The Birth of Automobile Action Photography

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Lorraine Dietrich by JH Lartigue

By the time Karl Benz introduced his Motorwagen to the world in 1886 photography was already established as both an art and a science. 

In fact Frenchman Joseph Nicephore-Niepce, the prolific polymath credited with the first process, to fix an enduring image ,Heliography, in 1827 had invented an early form of internal combustion engine way back in 1807 ,although he fitted it to a boat rather than a car.

So fast was the development of new technologies in the Victorian era that Benz’s quadracycle powered by an internal combustion engine did not evolve much and was quickly overtaken by steam and electric powered vehicles that proved not only faster and more efficient but also the most popular cars in those early days of motoring.

In 1899 Camille Jenatzy broke the important 100km/h or 62 mph land speed record in his electric car Le Jamais Contente (above)) and in 1906 Fred Marriot in a American Stanley Steamer set a new LSR on Daytona beach in Florida at 127mph.

But how to record all this high-speed derring-do.

Exposure times in the early days of the Daguerrotype were up to 30 mins and elaborate frames and braces were offered to hold the subject of a portrait still for the time the shutter was open.Henry Fox Talbot’s coachman had to stand still for 3 minutes for this very early 1841 Calotype (below), there was no shutter at all for the earliest cameras just the lens cap that was removed and then replaced. Exposure times were quickly reduced with further advances in lens technology and accelerators added to improve the light sensitivity of the plate that brought this down to under a minute.

But even the portable photographic equipment of the Victorian era was heavy and unwieldy with early models using glass plates that needed coating with wet collodian emulsion on site and developed immediately afterwards. Matthew Brady’s extraordinary images of the American Civil War, considered to be the first photo journalism, brought the horrors of conflict to the breakfast table but the images were, by necessity posed, portraits a bit stolid to the modern eye and battles scenes seemingly static with any movement blurred due to the long exposure times still required to capture the image. Movement had been captured accidentally as this stereoscope image (below)of Broadway by Edward Anthony in 1859 shows but it was not intentional.

The search for the technology that would allow an ‘instantaneous ‘ image was on.

Fox Talbot had successfully managed to capture motion in 1851 using a sudden electric flash on a copy of the Times newspaper attached to a spinning wheel but was not until 1878 that action photography really came of age when inventor Eadweard Muybridge successfully captured a race horse in motion using a shutter of his own design with speeds of between 1/125-1/1000th second that the problem was solved.( see below)

Cameras were still large and cumbersome but, with the invention of the gelatin coated plate started to come down in size and by the 1880’s there was a myriad of hand held equipment available. This(below) 1889 photo of Buffalo Bill galloping a horse seems remarkable considering the technology available. Enter George Eastman, the manufacturer of ‘American Film’, an emulsion-coated paper he invented and his Kodak box camera. At just 3 x 6  inches it had a fixed focus 57mm lens set at f9, a barrel type shutter and was preloaded with sufficient film to produce 100 negatives.

The world’s first motor race, the Paris to Roeun trial, was organised in 1894 with 21 starters.

First car home was a steam tractor that was disqualified as it took two people to operate it, a driver and a stoker but this fine photo (below) of Albert Lemaitre in a 3hp Peugeot came in second and was determined the winner.

In 1895 the Lumiere brothers showed their first cinematograph, the first moving image film…although the quality was poor it quickly improved and it asks the questions why should photographers persevere to shoot stills of action when you could see the subjects move?

The answer is complex. Cinema was costly and difficult to produce whereas photography with Mr Eastman’s help was simpler and a whole lot cheaper. Publications sprung up that demanded imagery from races and events and now with advancing technologies ‘the decisive moment’, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it later on came into play. Photography could capture a still frame of the action whereas the movie could not.

Freezing action with a fast exposure was only part of the story for, although the image was captured, it didn’t offer any expression of movement and new techniques would have to be developed to capture the atmospheric type of action photography now possible due to the faster shutters, lenses and emulsions.

Movement in a photograph was often unintentional (below) in the early days and more by luck than judgement as professional photographers grappled with handling their ungainly plate cameras and it’s remarkable that there were so many successful action images in those early days.

1906 Vandebilt Cup,Duray in the De Dietrich.

Viewfinders were still basic affairs, usually just a wire frame mounted on the front of the camera making it difficult to follow a moving vehicle and light metering was by external light-meter or general exposure tables and relied heavily on the latitude of the media to capture the image..

There are many atmospheric images of racing from this first decade of the 20th century but as equipment improved photographers started to experiment with what was achievable.

One of the most famous early motor racing photographs taken in 1912 by a young French Photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigues shows a passing Delage (below) taken from the side of the road during the Grand Prix organised by the Automobile Club de France. It’s has become famous for it is one of the first action images using a focal plane shutter which scanned from bottom to top hence the leaning forward nature of the subject. Cartoonists of the day picked up on this and used what was effectively an aberration, with oval wheels pitching forward to depict speed in their drawings from then on.

Lartigues had developed his techniques earlier to produce a number of other interesting action imagery of his friends larking about with a go kart in their garden and it was only in retrospect that the significance of these very modern looking photographs was recognized with their informal approach and technical skill.

He used a range of equipment from large plate cameras, Kodak Brownie and a Leica, the new, high quality German camera that had first appeared in 1925 and was small enough to put in your pocket. Leica’s motto was ‘small negative, big pictures’,beautifully engineered, they featured a  very high quality lens and were virtually silent.

The most successful of the early action images were scenes with the car passing through the frame, with the camera static but as shutters improved and lenses became faster a new style of action photography, that of panning (below) the moving car as it passed by, matching the speed of the swing to the subject, began to be developed. This gave the impression of what the spectators saw as they swung their head to follow the car as it passed by with a sharp subject and blurred background.

1927 Malcolm Campbell, Pendine, Bluebird 174mph

Motoring artists such as F Gordon Crosby and Roy Knockolds were producing evocative illustrations and paintings of motor racing depicting movement and blur to show speed with stones kicking up, spray from wet roads and scarves flying and ES Tompkins argues in his 1948 book Speed Camera that it should be possible to produce photographs of a similar quality and atmosphere.

The amount of blur and the success of the panned image relied on a number of variables some of which could be controlled and others not. First amongst these was the speed of the subject and its axis, whether is was passing straight by or coming towards camera was the most significant one of these with a faster shutter speed needed for a car in ¾ view. With practice early motoring photographers were panning at speeds from 1/250th second down to 1/100th second which, when you consider the equipment, was no mean feat.

Dramatic action images started to appear (below) in the The Motor or Autocar that wouldn’t have seemed possible a decade before. Many of these images were taken on the new 35mm film stock, popularised by Leica and launched by Kodak in a pre-loaded single use cartridge  in 1935. 35mm film had been used before as early as 1908 by photographers but it was 70mm movie stock split down the middle and re-sprocketed and had to be loaded into reusable cassettes for each use.

1937 Auto union British GP Donington

The next development that helped action photographers was the arrival of the 35mm Single Lens reflex cameras that appeared just before the war (Kine Exakta). Reflex cameras had been around for a while but the viewfinder was blanked as the mirror sprang out of the optical path just before taking the picture effectively delaying the shutter release which was not ideal for action photography. (below) This was solved by Pentax in 1954 with the introduction of with their instant mirror return mechanism, a system still in use today.

1954 Fangio W196 Reims

Although the Lumiere Bros had gone on to invent their colour Autochrome process back in 1908 it remained costly and unreliable and it was not until Kodachrome (colour below) and shortly afterwards Agfacolor was introduced in 35mm format in the mid 1930’s that it became more popular .It was still expensive however and many photographers still used black and white film stock until the 1990s as it still offered better latitude and was better for action in low light. (B & W below).

1958 Phil Hill ,Ferrari Portugeuse GP
1959 Hans Hermannn, BRM P25 Avus

Telephoto lenses with longer focal lengths had started to be developed in the Edwardian era with some featuring multiple positive and negative lens groups as used in opera glasses but it was not until the rapid development that WWII brought to many imaging technologies that affordable versions started to appear. Wide angle lenses were also developed and the first zoom lens appeared in 1959, Voigtlander 36-82mm. Also in the late ‘50’s Nikon introduced their SP camera, although only a rangefinder, it allowed a motor-drive capable of 3 frames per second to be attached.

A new breed of motor sports photographer started to appear who followed the races internationally supplying the magazines and news organizations as well as sponsors as more money flowed into the sport. French photographer Louis Klementaski was one of the finest and he experimented with action imagery using close-ups and slow shutter speeds. (top below). Tom Burnside( bottom below)were also shooting high quality innovative action images with their manual cameras at this time that developed the art.

1957 Fangio in V12 250F French GP-Klementaski
1956 McAfee Porsche 550-Tom Burnside

Until 1960 all photographers needed to use an external light meter to work out the correct exposure but built-in light meters, visible Through the Lens, started to appear and, although not very accurate at first, proved to be invaluable for speeding up the process of shooting an opportunistic image. Other developments that helped the action photographers were semi-auto exposure modes that appeared first in the ‘60s and then in the late ‘70’s the first full auto exposure cameras arrived (Canon A1). With Autofocus coming in 1981 (Pentax ME-F) and the first digital camera in 1991,(54) (Kodak DCS 100) the modern age of car photographers were  properly equipped.  

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