By now you’ve heard me extoll time and time again the need to expose the untold treasures of motorsports photography laying undiscovered in basements and closets the world over. The very idea that there are thousands of photographic slides sitting unseen in their carousels stacked under old tourist trinkets or forgotten wigs drives me absolutely crazy. In expressing my desire to see more previously unpublished racing photography, I’ve frequently decried the lazy practice of just publishing the same well known images over and over. Given that history, you would probably expect me to be nonplussed—even offended—by this collection of Louis Klementaski’s photography. After all, is there a racing photographer that has been more widely published than Klementaski? By that measure alone you should believe that I would hate it, right? Right? You would be wrong.
Call me inconsistent, but in the case of Louis Klementaski, there is damn good reason we’ve seen some of his images again and again. As I thumb through Paul Parker’s volume, Klemantaski: Master Motorsports Photographer, I am just as happy to see those iconic images as I am to see little-published examples of his work. This text is aptly named. Can you think of any other motorsport photographer more worthy of the moniker “Master Motorsports Photographer”? I submit to you that there is none. Certainly his work stands above even the greatest motorsports photographers, perhaps even above all sport photography.
When I see images like his shot of Norman Wilson piloting a ERA R4A at Brooklands in 1939 (page 54), it’s easy to see why it has been called the best racing photograph ever taken. You can just imagine a young Louis sitting at the infield corner peering through the viewfinder of his Leica as Wilson looks past him and into his racing line. The emotion of the shot is more than just racing eye candy, it is unequivocally as high art as any photograph.
Klementaski is so associated with the warm black and white hues capured through the lens of his Leica or Box Brownie or Ermanox Press camera that it is almost jarring to see his color work—some as early as 1938. Each photograph has an associated caption that helps tell the story of the era, the driver, the race, and the surrounding history. It is here that my one real complaint about the volume is highlighted. While I do appreciate this context for the subject of the photo, I do wish there was more information about the artist in these captions. It is good to know, for example, that Ascari was preparing for an already difficult race when the rain started to fall—but what I would love more would be to know more about how Klementaski captured this image, what equipment was used in each shot. These photographs should be treated with the same reverence any art museum would treat them, and that has to include more information about the artist alongside the already well documented subjects.
Each chapter does, however, include vital information about Louis Klementaski and his relationship to racing in the era discussed. I particularly like the validation from him for the same sense that I have often felt when looking at later racing photography. As he started to move away from race photography, he describes his disillusionment with the racing world: “Several other factors contributed to my decision: the more horizontal the drivers became in their cars the less you could see of them and so one’s pictures became more impersonal. The big disappointment, however, proved to be the gradual restriction of viewpoints afforded the photographer, which took the fun out of the job…” This only reinforces what I have long believed about Klementaski: he wasn’t a racing photographer, he was a portraiture artist that happened to capture racing driver’s portrait in the most difficult circumstances possible. The strongest of his photographs have always captured the driver’s face so beautifully and with such intent that the surrounding race happening became almost incidental.
This is a fantastically assembled volume of some of the very best racing photography ever captured. If you have just one spot on your coffee table; just one book that you can point out to your guests, have them open to any page, and better understand your obesession with racing; you couldn’t do much better than Klemantaski: Master Motorsports Photographer.