Remembering Jesse Alexander

A Career that Spanned the Golden Age of Auto Racing

Jesse Alexander, shooting at Summer Solstice | Credit: Tom Moore

Joining the chorus of people singing his praises, I’m so sorry to hear Jesse Alexander has died. That said, he had a good run, remaining productive for almost all of his 92 years. Jesse had a big career as a world-famous photographer, primarily deriving from his career as the European correspondent for Road & Track magazine, producing classic images of what is generally considered the golden age of motor racing. His work there was mostly about Formula 1 automobile racing, but he also took some brilliant shots of world championship motorcycle racing.

There is, however, much more to Jesse Alexander. He dodged the temptation of bringing a big ego to his professional success, always soft-spoken, unassuming, and supportive to so many other photographers who were fortunate enough to enter his sphere.

Photographically, his eye was more eclectic than the motor racing that had built his reputation. One of my favorite Road & Track articles featuring his work was about an antique Cretors Popcorn Wagon. He also pursued an interest in shooting old airplanes, some examples of which I had the pleasure of publishing as postcards. Probably growing out of the years he and his wife, Nancy, lived in Sandyland, he developed an appetite for photographing birds.

I think the last time I saw Jesse was at a reception at Patricia Clarke’s gallery at the Palm Lofts in Carpinteria, for an exhibition of his work. This occasion is recorded in a color photos here. Among the guests there were other well-loved local photographers, including Bob Werling, Wayne McCall, Richard Ross, and our host, Patricia Clarke. Nancy in the photos is, of course, Jesse’s lovely wife, and Rori is his daughter.

Before that occasion, I believe the last time we got together was when I had the opportunity to introduce him to my daughter Stella’s aunt, Kim Stroud, and to the Ojai Raptor Center, which she founded. I believe was the first of several trips he made to continue photographing the amazing birds Kim has rehabilitated.

I met Jesse 50 years ago, and shortly after that he invited me to join him in shooting some stills for a film he made about the reading program at Santa Barbara Junior High School, spearheaded, as I recall, but a teacher named Mrs. Ross.

We also collaborated in the production of a poster of one of the images in his book Looking Back, a terrific photo taken at the Nürburgring during the 1958 German Grand Prix.

Jesse graciously agreed to participate in the production of my first publishing effort, a book of photographs by Jesse and me, along with five other Santa Barbara photographers. A perfect example of his modesty, he never had any need to behave as anything more than an equal member of this group of seven people, though of course, he was certainly at another level of artistic achievement among us.

I once got to spend a day with Jesse, when he let me join him as his guest at a one-day meeting of the American Society of Magazine Photographers, at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City. We spent a pretty full day listening to, and watching slide shows of images by, a wide range of leading artists in Southern California. Many of these presentations were most enjoyable, but my most durable recollection was having my first exposure to Guy Webster. His slide show included his photos of so many classic album covers: Simon & Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, the Doors, the iconic shot of the Mamas & the Papas, with all four of them in a bathtub. I had the pleasure of encountering Guy in the past few years, after I moved to Ojai, attending two presentation he gave for the local camera club. Before that I got to tour the local warehouse where he kept most of his huge collection of fabulous motorcycles, most of them classic Italian machines.

Anyway, I have Jesse to thank for a wonderful day that will always be etched in my memory.

For several years Jesse had a photo studio/darkroom on De la Vina Street, where he enlisted Robin Bisio to take on the formidable task of helping him organize his huge body of work. When he left this site, it was taken over by photographer Jeff Brouws. I remember visiting Jeff there one day, and noticing a sleeved 35mm negative, which I recognized as Jesse’s classic portrait of Jim Clark, which he was having Jeff print for him.

I guess you might need to love photography as I do to appreciate my feelings in seeing, and holding in my hand, the original image of this brilliant picture of a driver who was, himself, a legendary figure.

The pictures with Phil Hill and Paul Mills were taken at Jesse’s 50th birthday celebration, when 50 seemed SO old to me–inspiring to note that at that point Jesse still had 42 years of his life ahead. This occasion took place at the distinctive house in Romero Canyon that was designed for the Alexanders, a massive concrete structure which was largely underground. The subsequent owner of the property was Steve Martin, who lived there for 20 years.

One other memorable experience I had with Jesse resulted from joining my friend and talented photographer Nell Campbell, on a field trip to LAX, to pick up the renowned New York photographer, Mary Ellen Mark. She was brought to Santa Barbara by Contemporary Arts Forum Director Betty Klausner, to document the Summer Solstice Celebration, and the Casa Dorinda Retirement Home. Nell and I had the great pleasure to join Jesse for dinner with Mary Ellen at the home of Betty and her husband Bob. Another treasured experience.

The real gift, of course, was getting to enjoy Jesse’s friendship for these many years.

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