Two things changed Jesse Alexander’s life forever more than 60 years ago. He picked up a camera and he heard the roar of a racing engine.
Those twin lightning bolts kick-started a life dedicated to capturing images, and a career that continues to this day for the Santa Barbara, California-based octogenarian. But where he once stood as a unique figure in the pit lanes of teams such as Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and, of course, Ferrari, today Alexander joins anyone with a camera-equipped smartphone in calling themselves a photographer. And that’s alright with him.
‘I think it’s a good thing,’ says the soft-spoken shutterbug, whose iconic images include an almost painterly portrait of British racing legend Jim Clark and a dynamic shot of Stirling Moss tearing towards his 1955 Mille Miglia victory.
‘With everyone now having a camera in their hands, it just makes people more aware of the beauty around them,’ he says. ‘Being a photographer, I am always seeing beauty.’
Alexander’s tools of the trade in the 1950s and 1960s – decades in which both victory and death catapulted men and machines to fame – were a Leica camera and Kodak Tri-X black and white film. But the racing world around him was bursting with colour.
‘The visual appeal for me was the natural beauty that the early designers created in those cars and, of course, the Ferraris were all red,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Now you add the German cars in silver, the American cars in blue and white, the British in green, and it was like a painter’s palette in front of your eyes. It was a gift.’
Alexander says that in those simpler, pre-marketing machine days of modern racing, teams, their fans and chroniclers all travelled together as members of a happy, if dangerous, circus.
‘I thought of us all as a big family, the team managers, photographers, drivers, it was like coming to a party every weekend,’ he says. ‘But the other issue was that the sport was incredibly dangerous then. There were many terrible accidents. It seemed every race we were losing a friend. It bonded us.’
Alexander says he never feared for his own safety, tucking himself into position at the apex of slow turns or occasionally using a long lens to capture a machine at full gallop. But as much as he loved capturing the fury of the action, he was equally drawn to its more graceful moments.
‘I really enjoyed taking pictures of people, as well as the cars,’ he says. ‘So, if I had a strong shot of a beautiful engine, you might also see the mechanic’s hands. Someone working, that humanised the shot.’
As a familiar face in those fume-filled pits, Alexander made fast friends with his subjects. But three men stand out in his mind today as particular pals: Argentine ace Juan Manuel Fangio, American world champion and Ferrari legend Phil Hill and British sensation Moss.
Fangio and Hill have passed on, but ‘Stirling is still going well, and every time I see him now it’s a thrill,’ says Alexander.
While the photographer was drawn to all manner of beautiful people and things that made up the racing carnival, he does reserve special praise for the steeds from Maranello.
‘Beyond the fact that they were that gorgeous colour, they had these sparkling Borrani wire wheels and those graceful wooden steering wheels,’ he says. ‘They were, quite simply, works of art.’
These days, thanks to a few wealthy collector friends, Alexander gets to occasionally reunite with some of those legendary machines from yesteryear, stallions like the Ferrari 375 Plus and the 335 S Spider, cars that now routinely trade hands for stratospheric eight-figure sums.
But back when Alexander was a wide-eyed twentysomething trolling the pits, camera in hand, these now untouchable talismans of a bygone era were just beautiful pieces of metal — created, wrecked and fixed by humble mortals.
In Alexander’s prized photographs, the fundamental appeal of humans using creativity to find speed comes through with a poignant and dynamic beauty that reflects the artist’s soul.
‘When I look back on my life and the experiences I had, I feel I am two things,’ he says. ‘Very fortunate and very thankful.’