Reviewed – Klementaski: Master Motorsports Photographer

Master Motorsports Photographer Klementaski

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 In expressing my desire to see more previously unpublished racing photography, I’ve frequently decried the lazy practice of just publishing the same well known images over and over.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.

Jenks in Master Motorsports Photographer Klementaski

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.

Master Motorsports Photographer KlementaskiKlementaski 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.

Master Motorsports Photographer Klementaski

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.

Reviewed: A Question of Speed

Fred Bonatto's A Question of Speed

There are a lot of photographic studies of classic motoring available at the bookstore. Most of these are a collection published by a stock motoring photography house, with a variety of photographers images from the past slapped together under a sometimes tenuous theme. Occasionally we’ll see a singular volume from an individual photographer’s catalog. I tend to be more drawn to these as the work takes on a new perspective than simply the subject of the photographs. The consistency of photographic technique and the photographer’s eye lends the volume a more personal and intimate point of view that holds the book together.

Fred Bonatto’s A Question of Speed is akin to this later type of work, but with a key difference. Rather than a collection of decades old photography, Fred spent the summer of 2013 traveling to the Donnington Historic Festival, the Spa Six Hours race, and Copenhagen Historic GP documenting the cars and—vitally—the community of contemporary vintage racing. I love it.

An image from Fred Bonatto's A Question of Speed

The past few summers I’ve not been able to attend the number of vintage races that I would like and Fred’s book makes me feel like I’ve just returned from a great race weekend. The reason is simple: he turns his lens at wonderful cars—some in the pits and some on track. Just as importantly he also trains his eye on the real reason race weekends are so wonderful: the people that make them happen. The moments captured of drivers, mechanics, spectators, and corner workers all hard at work/play give you a real sense of being in the paddock on race weekend. We all know that the on-track action is only a fraction of the enjoyment of a solid race weekend.

An image from Fred Bonatto's A Question of SpeedI also appreciate Fred’s commitment to capturing the atmosphere of a race on black and white film. Film! I’m not necessarily a personal stalwart for chemical photo developing, but I do appreciate the confidence and patience that it takes to limit yourself. When I’m in the paddock, I shoot hundreds and hundreds of images with my digital camera knowing that I’ll be able to find a precious handful of quality shots from the weekend. That is a luxury that the expense of film makes impractical for me, but in the hands of a much more talented photographer, there’s a beauty in the grain of film photography that A Question of Speed captures beautifully.

Fred Bonatto’s A Question of Speed is like a perfect race weekend that I can pluck from the shelf anytime I like—whether it’s because I’m missing whatever vintage event happens to be this weekend, or because it’s mid-February. I’ll always have this wonderful little escape to the paddock right there on the shelf waiting for me.

A Question of Speed is limited to 100 precious copies and is available from

Reviewed: SportErfolge

Tony Adriaensens' SportErfolgeThere aren’t a lot of people that own just one Porsche book. Just like there aren’t a lot of people that own only one Ferrari book.

That’s the thing about automotive books in general. People who buy them tend to buy a lot of them. And don’t think for a minute that publishers don’t capitalize on our habit every chance they get. The problem with a lot of books, particularly books that focus on a single make, is that they start to get repetitive in a hurry. Nowhere is this more evident than at the photo editor’s desk. We tend to start seeing the same iconic images again and again.

You are not going to have that problem with SportErfolge.

Tony Adriaensens’ work with his Corsa Research imprint has, in my opinion, brought a sense of discovery back to the world of sports and racing book publishing. His commitment to sourcing amateur and largely previously unpublished photography is remarkable. It gives a fresh new perspective on not just eras of motorsport, but individual races that we’ve read about for years and thought we knew.

This moment from early in the book captures that sentiment well and also gives some insight into both the process of producing SportErfolge and the philosophical approach of the author:

Carrera Panamericana in Tony Adriaensens' SportErfolge“My decision to make this book came about when I found the Kodachrome slide opposite, out of the late Bob Lytle’s collection from Phoenix, AZ. Bob drove his Jaguar XK120 from California all the way up to the Tuxtla Gutierrez on the Mexican border with Guatemala to see the start of the Carrera in 1953 and 1954. In ’53 however, when returning to his hotel room after dinner, he found all his equipment stolen; cameras, films .. all gone. He only had one single roll of exposed Kodachrome film left in his pocket. This was the last film he had shot and he had captured José Herrarte’s class winning Porsche after the finish of the Carrera.”

That quote does a few things that I think are central to why SportErfolge is so successful as a work of early Porsche racing storytelling. It gives us some perspective on why this topic begged to be covered—after all, let’s be honest; there’s no shortage of Porsche books out there. More importantly though, it highlights in a very real way how precious these photographs and the stories that they tell truly are. In this case, Bob’s photograph is a rare survivor when he lost the bulk of his captures of the event. How many other photos from this era are metaphorically stolen as they languish away forgotten in closets or attics—slowly deteriorating in their albums? Are they not just as lost? This is why I so admire Tony’s efforts to source amateur photography for his work. It is the same motivation that has prompted me to find these kinds of forgotten amateur archives for this site. It is so much more arduous a task than phoning up the major photo houses and having them send over the usuals. It’s a task that pays off again and again in SportErfolge.

Liege-Rome-Liege in Tony Adriaensens' SportErfolgeCorsa Research calls SportErfolge a “photo essay” and I think the description is apt. The captions that accompany each photograph (the vast bulk of which are presented in full-page glory) are as vital as the book’s main narrative in telling the story of Porsche’s racing efforts starting with the 1951 Coupe du Salon at Montlhéry through the effort at the 1963 Le Mans 24 Hours Race.

SportErfolge also excells at highlighting some of the races you haven’t read much about. It would be easy to just rely on major international events and championships to tell the story of Porsche’s racing heritage. It’s the lesser known events like Switzerland’s National Slalom of May, 1956 or the Flying Kilometer of Antwerp in July, 1959 that are just as pivotal to Porsche’s early racing heritage as the Mille Miglia. These amateur events, presented alongside the biggies in chronological order, do a great deal to show how Porsche entered, astonished onlookers, and established itself as central to global sports car racing. I also appreciate that this puts the privateer and gentleman entries right up there with the factory efforts in the story of Porsche’s rise to the international stage. That’s not to say that iconic Porsche-centric events like the Carrera Panamerica and Targa Florio are neglected—they are decidedly not. It is refreshing, though, to see these much-storied and gloried races (and drivers) have to give up a little spotlight to regional events like the Santa Barbara Road Races and Grand Prix of Léopoldville, Congo.

Graphic details in Tony Adriaensens' SportErfolgeIn addition to the photography, the inclusion of small graphic details like the specific race logos that adorn the slipcover or the inset Liège-Rome-Liège rally stamps are a welcome glimpse into the visual ephemera of the era. This does not give the book a scrapbook aesthetic, but are presented as a tasteful graphic that enhances the typography and overall design. That level of detail makes me believe that Tony’s choice of photos to bookend the piece is deliberate. Within the foreward for the book and among the first photos in the volume is a 3/4 rear shot of Carrera Abarth #1010 in the pits at LeMans in 1962. The very last photo of the book is a shot of Carrera Abarth #1009 at the 1000 km of Paris. Taken under different circumstances at virtually the same angle. Whether the author intended to let this juxtaposition reflect Porsche’s stability and permanence in sports car racing, or whether he just likes the Abarth’s rear (who doesn’t?); I don’t know. But it’s little touches like this that make SportErfolge such a joy to repeatedly dig into and find new details to absorb.

A lineup of Spyders in Tony Adriaensens' SportErfolge

Tony’s books ain’t cheap, but I think they’re worth much more than their cover price. More information at Corsa Research. SportErfolge is an absolutely beautiful, well researched, masterfully photo-edited book.

Book Review: Runways & Racers

After a while you start to be able to predict how most motorsport books operate before you open the cover. There will be lovely vintage photography, there may be an insightful comment or two. So many authors are content to just offer a few dozen photographic spreads of “the greats” wrestling their machine through a corner, write a snappy caption, and call it a day.

Terry O’Neil is not one of those authors.

His Runways & Racers: Sports Car Races held on Military Airfields in America 1952-1954 is among the rarer breed of automotive books. One that manages to bridge the divide between heavily-researched almanac of statistics and Eye-candy filled coffee table book. The title alone hints at the level of specificity that awaits. But O’Neil’s writing here is so much more immediate and immersive than you might expect from a historical analysis.

This era of motorsport in America is fascinating. After a few high-profile accidents doomed city-street road racing, the entire sport could well have dried up if not for the fledgling SCCA’s arrangement with the Strategic Air Command. Without this bridge, we might never have seen the wellspring of road racing tracks that would ultimately become the sport’s home. It is a vitally important phase of road racing’s American history, and to see it so lovingly—and comprehensively—presented feels right.

In reading the book, I actually consider Terry O’Neil a bit of a kindred spirit. His writing style in describing the events feels so personal and conversational that I think it not inaccurate to say that Terry O’Neil live-blogged the early 50’s SCCA/SAC road races. Let me give you an example in the form of O’Neil’s account of the main event at the March 10, 1953 running at Reeves Field, Terminal Island, California:

“The first of two feature races was for the Class F, FM, and GM, which attracted a diverse array of cars to the grid for the ten-lap race. Pre-race favourites were Ken Miles, in his potent and extremely successful MG Special, George Beavis, in his Beavis-Offenhauser Special, together with the reliable modified MGs of Drake and Bird. Lots were drawn for start positions, and found Miles well down the grid among what were to become ‘also rans,’ whereas Beavis was near the front of the grid. However, when the flag was dropped, the Offy was left at the start line due to a lock-up in the starter motor. Miles set off in his familiar style, weaving through the pack to take the lead by the time they had rounded the first turn. From that point on, the race for first place was over for everyone else. Even though he slowed for the last five laps, his lead was such that nobody was going to catch him, and his domination of Class FM racing in California was maintained.”

His description of the event goes on for four pages and reads much more like a novel than a mere list of events and results. The racing journals of the time wish they had coverage of these events so descriptive and evocative. It’s this storyteller’s voice that make me think of O’Neil blogging these events from another time and ensures that I won’t merely be flipping through it for fun photos, despite being chock full of wonderful photography and reproductions of program covers, track maps, and ephemera from the events. The results tables, which must have been exhausting to research in this era of less-than-wholly-accurate record keeping, are an unexpected and appreciated bonus.

I wholeheartedly recommend Terry O’Neil’s Runways & Racers: Sports Car Races held on Military Airfields in America 1952-1954. It’s lovingly written passages, perfectly curated photography, and well researched results tables make it a brilliant read and I find myself returning to it again and again.

The 1934 GP Season of Paul Chenard’s “Silver Clouds”

It’s almost not fair to refer to Paul Chenard’s “Silver Clouds: The 1934 Grand Prix Season” as a book. A book is generally thought of as a consumer product. Yes, a book can be artfully considered, beautifully designed, lovingly written and illustrated, but when it comes down to it, you think of a book as a mass-produced item: bought, thumbed through, and forgotten on a shelf.

Like a book, Paul’s project, is lovingly researched and written. The design has been carefully measured, the illustrations (oh the illustrations!) are magnificent. But here is where the similarities to a mere book end. This is an art piece. There’s really no other way to think of it. It has all the hallmarks of a hand-crafted, meticulously assembled gallery item. The fact that you can turn from page to page and admire the beautifully reproduced illustrations and pore over the charming summaries of the races and events of the 1934 Grand Prix season is just added benefit. My photos here don’t do it justice at all.

This gives me a dilemma. Ordinarily, I would read through a text like this a handful of times, perhaps study a favorite illustration and then shut it away between automotive volumes. Silver Clouds, though, begs to be displayed.

Paul’s illustration style matches the era so very well. His flowing, lightly-held hand style feels very much in the spirit of the 1934 season. If they were in black and white, they could easily pass for the woodcut illustrations that accompanied newspaper accounts of the early grand prix seasons. They live in a very sweet spot between realism and the ligne claire, almost cartoony, style that so typifies European illustration of the mid-century. The woodcut comparison is even more apt in the biography section, where each entry is accompanied by a small illustration of the subject in something close to the illustration style the Wall Street Journal is famous for.

Brilliantly, those same illustrations accompany the book as a deck of trading cards that evoke the era’s cigarette cards. You can almost imagine them as coveted souvenir purchased trackside at AVUS or the Circuito di Modena. Absolutely marvelous!

In short, I love it. It’s a remarkably beautiful art piece, a passionately written and magnificently crafted primer to the Grand Prix season of 1934. I don’t know how many copies of Silver Clouds Paul has created, but everything about it screams “limited edition”, find out more on his Automobiliart.

Reviewed: Sports Car Racing in Camera 1950—59

With a title that includes the phrase “in Camera”, you would expect that a Paul Parker’s volume rises and falls with the quality of the photographs; perhaps relying on classic or iconic imagery to tell the familiar tales of post-war sports car racing. You know, playing it safe. The author almost apologetically points out that, by simple availability, color photography of the era wasn’t widely adopted enough to tell the tale only through color shots. The lack of color in the early years doesn’t hurt at all, and the photography is indeed marvelous. Even better, the author did not simply play it safe and instead edited away many of the overly familiar photos of cars and star hotshoes in favor of showcasing the breadth of cars and drivers competing in this glorious era. It is because of this that we see Skodas and Rileys and DB Panhards in marvelous representation here alongside the more familiar Ferraris and Astons and Jags. Damn, those OSCAs are beautiful, aren’t they?

With the photo selections smartly chosen and presented. How then, to best craft the story around these snapshots? The typical approach is to write statistic-filled prose that almost all readers will skip over and cut straight to the visuals. Here, however, is where Paul Parker’s book goes from good to great… Masterful, even. Virtually the entirety of the text is the captions of the photos. Rather than simply identify the driver, car, and race and move on. Parker points out in great detail the background story of the photo, the tale of the race, minor detail points of interest in the background. It is this detail and storytelling method that makes Sports Car Racing in Camera 1950—50 so bloody excellent. Observing small details in the photo, and inviting the reader into the story through them invested me in the story of the photo far more than I thought a simple photograph could. When Parker directs my attention to a can of tire black on the floor of the workshop, the unusual color of a drivers’ suit, the flurry of activity in the pits, I become a more active observer of the photograph, and I become more rooted in the time and place of the event.

This marvelous storytelling device makes Parker’s book feel very little like flipping through a coffee-table book and very like thumbing through the personal photo album of a knowledgeable friend regaling you with stories of great exploits from a personal perspective. It’s an odd sensation, but the feelings I got when reading through the book was much more like the sensation I have from reading well-crafted fiction than from what could have all too easily been just another reference book.

The book is not completely devoid of the facts and figures, each year closes with the major teams, drivers, and results of the year’s major events—usually centering around the world sportscar manufacturer championship, which was just forming in 1953. The balance, though, is such that the racing, as told through these photos and captions, is much more about the stories of the era than it is about who won or what their lap time was. This balance is usually a missed opportunity, with books either becoming an almanac of stats, or an author’s interpretation of the events. Parker has done a masterful job of giving just enough facts and figures to back up the photos’ captions.

I’ll just say it: Paul Parker’s Sports Car Racing in Camera 1950—59 is certainly my favorite automotive book of the year, and perhaps the past several years. I highly recommend it to even the most casual fan of vintage sports car racing. Exceedingly well worth picking up. Somebody will definitely thank you for this holiday gift.

Reviewed: Legendary Race Cars

Let me preface this review by saying that I’m not a fan of Greatest Hits albums. Usually when I like a band, I dive headlong into their catalog; collecting all the LPs, digging through crates for 45s with unreleased B-sides. I usually find that my favorite songs by an artist weren’t one of their ‘greatest hits’ and that the album cuts are the heart and soul of a musical act. I’ve always thought that Greatest Hits albums were for people that like the radio, not people that like music.

As more of a completist, my tastes in automotive books tend to run to the specific and detailed. I’ve always loved a heavy tome about a single make—even better, a single model—of car. On the surface, Basem Wasef’s book Legendary Race Cars seems like a Greatest Hits. Skimming the racing cars covered in the book revealed that things start off with the platinum records: GT40, Lotus 49, Senna’s McLaren MP4. This was definitely greatest hits. But then things got very interesting: The Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, Colin McRae’s Impreza rally car, Petty’s Plymouth Superbird, The 1937 Delahaye 145 speed record car. Now these are deeper cuts. These are B-Sides. This was something I could dig my teeth into. It is the variety and surprises in Legendary Race Cars that make this book so unexpected and fun.

Sure, there are familiar stories here: the yarn about stripping the white paint from Mercedes “Silver Arrows” to satisfy the weight restriction; the Ford/Ferrari wars; Wyer racing’s sorting of the aerodynamics that turned the Porsche 917 from a death-trap into a world beater. Of course, the reason these stories are so lasting and perennial is that they truly are the great myths and legends in the history of auto racing. When I encounter stories like Parnelli Jones’ Big Offy Baja racing rig, though, it makes the stories—even the common ones—all the more interesting for what they’ve collectively brought to our sport.

This isn’t a greatest hits album at all. Greatest hits records dive into a single artist and show a simple introduction to a single act—a single point of view. Legendary Race Cars gives us an introduction to an entire sport. Not a single point of view, not a single venue, not a single type of competition. There’s lovely choices here from every vein of auto racing; F1, World Sportscar Championship, Baja, NASCAR, Drag Racing, Land-Speed Records, Hillclimbing, Rally. Representatives from each of these disciplines each tell their individual stories, but they also tell the story of the automobile through the fierce competition that so rapidly drove its evolution.

I suppose you could call this a coffee table book, but the quality of the text and the research that Basem has put together for each of these machines elevate it to so much more than a typical coffee table book provides. Each car’s story is accompanied by a wide assortment of marvelously reproduced photography—both historic shots of these cars in action and, when possible, contemporary images of the cars as they exist today. Basem’s introduction tells a wonderful tale of his trip around the world with his wife tracking these cars down, visiting them in the manufacturer’s museum or private collections, and gathering their stories. It’s a trip that many of us have fantasized about taking, and living vicariously through this tour of legendary machines is a satisfying way to make a small step towards that promise we’ve made ourselves. You know the one, where we round the German and Italian museums, drop by Goodwood for the Revival, then wrap our way up the Pacific coast of the States, with long wanders around Pebble Beach and the Quail, as well as quick stops by the personal garages of prominent collectors. Since it’s not looking likely that this yearlong jaunt is in my immediate future, I’m glad that Basem has done the legwork for me.

Whether that trip would result in the same list for me is questionable. Whether any of us would make the same list is questionable. Thank goodness for that! As Sir Stirling Moss mentions in the book’s forward, these types of lists are always prone to argument. After reading Basem’s list and the stories behind them, I feel better acquainted with the breadth and variety of machines that have changed racing. It’s true that few can agree on what the most legendary racing cars are. But, if we all agreed on the same handful of machines, what the Hell would we debate about over pints after a race weekend?

Legendary Race Cars, by Basem Wasef, would make a fine addition to any car nerd’s library, and makes for good ammunition at your next impassioned back and forth over “the greatest”.