Since the early 1950s, Jesse Alexander has photographed some of the biggest names in motorsports. There’s a 1954 shot of Briggs Cunningham at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Stirling Moss at Goodwood in 1958. Princess Grace and Jackie Stewart in Monaco in the 1960s. Phil Hill at the 1960 Grand Prix of Italy. Alexander and Hill, a three-time Le Mans winner who passed away in 2008, were longtime friends.
“Phil and Jesse hung out socially,” says Jesse’s wife Nancy, by phone from their Santa Barbara home, as Jesse recovers from surgery. “They once went to the opera in Verona, Italy, and it was a very amusing trip.”
“We drove there in a truck. A Ferrari transporter,” chuckles Jesse, in the background. “There may have been a third person, but I don’t remember. That was a long time ago…”
“I don’t know if you want to share that story or not, but I guess it’s a little late for anyone to get in trouble,” Nancy laughs.
As international auto enthusiasts arrive for Monterey County’s August car events, about 50 of Jesse Alexander’s images will be featured in a rare exhibition at Carmel’s Center for Photographic Art (CPA). The 89-year-old artist’s last show, two years ago, was to be his last. But, he agreed to one more retrospective at the invitation of the CPA and show sponsors Gordon and Molly McCall.
Personal links to the area influenced the decision. In years past, the Alexanders rented a local house while attending the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
“We visited the Center for Photographic Art several times on those trips, when it was Ansel Adams’ gallery,” says Nancy. “Though Jesse didn’t know Adams well, the two were acquainted. Jesse took a wonderful little snap of him at Pebble Beach one year, which we still have. I think he has a special feeling about showing there now, in part because it was Ansel Adams’ gallery.”
The Alexanders also attended the former Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca, where Jesse sometimes exhibited images.
Gordon McCall, co-founder of McCall Events and The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, remembers seeing Alexander and Hill together at the track in the late 1990s.
“Jesse was signing books at a little card table in a tent while talking with America’s first Formula One champion,” says McCall. “He’s one of the best automotive photographers in the world, and I just thought, ‘Why hasn’t there been a proper gallery exhibition?’ That’s really when the seed was planted.”
This year, the pieces came together.
The McCalls worked with CPA Executive Director Brian Taylor to secure the venue. After an introduction by a mutual friend, they then approached Jesse and Nancy.
“We promised to make the show painless,” Gordon says.
He and Molly drove to Santa Barbara to pick up the images, so that the Alexanders wouldn’t have to ship anything. During that visit, the couples spent some time discussing mutual motorsports friends like driver and team owner Dan Gurney, who passed away in January.
Jesse showed them his large-format photo of a young Gurney at the 1965 Le Mans, driving a Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe and shielding his eyes from the sun.
“It’s my all-time favorite image of Dan…it’s a raw action shot, and it was remarkable to see the portrait at that size,” says McCall.He later asked the photographer about the equipment used to shoot so many iconic race photos.
“Jesse said, ‘Well, the 50-millimeter was my big lens, but I was typically shooting with the 35 millimeter.’ It was pretty basic stuff back then, but he still captured all these timeless images,” McCall says.
The CPA’s Brian Taylor describes Alexander’s work as having “a somber elegance.”
“Many photographers today take color pictures of hood ornaments, fenders and beautiful car body shapes. But when you think of the most elegant and classic racing photographs, you think of Jesse Alexander’s grainy, black-and-white, pre-digital film photographs,” Taylor says. “In many people’s minds, Jesse Alexander is the Ansel Adams of motorsports photography.”
These days, Jesse photographs birds in the gardens near his home. Though his health prevents him from visiting Carmel, he is pleased to be sharing his work during this year’s classic car events.
“It’s sort of like coming home to the vintage races and Pebble Beach,” Nancy says.
Jesse Alexander’s historic motorsports images will be displayed at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel (located at the Sunset Center, on San Carlos and 9th Avenue), from August 19th through September 2nd. Please visit photography.org for gallery hours and information.