In the Moment: The color of history, the history in color
Welcome to a regular feature we call In the Moment!
A while back, Hagerty’s editor-at-large, Sam Smith, began kicking off our mornings by plopping a random archive photo into our staff chat room. His descriptions of those photos were fun, so we started running them as columns on irregular Thursdays.
These days, Sam writes ITMs specifically for publication. Usually while drinking too much coffee and going rhetorical walkabout. Enjoy, and let us know what you think in the comments! —Ed.
This column is called In the Moment. If you have been paying attention, you know this space as a log of obsessions. And to paraphrase a Seinfeld character, I got a lotta obsessions for you people!
We have here discussed many things. Heroes! Legends! Fast cars of complexity and genius! But also the power of memory and the freedom of starting over. A man in a bathing suit on salt and motorcycle. The only airplane engine anyone remembers. And the strange and distant stories of the strange and distant era between the wars.
I can’t claim to know how my head works. What I do know is that I will always be—to paraphrase two other TV shows—enthralled with what we owe each other. How we parse our differences, and how they can be visible in something as ostensibly simple as a photograph of an old car.
Today’s iteration of this column is hung on another obsession. It also represents a slightly different approach to this space. Not least because I am lucky enough to have the freedom; the powers that be basically let me run this column as I please. (Nobody blinked late last year when I spat out 5000 words on an old genius F1 car and peppered the whole thing with mustache-eyebrow jokes. If that’s not proof, I don’t know what is.)
You know what else is luck? Photography. Even now, when cameras and editing software so often give results indistinguishable from magic. If I have learned one thing after years of working with pro shooters, it is that the difference between a good image and an insanely great one is mostly just recognizing when you are fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Technical skill matters, yes. Composition is critical. But those have never been rare. Image creation really just comes down to a person with a vision. Someone who saw what others did not, or who simply had the foresight to be in a place where something worth seeing might happen.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founder of the French photo agency Magnum, called that “the decisive moment.” Using that term in a discussion of photography is hard cliché, but screw it, HCB was a boss.
Moving on! Twenty-four hours ago, my friend Carter Hendricks texted me an image. Carter is an Alfa Romeo guy. I worked for him, once. He loves history and stories. He sent me this photo:
The car in focus, number 18, is an Alfa Romeo Type 158—a prewar grand-prix car, a Formula 1 car before the sport wore that name. It is in Geneva, at the Grand Prix des Nations, in July of 1946. The driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille, is French.
Grand-prix racing in the late 1940s lived in a liminal space. Money was thin on the ground, and the cars themselves were mostly left over from the years before World War II. Weird time, many fascinating choices made under pressure. But that’s not what got my attention. The photographer’s style looked familiar.
I did some googling. That Geneva shot was taken by a British man named Louis Klemantaski. I should have known.
Lord, Klem was good. Just a staggering eye for humanity and tone. Wikipedia notes that he essentially “invented the art of motor racing photography.” The statement scans like exaggeration but is sky-blue true.
Racing photography is an odd business. The titans in the space basically make things up as they go along. For Klemantaski, that meant stuff like riding along in a 1000-mile, balls-out 1950s open-road race that regularly killed people, shooting the first images from a top-shelf racing car at speed. But also so much more. Into a space that had previously held little art, the dude simply cannoned great and deeply original work.
Klemantaski died in 2001. The grain of the man’s efforts has been stitched into my brain for as long as I can remember. Elementary school? Earlier? Dad had so many books. I have this vivid little memory of sitting at a desk in my parents’ house in the 1990s, maybe 13 years old, in front of a desktop PC the color of wallpaper paste, waiting for the modem to dial up. Then punching “Louis Klemantaski” into an America Online search.
So, yes, I’m a dork.
We knew that, though.
One photo in particular is quite famous, a cockpit exposure from the 1957 Mille, all greens and sunlight. That Alfa image, however, was shocking mostly because so little color photography exists from 1940s motorsport, from any photographer.
Color! I had almost forgotten he shot it.
At first, I thought the Alfa photo was hand-tinted, a black-and-white image with dyed color later painted in by hand. The glacial speeds of 1940s color film plus tack-sharp exposure and short depth of field in a blurred pan? Sticking the landing would have been almost impossible.
And yet. It’s real color. He was just that good. (Post-publication note: I’m now told it was Agfa color film with an ASA speed of 8. —SS)
At one point, while we were texting, Carter sent over a snippet from the Klemantaski Collection blog:
This is one of those rare Klemantaski color images from the prewar and immediate postwar years. Very few magazine publications were then able to print color, so it was a bit of wasted effort.
As Klemantaski said, every color shot from those years was one that could not be sold.
Then, because Carter is Carter, he began making sideways reference to Thomas Kuhn’s landmark 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I didn’t even know who Kuhn was, but Carter does not reference things lightly, so I googled the name and ordered a copy. The book is essentially about how we invent the new in a world that doesn’t always demand it.
Carter kept texting:
What Kuhn talks about is how even new good ideas aren’t put into use until the old ideas simply can’t hold any more. Truth doesn’t cause revolutions—utility does. (Later, Foucault said it was politics.)
Carter is an extremely interesting guy. Our text chains always teach me stuff.
Point the second: Early Klemantaski color is cool as hell. So I dove into the Getty wire archive—this column’s traditional image source—and went looking for more.
Lord, it was fun. Some of what I found is below. The small-print captions beneath each photo are a light edit and/or factual correction of the captions from Getty’s system. Not all the photos are color; some are just Klemantaski being Klemantaski, an artist. Either way, I chose these images because they show the man at his best. Windows into deeply human moments.
There is no grand takeaway here, just a pause to note that obsessions can be, in so many cases, all that keep us going. Yours are almost certainly different from mine. Drop them into the comments, if you have a second. Tell me about the rabbit holes you fall down. I’m curious.
And now, on with the show!
Above: He built Cobras and the empire that gave Ford its first win at Le Mans. But everyone forgets Carroll Shelby was a driver first. Look at the cigarette in his mouth! The man knows he looks cool, and he knows that you know it.
This is 1955, from the public-road sports-car races in Torrey Pines, near San Diego. I love how the colors softly pop on the woman’s dress and those plaid shirts, how the shadows roll and fade.
Above: From the left seat with Collins again. Look at those mountains in the distance! Imagine the drop just over that rail!
The sedan ahead is a Mercedes 220A. Slow, not a lot of grip, a dowdy thing. And sliding, next to some tiny Italian jewel now almost certainly worth more than my house.
Imagine coming into this corner at full blammo, covered in bugs (look at the windscreen). Miles before you sleep. And only a few feet away, people are cheering.
Above: There is so much raw and dirty America in this picture of France that it hurts.
Briggs Cunningham was a stud. A proper example of what one should do with obscene wealth. He won the America’s Cup, he built his own car company, he took uncompetitive American cars to Le Mans because it seemed like the right thing to do. (Jim Glickenhaus is, in many ways, a modern Cunningham minus the boats.)
Above: A starting grid at the Nürburgring in ’57. Note the line of drivers across the track. When the flag drops, they will run over and leap into the cars.
The four machines closest to camera are Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs. Gullwings. Even a dull one is now worth seven figures.
The detail is incredible. Like all the squarish shots here, this was taken on medium-format film. Medium-format negatives are virtually the size of your palm. Film exposures are like digital-camera sensors, in that physical size is directly related to resolution. (The high-res scan of this image, too large to run here, is simply bonkers.)
Above: Handling education in a nutshell! The car in the front is in oversteer—rear tires sliding, the fronts with grip. The car behind is in driver-induced understeer—sliding fronts, rear wheels with grip.
The old line maintains that, while oversteer scares passengers, understeer scares drivers. An understeering car doesn’t want to turn. Oversteer is essentially turning too much. (Think about that for a second.)
Lotus Cortinas are famously loose little monkeys. Your narrator has wanted one since forever.
Above: Collins. Dapper chap. And then there was Enzo, looking thrilled as always.
Another medium-format negative. Not color, but the clarity and skin tones are remarkable.
Above: Again, not color, but magnificent in every way. One of the most English drivers in history, in a deeply English car, with that oh-so-English mustache. Art.
And that is not a long lens. He was close. A few feet away.
Above: A new Ferrari 156 in the old trackside pits at Monaco. The car they called “sharknose.” An elegant little thing in soft gloss.
No original 156s remain, though accurate replicas exist. Witness the center brace in that nose, the aluminum so thin, it has already been dented by rocks. Imagine the hours it took some Italian to form that shape by hand. The lens hasn’t distorted the shape—those intakes are asymmetrical.
Above: In the late 1950s, a wealthy American decided to take an American engine and some American hot-rod craftsmen to Formula 1. The cars were called Scarabs. The man, Lance Reventlow, was the son of American philanthropist Barbara Hutton and an heir to the Woolworth five-and-dime fortune.
If you do not know much about Scarabs, read this piece—the story is a bank of famous names, from Offenhauser to Phil Remington and Carroll Shelby.
They didn’t do well. It doesn’t matter.
Above: This is not technically a Klemantaski photograph. It was taken by a Swiss photographer named Yves Debraine but ended up in the Klemantaski collection. I am including it here simply because it is pleasant.
That’s the whole field in the 1959 Monaco Grand Prix! All of it!
So many hay bales.
Above: An F1 car being worked on in a Monaco gutter. On chocks, on wooden planks, off the back of a transporter.
That Maserati was driven by of one of the greatest drivers in history. He won the race that year.
The boards have cracks!
Look at the sidewalk. I wonder what is in those jugs.
Above: So much sweat. Innes is still in his race suit. His face says so much. He qualified seventh that year, out of 16 cars, but finished last, down 44 laps. That Lotus had mechanical problems; he ended up pushing it an entire lap. There is film.
He is in tennis shoes, I think.
Above: So much happening here. The narrow depth of field that just barely catches the back of Brabham’s body. Him leaning into that thin, high-backed seat. That enormous steering wheel. How the car was built by John Cooper, of Mini Cooper fame. And the meaning of that day.
Brabham was a legend. He won three Formula 1 driver’s championships, the last in 1966, when he was 40. In this photo, he is on the way to his first. That Cooper was the first mid-engine car to win an F1 title, but it would not be the last. The sport looked at the thing, noted its dominance, and basically threw all the old front-engine cars in the trash.
I met Brabham once, at the Goodwood Revival. He was charming, polite and mannered. I attempted to be polite. It was difficult, because I was speechless.
Above: Last one. The great man himself, Fangio. In that 250F Maser, the one from the boards and the gutter, on the way to a win.
Neat visual geometry. The car’s angle and the amount of tire smoke suggests a certain amount of . . . inertia. The drift must have begun in the middle of the corner.
I like to think that maybe—just maybe—he was having fun.
(Bonus gallery below, just because we can! If you have a minute, also try clicking the above images, to zoom in using our site’s “lightbox” viewer. Some are truly remarkable when scaled up. —Ed.)
cool old pictures. wish you had more of this..its just like the main article that came with this e mail..about the demise of happy cars..people have forgot how to be happy and enjoy life..and cars..for what it is. today its always,bigger faster . more money..always trying to get something better than the other guy..and of course.anger.cant just go around someone driving slower..whether its to the left or right lane..its get ticked off..instead of..we all share the roads together..and guess what..whether its cars..or guns..it gives them more reason to take our rights.and these things away from us
SO TRUE nuf said
Great comment on a great article – thank you both!
Look like milk cans to me…
Anyway, this is an amazingly entertaining read, and the visuals are stunning. I can’t think that I have ANY different impressions of all of this than you do, Sam, so I’ll just close here and go back and look it all over again – and again. 🤩
Incredibly informative and entertaining article. Thank you so much. I watched the Monaco GP on the ABC Wide World Of Sports that day when Bandini crashed.
These photos are amazing. What amazes me about old photography is that IT IS SO CRISP. The detail and sharpness are stunning. 95% of people can’t even get close to this with their cell phones where everything except the human are automated; these old photographers were adjusting everything manually, on the fly!
And the color, to get such brilliant color and variety. No filters or tricks, that’s what everything looked like! Rich, vibrant colors that still look soft. No oversaturated or blown out contrast images, no fighting between shadows and light.
I like the one with Carroll Shelby. Nobody seems very happy! Especially the guy in the hawaiian shirt with his hand over part of his face. “Oh great…I just lost a cool G!”
The thing here is that color and black and while both add their own dimension to a photos. A black and white can age a photos and make it feel as old as it is.
Color on the other hand especially at a race adds warmth as most are in the sun and on a warm summer day.
While you can compose many photos some of the best are the action photos you could never compose and catch and freeze a moment the eye could never see.
The photo of the Stan Fox crash at Indy is one that you could never compose and it brings all the violence and a life and death moment that the eye could never comprehend unless it was frozen in time.
Some of the best photos is just the right place at the right time.
Some of the best color photos were the 50’s as after the war many people turned to much brighter colors in clothing, home items, cars and life in general.
Striking photographs by Klemantaski; impressive techniques, remarkable details, perfectly captured moods. Thanks Sam for informing and entertaining us.
Excellent read. Wonderful pictures. More please?
Thank you Sam!
Fabulous, but Sam; the last Mille Miglia was 1957, not 1958. The year those unbelievable Peter Collins photos were taken. As for Fangio, he was sideways often, those tires, those cars demanded it. Thank you for writing this and giving us the shots. I will now devote the next few hours to exploring your links.
Ah, thanks for the note! The last year of the Mille as a race was ’57, however. That was the year De Portago and Nelson died in a crash, killing multiple spectators, the final straw that prompted the Italian government to ban racing on public roads. And Klemantaski rode with Collins more than one year—these are all ’57, according to Getty, but the two men were also together in ’56, in a Ferrari Monza.
It’s such wonderful stuff.
A few others have written to note light inaccuracies in the captions, and thank you for that. We regret the errors. These captions are all clean-ups of the caps attached to the photos the Getty archive, and Getty accuracy unfortunately grows more and more spotty as you go back in time.
(Especially with the Klemantaski collection, it seems, where there wasn’t much effort made to transition the archive accurately when it was purchased by the service.)
In the photo of the Corvette in pits at Le Mans, is the man on the right (wearing a black shirt), Zora Duntov?
The great Robert Capa famously said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Louis Klemantaski got close enough… and knew a picture when he saw it. In a lifetime as a professional photographer, a few times I’ve stood at the track’s edge during a race… it’s a scary place when looking through a lens, even behind the Armco. LK had bravery far beyond us. And he was using equipment laughably primitive by modern standards… he may be the best ever at his craft. Although the late Jesse Alexander comes close.
The Cunningham Corvette photo at Le Mans. Could that be Zora Arkus-Duntov standing on the wall dressed in black?
All great photos! Thanks for sharing.
Looks like it. He was there in 1960 and was photographed wearing a black polo (B&W image) in another captioned photo from the race.
The photo of Chris Anon coming up on Bandini’s crash looks like a painting. So perfect.
The pictures are incredible. I love the story to go with this. The color is definitely of that period. The accident picture is brutal with the flecks of hay in the air and the fire.