Vintage Cars, Film Cameras, and Not Photographing the Crash – Guest Post by Jacob Downey

Vintage Cars, Film Cameras, and Not Photographing the Crash – Guest Post by Jacob Downey

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The Vintage Sports Car Club, a club for people who own or appreciate sports cars built before 1931, combines several great loves of mine. Its founding principle seems to be that cars should not languish in garages as collectors items, but be driven, and driven hard. It’s a bastion of British eccentricity with a healthy dose of old-world charm thrown together with some truly wonderful cars.

In late January I went to the birthplace of British motorsport to watch the VSCC winter driving tests. Driving tests are a series of challenges partly focused on speed, partly focused on ballerina-like precision. In no other form of motorsport would you see a slalom, a speed reverse bay park and a hill climb all in one event, but at the driving test it’s all part of the competition. Of course the vintage nature of the cars adds another level of difficulty – try doing all of that with a crash gearbox, no power steering and manual brakes on only two wheels. It’s a challenge, and whilst few cars breach 50 miles-per-hour it’s a uniquely thrilling event.

I brought my tried and tested Nikon Nikomat, the venerable long nose Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and a new-to-me Nikon Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. A bold combination of manual exposure and manual focus for fast-moving motorsport, but then this is film photography. We’re not here to make life easy for ourselves. Plus, I don’t own any automatic cameras. It could’ve been worse; I had to spend the morning talking myself out of bringing a TLR. The film I used was an eclectic mix including Velvia and Tri-X, and one slightly wacky roll of Kodak Aerocolour.

I spent the morning photographing these motorsport giants of yesteryear being put through their paces. I watched long extinct marques such as Frazer-Nash, Riley, Lagonda, Austin and Wolsey all being flung around tight slaloms and barrelling up a 1 in 4 hill. I saw sports saloons leaning hard into corners, I saw flames spitting from Brooklands exhausts, I saw people lying under cars rapidly reattaching bits and pieces, I saw people driving 90-year-old family cars like bats out of the proverbial hell. All in a days driving at the VSCC.

Toward the tail end of the afternoon I was watching one of the tests, featuring a slalom just before the back straight. First up, a rather genteel run from a nine horsepower Jowett, followed by a faster MG, followed by a positively flying Frazer-Nash. Next up was a sporty Austin 7 in bright gold. From the start you could tell the driver was going for it, leaning into each corner, tires squealing, engine buzzing like a wasp. And then on the turn out of the slalom to come up the back straight I saw the Austin cock its rear wheel, and then, almost in slow motion, roll completely.

It’s odd what you notice in the moment. For me in this moment, it was the sounds. First, breaking glass as the windscreen hit the concrete, then the crumpling of bodywork, and then silence soon broken by radios crackling for the fire crew and race doctor.

It was a slow crash, but with nothing to protect the driver, high speed isn’t a requirement for disaster. I remember quite distinctly looking at the wreckage and thinking there wasn’t a single place in the car which seemed safe, a place where the driver might have found protection from the worst of it. Every option looked terrible. I think most of the spectators were wondering if they’d just seen a crash that was going to change someone’s life, or worse.

I’d been photographing quite contentedly up to the crash. I was even reasonably convinced that some of my photos might be halfway good. As the car rolled, I was there, camera in hand, exposure dialed in from the previous shot. Unfolding in front of me was unquestionably a photographically interesting moment.

I didn’t take the photo.

I think sometimes as photographers we’re supposed to idolize the killer instinct. From the last actions of Robert Capa to the famous Decisive Moment that we’re all supposed to be chasing. There’s a reverence for the “get the shot whatever the cost” mentality. I don’t mean to condemn that mindset. It has unquestionably brought us some of the world’s best photographs. But I do wonder why it seems that this has become, for some people, the definitive photographic trait to which to aspire. There’s a place for that mindset, indeed we’d be worse off if nobody had it. But surely there’s room to embrace other ways of photographing.

The words the of French photographer Willy Ronis feel closer to the mantra by which I want to live my photographic life. “I never took a mean photo.”

Does this limit my artistic range? Potentially. But does taking a mean photo increase it? I’m not so sure, in both cases execution rather than ideology probably makes a bigger difference.

When I got my scans back from the lab I was pretty happy with what I’d got. There were plenty of duds (aren’t there always?) but there were a few in there that I was really happy with, one that even made it into my top twenty. And yes, there was also a large gap in which for twenty minutes I, along with everyone else, held my breath and hoped. Despite this, possibly even because of it, I was happy with what I’d got.

Incidentally the driver was fine. How, I don’t know. Whether he jumped or was thrown clear or was just plain lucky. After twenty minutes of lying on the ground surrounded my marshalls and paramedics, he stood up and walked away. I have no idea how, but he did.

And if you live in Britain, if you like old stuff and hobbyists and a healthy dose of eccentricity, then get yourself along to a VSCC event. They’re completely mad in the best possible way. You might even get some good photos.

Our guest posts are submitted by amazing photographers and writers all over the world.

Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…

Jacob Downey, an amateur photographer living in South West England. After re-discovering both photography and film in early 2019 he’s been working his way through a steady stream of rolls since then, usually filled with architecture, industrial heritage and seaside towns.

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  • First: I have great memories from South West England when I was young 😉
    When I see vintage cars: I say to myself “cars”. Now cars are great, but I dont find character.
    And this great article mixing story, history, art of writing, old cameras, film, good quotes, I can only find here : casualphotophile.
    Reason why I read again, again, gain and again, and I wait for news. I know it’s not easy to run a website, especially an excellent one!
    But I read only 2. 2 about film photography I consider very deep.
    This one because from James to all other writers, this is very good all the time, and of course JapanCameraHunter because Bellamy says really what he thinks, what he knows and what he is doing, but I have to say that I have bought many excellent cameras because of the articles of these 2 great websites. They are different. But they are original and they dont hide their goals.
    So, there one more excellent contribution. Vintage cameras and vintage cars: a perfect association.
    The text is very very good.
    Casualphotophile : James, writers from India, USA, UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, France, … all are great and make me very very happy all the time: dont need smileys to say happy, ok, … sad, … we just keep reading.
    In this world of very fast news which change all the time, deep contents are difficult to find.
    Gratitude for this one and all the other one’s !!!

  • What an enjoyable article this is! Like Jacob, I enjoy vintage film cameras and photographing with film. And I enjoy vintage automobiles. Also like Jacob, when I’ve witnessed some event where someone is potentially injured, I have not continued shooting my camera of said tragic event. Just my natural reaction and my personal feeling, that since I am not a professional journalist photographer, there would be no positive use of such photos in my life. I wish to celebrate the joy, and forget the tragic. The excellent photos that Jacob took home are all about the enjoyment of such a wonderful event.

  • Great Post, thank you. If you’re ever in Portugal at the beginning of September I would highly recommend taking in the Caramulo Motorfestival. It’s a photographers dream. I used to go quite regularly, but the pandemic put paid to that. Think it’s back this year, though. 🤞

  • I know you didn’t take the photo of the crash, even though you apparently easily could have. But do you know how the driver fared?

    • Thankfully he was mostly fine, there was a very nervous 20 minutes or so of him on the floor surrounded by paramedics, but after that he got up and walked off. Cuts and bruises no doubt, but it could have been a lot worse.

  • Merlin Marquardt May 11, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    What is a “mean photo”?

    • I’ve always considered that quote to mean any photo that takes advantage of another person, or makes someone look bad, or tells a lie.

      • “I never took a mean photo,” I believe was from an interview of Ronis in 2005. He clarified his statement by saying “I never wanted to make people look ridiculous. I always had a lot of respect for the people I photographed.” I usually tell fellow photographers if you wouldn’t want an unflattering photo taken of you, then why take one of someone else.

        • I always think of Bruce Gilden’s famous portraits as the counterpoint to Ronis’ philosophy. I know that Gilden made quite a name for himself with those photos, but they make me really uncomfortable (which I acknowledge may be the point…).

          • I also thought of Bruce Gilden as I typed my reply. And while I don’t like most of his work, he recently published a new book, Cherry Blossom, which is a collection of photographs from his travels to Japan between 1995 and 1999. Photos include “Yakuza gang members, homeless people living on the streets and smart-suited young men sporting greased back teddy boy haircuts, they explore the diverse array of characters and cultures within Japanese society.” It’s a side of Japan most visitors never see, and the photos are really evocative without being mean. I just ordered the book:)

  • Thanks for sharing about his book Ned.

  • Good article. And I agree completely. We don’t excise our heart when we grab a camera. It’s insensitive to exploit another’s tragedy, which is bad enough when people do it for money; to do it as an amateur is bizarre.

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