Portraits by Jesse Alexander

Yes, I think everyone reading this post’s title will also immediately think of OCA tutor, Jesse Alexander. I confess I did when I came across this book on Amazon. I ordered it thinking how could I go wrong with a book by an OCA tutor. Well the happy day rolled around and I headed across the border to pick up my book. I tend to do a lot of cross-border shopping in the USA as the prices are infinitely better than in Canada. Imagine my initial disappointment when I opened this beautiful, large book featuring a slightly larger than life size portrait of a man on the cover, to find that this book was all about portraits of racing drivers! Seriously? Somehow I did not see Jesse Alexander as someone who was into motor racing – but I could be wrong as I don’t know the man at all! After paging through the book I noticed on the flyleaf that this Jesse Alexander had been photographing racing drivers since the 1950’s, so definitely not our OCA tutor, plus he was American.

Needless to say I am not a fan of motor racing at all. I contemplated sending the book back, but after having paged through it, I realised that the photographs were really exceptional. Most of the close ups are life size and shot on film as many of the images have a beautiful grain effect. Take this photo of Ricardo Rodriguez as an example. It was taken at Le Mans in 1960 where he finished second at the age of 18.  We see the young Rodriguez standing contemplatively staring off at something just beyond the viewer. His face is slightly dusty from the dust and petrol fumes. His goggles are slung around his neck and a faint outline of where the goggles rested on his face are visible. Beads of sweat around his eyes lay claim to the heat of the race as do the damp tendrils of hair plastered on his forehead. On the left, almost off frame we see a sliver of a face with spectacles. This person is obviously conversing with Rodriguez, and we also can make out a hand holding a pen or paper at the bottom centre of the image. The crowds behind Rodriguez are blurred out so much that we can barely discern them. Alexander was greatly influenced by Yousuf Karsh  and David Duncan Douglas and as stated by Mary Ellen Mark, Alexander has tried “to capture the essence of the person or persons being photographed” (Alexander, p. 6).

Photo by Jesse Alexander
Ricardo Rodriguez. Photo by Jesse Alexander

I find myself wondering what the young man is thinking about, with that intense gaze. Is he mentally running through the race again in his mind, reliving a few hairy moments? He looks rather tense and worried and although he is surrounded by a sea of people, he is locked up in a world of his own.

Photo by Jesse Alexander
Jacky Ickx.Photo by Jesse Alexander

The photo above of Belgian star, Jacky Ickx was taken at Watkins Glen in 1989. Similarly to the Rodriguez photo, Ickx is surrounded by people and he is animatedly explaining something judging from his hand gesture, but the photographer has cropped in rather closely for this shot. There is one man slightly behind Ickx wearing a large brimmed hat, listening attentively to him and we are just aware of another standing to the left barely making it on the frame. We just see a blur of the back of his head and the cast of his shadow on Ickx’s overalls.

Alexander’s image of Ickx is pin sharp around his face. Every line and wrinkle are crisp and deeply etched. The lines around his eyes are so clear that we can envisage him scrunching up his eyes against the glare of the sun as he drives around the track; the frown marks across his forehead equally so evidence of his intense concentration. There is a slight graininess to this image which just enhances the gritty appearance of Jacky Ickx.

Alexander features many of the racing greats in this books: Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Archie Scott-Brown, Stirling Moss, Enzo Ferrari, Bruce McLaren, Lorenzo Bandini, Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart to name but a few. But in all his portraits there is definitely an essence of the person that the viewer is aware of. Whether it is the intensity of the unseeing gaze of the driver getting ready for the race, or the post race euphoria, or the cheerful face of a veteran driver reliving his youth, Alexander has managed to capture something that makes the viewer realise these are special people and leaves one wanting to know more. This is a book of very powerful portraits.

Reference List

Alexander, Jesse (2008) Portraits. Phoenix: David Bull Publishing Inc.


5 thoughts on “Portraits by Jesse Alexander”

  1. You may have something here to compare with Dijkstra’s photos of bullfighters (and boxers?) just after they have finished a fight. Like you, I have no interest in motor racing, but there is a similar people-who-are-still-alive-but-who-might-not-be thing going on in motor racing (particularly in the sixties and the seventies). You could start by having a check online to see what happened to the people in the pictures – Rodriguez for example, died aged twenty after a crash during practice. Also there’s the whole what’s the difference between these (art; you find them by searching for Dijkstra) portraits of a group and these (in this case presumably press, you find them more easily by searching for the names of the subject) portraits. A bit like the Richardson exhibition you passed on at the Photographers’ Gallery…


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