The image is as vivid today as it was 60-years ago when, as a boy, I first saw the photograph and instantly knew that I would always love motor racing.
Peter Collins’ head is in darkness, the peak of his flimsy helmet outlined against the sky. His forearms are exposed, his hands covered only by small driving gloves. Collins is holding the Nardi wheel at a quarter to three, but turning into the corner at half past 12, his left arm running straight to the top of the four-spoke wood-rim wheel. The instruments are almost as pin sharp as the black horse in the centre of the steering wheel.
The photograph perfectly captures, in a single frame, all the passionate atmosphere and drama of the Mille Miglia. I remember thinking that the picture had been taken only for me. That nobody else understood its significance or the emotion it transmitted.
Later, I began to wonder about the man who took the photograph. Who was he? How could he raise a camera to his face, at racing speeds, and still know exactly the right moment to push the shutter and capture a magical instant in time? Over the years I learned that his name was Louis Klemantaski. I discovered that he and Peter Collins were leading the 1957 Mille Miglia in their Ferrari 335S when my photograph was taken. What I didn’t know, and only realised after Klemantaski showed me a print of it in September 1989, was that the photograph had been taken in colour. Motoring magazines in the late 1950s couldn’t run to the expense of colour reproduction so it had been printed in black and white.
Armed with two Leica cameras, each carrying a roll of 36-exposures and fitted with a 28mm lens, Klemantaski had taken his marvellous photograph only when, as co-driver, he could look up from his long roll of pace notes. Such was the pace of the Mille Miglia, there wasn’t even time to reload the cameras. Over the 10 and a half hours of the event Louis could take, at most, 72 photographs.
How did I meet the dapper, immaculately dressed man with the bow-tie and neatly trimmed beard? When I moved to Calino, Italy, in December 1988, Erica and I became friends with Camilla Maggi, whose husband Aymo was one of the men who started the Mille Miglia in 1927. Throughout the year, Camilla enjoyed hosting a steady flow of motor racing people at her wonderful Calino Palazzo, especially in May to coincide with the retrospective Mille Miglia: Phil Hill, Stirling Moss and Oliver Gendebien among many others. It was on Camilla’s terrace that Aston Martin owner Victor Gauntlet first talked to Ford’s Walter Hayes about the possibility of Ford buying the British sports car maker.
In September, 1989, Louis and Ursula Klemantaski arrived in Calino in their Alfa 164 and Camilla introduced us. Over the next few days we frequently ate together and I quickly realised that my questions were beginning to form the basis for a story. In those day my Column Heroes ran in Autocar every four weeks. Klem was already a Hero so the fit was natural and he was happy to reminisce.
Louis Klemantaski was born on February 12, 1912 in Harbin, Manchuria. His mother was Russian and his father a Dutch national who had grown up in England, but came from a family that left Poland in 1815 after the suppression of nationalism following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.
His father had left England to seek his fortune and young Louis was sent off to prep school in England, finally leaving Manchuria in 1928 to study engineering in the UK. Two years into his degree, his father died and his mother moved to England. Without Dad’s financial support Louis couldn’t continue at university. He went to work for the Junior Racing Driver’s Club as a mechanic, putting his boyhood experience in his father’s importing business to good use.
As a mechanic he was once asked by a rakish customer to fit an adjustable scoop to the passenger side of a Singer Le Mans. Intrigued he asked the purpose of this modification, and was told: “Oh, don’t you see, old chap? If it’s raining and I have a girl in the car, she gets soaked and it gives me an excuse to take her to my flat to strip and dry off. . .”
Even then he was taking photographs, with a Box Brownie. One day at Brooklands, armed with his first Leica, Louis was getting a lift around the circuit on the back of a friend’s motorbike when they were hit by a car. He spent five months in hospital. Claiming damages, Louis was awarded 800 pounds – a lot of money in 1934 – and, with a friend, promptly spent it on a supercharged MG Montlhery and a single-seat Austin 7 for hill climbing.
Finally, Louis turned the JRDC into a school for budding racing drivers. Among his pupils were Jack Fairman and George Abecassis (who both went on to become serious racers), but it wasn’t a paying proposition. Louis began to look for a way to become, “intimately involved in the racing world and make an honest penny.”
The answer was obvious. In 1936 Klemantaski began taking photographs of the races and selling his pictures to competitors. He’d won a trigger shutter release for the Leica in a camera club contest and with this primitive motor drive was able to take two frames a second. The advantages were quickly apparent. Klemantaski snapped a series of a Singer rolling down the embankment at Brooklands and sold them to Speed magazine for close to what was the average weekly pay in the late 1930s.
While covering pre-war GPs, Klem was introduced to the Mercedes-Benz team by George Monkhouse, then established as the best British racing photographer, and a great friend of the British driver Dick Seaman. According to Klemantaski, Seaman’s solution to gaining experience of how to cope with the huge power of the Mercedes GP cars in the wet was, “to buy a Ford V8 coupe with its lightweight and powerful engine and run it on bald tyres in the rain.”
During World War 11 Louis photographic talents were put to good use. Churchill’s pet organisation, the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development, asked him to photograph Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs used by the Dam Busters. He did this with such precision that scientists could work out how much rotation was lost each time a bomb hit the water.
Louis continued to follow racing after the war but found shooting publicity pictures for the British car companies more profitable. He also continued the portrait work that he had started before the war: included among his sitters were Margot Fonteyn and Igor Stravinsky. Still, his passion for racing didn’t falter and in 1953 he rode with driver Reg Parnell in an Aston Martin in the Mille Miglia. He came back to Italy the next year and again in 1955, the Aston Martin Team always staying with the Maggis in Calino. He switched to Ferrari in 1956, when he and Collins finished second. In 1957, the last Mille Miglia, the pair came within an ace of winning before a broken axle ruined their chances. Collins and Klemantaski also won the circuit of Sicily, which packed 10,000 corners into 1080kms.
It was during these years that Klemantaski took his best work from outside the cars. Whether lying literally an inch from the track, or standing on the apex of a corner, the results were exceptional. His favourite photograph displays the harmony of form, and exhilaration of subject, that became his imprint. Fangio is at Rouen, midway through one of its fastest downhill corners, the car is blurred front and rear, becoming more distinct towards the cockpit. The great driver’s arms are a vague image. But his face is sharp, his eyes focused on the next corner. Personally fearless, and with as unerring an eye for capturing the speeding instant as his great French predecessor Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Klemantaski effectively invented motor-racing photography, pushing his film speeds with dramatic results.
From the prewar Mercedes Benz and Auto Union sponsored races to the Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin hookups of the 1950s and beyond, he was so much part of the scene that, to press offices too busy to bother spelling his name, he was known simply as “Himself”. The name first came about when Klem met with Michael Frostick, then working in the Royal Opera House press office.
“Me: ‘My name is Klemantaski. I will spell it out for you.’ Press office: “Louis Klemantaski, I presume?” Me: ‘Himself.’ “Wonderful” came the answer. “I am a great admirer of your work and am very keen on motor racing.” The Frostick and Klemantaski team worked together for years on classic motor racing titles.
But after the 1955 Le Mans crash and as the circuits became safer and photographers were increasingly removed from the action he backed away from motor racing, retiring in 1974. “You can’t get near the cars,” told me, “so all the photographs look the same.”
In the meantime Klemantaski pursued his enduring interest in the arts and began to photograph ballet, opera and other artistic events. Klem was also a connoisseur and gourmet with a serious knowledge of wines and food. In his tours of the continent during the 1950’s, in a small Fiat 1100 nicknamed “Plugly”, and into the 1990s in an Alfa 164, he and Ursula, always took the opportunity to eat well, but avoided Michelin-starred restaurants, favouring family-run establishments.
In 1982 Klemantaski sold his collection of 65,000 negatives and 1000 transparencies to Peter Sachs, an American, for a six-figure sum, to be published in a series of books. In 1998 Palawan Press published Kemantaski Himself, Louis’ autobiography and now very collectable, a near-new copy recently sold at Sydney’s Automoto Books for $650. Nearly 400 pages long, the book is, “his personal account of his somewhat eccentric rise to fame and long association with motor cars, told with great wit and gentle deprecation”, illustrated of course by Klem’s wonderful photography.
At the age of 83, Klem was taken on his last drive in the Ferrari in which he had accompanied Peter Collins in the 1957 Mille Miglia, lovingly restored by Peter Sachs, the bloke who bought his entire archive. By then he’d retired to Bath, England. Louis Klemantaski died in June, 2001.
In 1997, Camilla Maggi – along with people of the calibre of Jesse Alexander, Raymond Baxter, Bill Boddy, Tony Brooks, Paul Frere, Stirling Moss, Carroll Shelby and Rob Walker – was asked to contribute to the foreword of his autobiography. Although Camilla spoke perfect English, she was a little reticent and asked me to help with the words: “It was in the early fifties that Louis used to come to Calino with David Brown and the Aston Martin Team for the Mille Miglia. They would arrive for a fortnight before the race and always seemed so busy, rushing around organising the cars. Klemantaski, John Wyer, Reg Parnell, Peter Collins and the rest, they were always together. In all the chaos we had so much fun, I remember we laughed a lot.
“I am very pleased to be able to write these few words for Louis’ autobiography, for his photographs were always di tutto di piu (everything and more).”