Joshua Paul gives modern-day Formula 1 a retro look by using a 104-year-old camera
This is F1 as you’ve never seen it before: through the lens of a 104-year-old camera…
IN THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION,
a photographer constantly strives for the crispest, sharpest image possible. So it’s a touch ironic that US photographer Joshua Paul’s story begins with Blur. In May 2013, Paul travelled to Barcelona to photograph the band at a music festival, but, as a long-time fan of Formula 1, he learned that the gig was being held on the same weekend as the Spanish Grand Prix.
He applied for accreditation and, to his surprise, was granted an F1 press pass. Much of his previous work had involved landscape photography in exotic locations, such as Mozambique and the Amazon, for adventure travel magazines. He chose to apply those same techniques – wide angle, low to the horizon – to photograph F1 cars trackside.
Before he knew it, the Californian-born New Yorker was regularly attending grands prix, and subsequently launched a lavish, picture-led F1 magazine called Lollipop. “I didn’t realise how close you could actually get when I started,”
“THERE ARE MANY GREAT PHOTOGRAPHERS IN THE SPORT, BUT THEY ARE OFTEN SHOOTING FOR THEIR CLIENTS AND SPONSORS. THEY TAKE SHARP IMAGES SO THAT THE LOGOS ARE CLEAR. I DIDN’T HAVE THAT PREREQUISITE, SO I WONDERED WHAT I COULD DO DIFFERENTLY”
says Paul. “I wondered why particular sorts of pictures were taken in F1 and now understand that there are many great photographers in the sport, but they are often shooting for their clients and sponsors. They take sharp images so that the logos are clear. I didn’t have that prerequisite, so I wondered what I could do differently.”
In 2001, Paul shot the aftermath of 9/11 for The New York Times using a vintage camera. His 1913 Graflex was a gift from a fine-art photographer who had taught him at art school.
“My teacher was shooting the downfall of America – pictures of decline and decay in moody black and white – and he gave me this old Graflex camera,” says Paul. “He told me not to worry about shutter speed or focus, but to find my own voice with this camera. So I travelled to the Czech Republic and shot Prague in the snow. Suddenly, figures were black silhouettes and the castles were outlines in a haze. Things start to look different, as the camera deconstructs the world as we know it: colourful, modern Prague looked like wartime.”
Paul decided to bring the same period effect to F1, so he dusted down the old wood and leather camera and took it to Monaco. It attracted a few curious looks from fellow photographers in the high-tech press room, as Paul hid himself under an eight-inch black sheet at his desk, ensuring no light would leak onto the film as he changed the old plates in the back of the 104-year-old camera.
A modern digital Canon EOS 1-DX can take 18 frames a second, and its motordrive sequences enable F1 photographers to take thousands of images every weekend. Paul has just ten plates available for his Graflex, permitting two shots per plate. It means he’s restricted to taking just 20 images a weekend. And he doesn’t know if the picture will be any good until he returns home.
“THE WAY THE CAMERA PICKS UP THE SILHOUETTE SHAPE OF THE CAR IMMEDIATELY TAKES YOU BACK TO A BYGONE AGE, WHICH I HOPE EVOKES SOME OF THE HERITAGE OF THE SPORT – AND THAT’S WHAT I PLAN TO CONTINUE TO DO”
“When you shoot in digital, you want to enhance it by changing the colours, brightness or contrast,” explains Paul. “But you can’t do that with this one. When you get the film developed and sit at the light box, the anticipation is amazing. Everything you see is genuine.”
Earlier this year, Paul took a shot of Valtteri Bottas leaving the pits in his Mercedes during FP2 in Montréal. He used some old film he had stumbled across in the Czech Republic that was half the price of Kodak. The grain structure was uneven, so it gave the picture an even older feel than usual. Plus there is a blotch of white on the right edge where light had leaked into the film.
“If that was a commercial shot, it would have been thrown away, but, as it is, it’s one of my favourites,” says Paul. “The car’s rear wheel appears as an oval because of the brass lens, which distorts the perspective. It’s sharp at the centre but the focus falls off towards the edges. It skews the wheel in this case. The other difficult thing when panning is that when you look down the lens, everything is in reverse. So you have to look at the car to pan, not through the camera. So technically, using this twists my brain. With each shot I have to load the film holders, remove the slide and rewind the shutter to the right speed. It’s cumbersome and not designed to travel the world shooting fast-paced F1.”
The reaction from teams and drivers has been positive. Some mechanics are particularly curious about the Graflex’s technicalities – and they have been more than happy to help with repairs.
“The plan wasn’t to shoot racing action, but the way this camera picks up the silhouette shape of the car immediately takes you back to a bygone age, which I hope evokes some of the heritage of the sport – and that’s what I plan to continue to do.
“And I never did get to see Blur…”