my exposure to Jesse‘s black and white work became a reoccurring theme of inspiration.

“The image of Jimmy Clark with his goggles down and the outline of the grit and dirt that had accumulated during the race was something that not only defined racing, but defined  racing photography, not just for that era but for the future. Single-handedly, Jesse inspired me to look at racing photography differently, and his work motivated me throughout my career.”

Photo: Marshall Pruett

Trekking around Europe in his Porsche 356, there was an element of romanticism as well with Alexander’s 15-year tour as the little air-cooled coupe and other sports cars he sampled appeared at Monaco, Zandvoort, Monza, and all the renowned tracks on the calendar. Alexander was more than a photographer during a golden era of racing; he became close with many of its brightest stars.

“Jesse was a lifelong friend,” said Evi Gurney, wife of the late Big Eagle, who worked in the communications department at Porsche. “I met him in late 1961 in my office where he became a frequent visitor. He came to get info about upcoming Porsche events, presented his spectacular black and white photographs, and we gave him the latest Porsche test car from our journalist pool contingency which he used for a few weeks to drive to the races in Europe .

“Jesse had already made a name for himself in the 1950s racing scene, that’s where he met and followed Dan and Phil Hill during their Ferrari days. Long before my time, he became one of the group of journalists consisting of Bernard Cahier, Julius Weitmann, Dr. Benno Mueller, Pete Biro, Dave Friedman, Rainer Schlegelmilch, Henry Manney, etc., who covered F1 and  the sports car world championship. He did wonderful shots at the Targa Florio, at the Nurburgring 1000 km and at Le Mans. Jesse was at that time not only known for his spectacular work, but for his fantastic home high up in the Swiss Alps with breathtaking views of snow-covered summits all around. I have not been there, but Dan had and he never forgot his visit.”

Alexander continued shooting in the decades that followed his European adventures, with travel photography and filmmaking added to his racing assignments and corporate commissions from auto manufacturers and lifestyle brands. A living icon, Alexander was the subject of double-takes and awe from the throngs of adoring photographers who were surprised to find him trackside, shoulder to shoulder, making more art with his camera at modern events.

“One of the first races where I was a credentialed photographer was in 2000 at Portland for the American Le Mans Series race,” said factory shooter Bob Chapman. “Audi commissioned Mr. Alexander to capture its new R8 Le Mans prototype, and I was at the final corner coming onto the front straight. I was still a newbie and had no idea what I was doing, but whatever it was, I was completely consumed by it, just firing away. And I happened to look to my left, and there was Jesse Alexander. He was standing there quietly, patiently waiting for me to give up my spot. Which I did. Immediately.”

Zwart was fortunate enough to be able to hire Alexander to shoot Porsche’s 2015 Rennsport Reunion at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, which he considered to be nothing less than an honor.

Alexander with Zwart. Photo courtesy of Jeff Zwart

Alexander became a fixture at the Monterey Historics – known today at the Monterey Reunion – where his greatest work was both displayed and offered for sale.

“Later when I became the track photographer for Laguna Seca, I would hold daily photo meetings in the press room to lay out the rules of access for the weekend,” Griffin said. “It was at one of the August Historic weekends that Jesse Alexander showed up at one of those meetings. To say I felt silly telling the room what to do with him sitting there listening was incredibly intimidating. I made it a point to go to the infield and meet him one on one and look at the photos that he was selling.

“Over the years of seeing him and talking with him about his experiences in the 1950s and 1960s in F1 was incredible. When I heard that he passed a few days ago my heart sank. He was an inspiration to me as well as many of the photographers that I have worked with over my years in motorsport. We should all hope to have a life that was a long and full as his.”

Whether they know it or not, the best young American racing photographers today have Alexander to thank for place in the industry. If, by chance, they’ve never heard of Alexander, their racing photography heroes and mentors were motivated to become the next Jesse Alexander, branches that have grown from the same root.

“All of us who raced in the 1950s and 1960s far away from home, are very fortunate that somebody of Jesse Alexander’s talent, and dedication was around in the early days of racing’s golden era,” Dan Gurney wrote in the foreword to one of Alexander’s pictorial books. “Motor sports history, which might easily get reduced to statistics and numbers, is alive and well in his brilliant storytelling pictures and will undoubtedly be treasured by generations to come.

“Jesse Alexander’s photographs beautifully capture the passion and hard work required then to put a race car in the winner’s circle. You can almost feel the camaraderie among the competitors. Their faces reflect the joy of winning as well as the sadness of tragedy so common in those days. They are also a reminder of how few of us remain to tell what racing was like on the great classic road circuits of the world on those Sunday afternoons, so long ago.”

As a tribute to the late, great Jesse Alexander, who passed away last week at age 92, RACER presents this archive video shot in 2008 with the master motorsports photographer, who is interviewed by journalist Jeremy Shaw. The video was directed by Rick Graves with sound production by Andrew Snider.