The big picture

Jean-Claude Sauer, the French photographer who treated a Ferrari like a film star

Jean-Claude Sauer was, in the tradition of so many of those great 1960s photographers, something of a swashbuckling bon vivant.


During a 40-year career at Paris Match, he snapped pouting Yé-Yé girls and Nouvelle Vague starlets, fashion designers, blue-blooded Eurocrats and sitting presidents. But Sauer also did plenty of the dark stuff, covering the bloody conflicts of the time, most famously Vietnam, Algeria and Biafra.


In 1968, the weekly news magazine asked its team of photographers to come up with ideas for a preview of the Paris Motor Show. The wonderfully quirky results included a Fiat 500 L paraded through the Sahara Desert and a Porsche playing Tarzan with a baby elephant and some passing giraffes.


Sauer was tasked with shooting the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 “Daytona”. Recreating a film set, he put up lights, assembled a crew and placed the gleaming new Prancing Horse centre stage. And, next to it, as if awaiting Il Commendatore’s command of “action!”, stood an empty director’s chair, with the name Enzo Ferrari on the back.


The Frenchman had shot Enzo for the magazine before, most notably in 1974, when he pictured the founder in his office, sat at his desk in strictly business mode but still capturing the humanity behind those trademark sunglasses.

Jean-Claude Sauer's 1974 portrait of Enzo Ferrari  Photo: Getty Images

Sauer was, by all accounts, something of an old rogue, matching Ernest Hemingway drink for drink, sailing with Gunter Sachs and hunting with the Comte de Beaumont (though rather less decadently, he also once tried running a farm in rural Wyoming. That didn’t last too long).


The photographer, who died in January 2013, was once mistaken for a spy and set on by an angry mob while on assignment in Bombay, narrowly escaping with a few broken bones. In Yemen, a chieftain presented him with a necklace made of human ears – a gift that the photographer promptly lost somewhere at the airport.


A former national bobsleigh champion, Sauer was selected for the 1968 French Winter Olympics team, though records (or a lack of them) suggest he never took part. Motor racing, inevitably, was a big part of the playboy package.


In 1966, Sauer raced at Le Mans at the wheel of a Scuderia San Marco Serenissima Spider with co-driver Jean de Mortemart, only to suffer gearbox trouble. With just fourth and fifth gear at his disposal, an undeterred Sauer kept at it for another six hours, before the car finally came spluttering to a halt.

Sauer and Bouchon's GT 250 Lusso, during the 1965 Targa Florio  Photo: Unknown

The previous year, he took part in the Targa Florio in a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso as co-driver to the mysterious “Bouchon” (Robert Blouin), finishing Not Classified after failing to complete the race within the set time limit.


Talking to Life magazine in the late 1960s, Sauer explained why working on the more glamorous side of photography always came as something of a relief. ‘It was like a cleansing shower to me. Every now and then you can’t help getting fed up with wars and disasters and children in pain. The fashion story gave me a chance to do something that was bright and fresh and optimistic. The girls were marvellous. They told me they liked working with me because we laughed all the time. I love to laugh.’