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Photographer of the Gods -  Keith Sutton on Developing the Past and Present

After Brooks’ last tour de photo, I decided that a visit with the man who has stamped his style on how the image of motorsport is viewed was in order. Keith Sutton was generous with his time and thoughtful with his answers. For a business and sport as unapproachable as F1, Sutton is one of the good guys.

Kerry Morse:
What was your first race that you attended with a camera and from that point, when did you decide to turn “pro” and make it a living?

Keith Sutton:  My first event was a small national racing fixture held at my local circuit Oulton Park in the north-west of England. I was 17 at the time and was legally too young to shoot, but was given the chance by the circuit manager Rex Foster, a good friend of my father Maurice.  It was at that moment I knew I wanted to become a professional motorsport photographer and set about writing to all the circuit managers asking for permission to shoot.

KM:  Today is very difficult to get any kind of credential from the FIA, how did you introduce yourself to the establishment when you started out? What was the scene for a young race photographer back then?

KS:  Although it was, to some extent, easier back when I started out, it was by no means easy to gain a pass to shoot at events. Essentially to gain accreditation for national events, you had to work for a publication, which could include your local newspaper, mine being, at the time, Cheadle Today. Despite the paper having never had a motorsport correspondent before, I was fortunate that the editor was keen to help out a young local lad and he duly wrote a letter proclaiming me as their official motorsport photographer.

My first proper accreditation came through a chance association with Rex Greenslade, a touring car driver, who happened to particularly like some shots I took of him on two wheels through Lodge at Donington Park. He explained to me that they could be published in his magazine –  it transpired he was also the sports editor of Motor magazine. This led to future work with the publication and I went on to strike a great relationship with his successor Mike Doodson.

In early 1980 Mike produced a covering letter allowing me access to the national circuits. Back then it was IRPA (International Racing Press Association) and its leader Bernard Cahier who managed the distribution of F1 media passes – not the FIA. With that letter from Mike I was able to cover the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder when Motor's  regular staff went on strike, and with the help of the RAC MSA Press Officer Ann Bradshaw, I was able to cover the British GP and that year also covered the Dutch GP.

In the early 80s  you had to cover 20 races in 3 years to gain a permanent IRPA arm band – which I attained in 1985 after years of covering Grand Prix where I could fit in between national racing and the popular European Formula Two Championship.  Coincidentally it was then that IRPA ended and the FIA took over in the distribution of passes.

KM:  Did you start out in the junior ranks of UK motorsport, BTCC, Formula Ford, etc. or did you try and cover everything including F1?

KS:  Yes -  I concentrated on European F2, British F3, BTCC, Formula Ford and 2000 and 1600 etc.  I continued to cover these extensively when I was covering F1 until 1985 when my brother Mark joined me and we formed Sutton Photographic. In 1986, I attended all the F1 races and the events abroad and Mark concentrated on the national racing. To this day we still cover a wealth of formulae other than Formula One.

KM:  Your friendship with Ayrton Senna was well known. How did you become friends and was there something even in FF that made him stand out among his contemporaries?

KS:  I first met Ayrton at Brands Hatch in March 1981. At the opening Formula Ford race at Thruxton, I had taken lots of photos of him as I was working for a Brazilian magazine that wanted images of Brazilian drivers racing in England. I was shy back then, so never introduced myself. But at Brands Hatch Ayrton approached me and enquired if I was a professional photographer. When I said I was, he said he needed photos of him racing sent to Brazil on a regular basis. On that day he won his first race and I was able to get some great photos of him celebrating on the podium late in the evening. From then on I carried on working with him, taking photographs, writing his press releases, answering his fan mail and handling his PR work for three years.

In the early years we had both a professional relationship and a personal friendship. I would often stay at the house he shared with fellow Brazilian driver Mauricio Gugelmin and talk about music, movies, cars, women and Brazil. In return when he raced at Oulton Park he would stay at my house. I celebrated with him when he won his junior formulae championships and he invited me to Brazil for his first F1 race, paying for the airfare and for the hotel.

He was certainly very professional from the moment I first worked with him, and he was very focused and knew exactly what he had to do to make it into F1. Fundamentally though it was his undoubted talent that made him stand out; he was on the pace instantly in pretty much anything he sat in.

KM:  Senna seemed ahead of the game early on, how did those early press releases start up. It was rare even to see a release about a driver at the top let alone the first step of the ladder.

KS:  Ayrton was certainly acutely aware of the importance of self-promotion. He was keen to have his PR in English, as he figured that to gain the attention of those that count – the F1 team owners and managers – the majority would be English speaking. He asked me in the early days to write his press releases, as his English was not at the level we grew accustomed to when he was in Formula One.

We would send these releases to all the F1 team managers and 30 international motorsport magazines to keep them informed of how Senna was performing. He also had the PR translated and sent to Brazil, as it was important for his Brazilian sponsors and for their media to be aware of his rising fortunes.

It was from these releases that I began receiving phone calls from Bernie Ecclestone, Peter Warr and Frank Williams enquiring about this young Brazilian. To be honest I was too young and inexperienced to know best how to handle them, so I passed them onto Ayrton. But it was clear from these calls that the Press Releases had achieved the desired result.

KM:  F1 used to just sort of move along at slow pace where even a two to three year old car could still win races. When did you see the pace develop and whom would you credit?

KS: I think I have to disagree there! Certainly there have been cars, like the Lotus 72 or the McLaren M23 in the 70s that were raced with great success for many seasons. But it is wrong to think that the cars remained unchanged from season to season, or even race to race. Formula One has always been about relentless development, whether it be the drive to provide the most powerful engine, or the most efficient aerodynamic package. The McLaren M23 that Denny Hulme debuted in 1973 was a very different beast under the skin from the one that Hunt and Mass drove in 1977.

When we go back through our archive from the late David Phipps, it is clear to see that developments in the 1960s and 1970s were bought on-stream with as much, if not more, regularity than is the case now. Look at Lotus' 4WD car of the late 60s or their turbine car of 1971; Tyrrell's 6-wheeled car from 1976; the tall wings from the late 60s developed almost literally from session to session; experiments with brakes, suspensions, fuel tanks and so on. There was greater freedom with the rules then to be radical, and so new ideas were tried far more frequently, something I think is sadly missing in F1 now.

KM:  How did you personally view the turbo era of F1? Which team and driver made the most impression on you?

KS:  The turbo era coincided with my burgeoning exploits in becoming a professional photographer, so I look back at the era with fond memories. Personally it was a tale of working very hard to establish myself in the F1 paddock, making personal and financial sacrifices to work my way up the ladder. For instance I remember back in the early 80s hitching a ride in the back of a McLaren truck all the way from England to Monza for the Italian GP, as air travel was still very expensive, especially for a young lad from Cheadle, Manchester.

I also see the turbo era as a time of great fun. The paddock was a more relaxed place and the things we used to get up to with fellow photographers, journalists, team members and drivers, well most of it is unrepeatable! There were fewer demands on us back then and I used to joke that at some races I was on the beach within 30 minutes of qualifying ending!

It was also a time when we were very lucky to have a group of truly exceptional drivers: Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Rosberg, and so on, who were using their talents to drive increasingly powerful cars – far more so than we have now and likely to ever have. It made for great racing and great opportunities for photography.

KM: The establishment of F1 really seemed to change in the mid 90’s with a more managed and staged event. F1 has drowned out so many of the other championships with their self-importance and coverage is difficult to come by. Do you see this continuing, can sports cars make a return to the front page again other than Le Mans?

KS:  Our company will always be indebted to sports car racing, thanks to an introduction by John Brooks to Castrol in 1989, which led to us working for Jaguar, Toyota and Dunlop in the World Sportscar Championship through to its demise in 1992. The relationship with Castrol we forged in those years led to us securing our first F1 team contract with Castrol and Lotus in 1992.

Le Mans is a wonderful event, with an atmosphere unique in motorsport, but it remains the only sports car event familiar to the general public. But this 'problem' is true in many other sports. Take cycling, for instance. Ask the general public to name a cycling race and they will nearly all say the Tour de France, and struggle to name another, despite to the fan there are great races throughout the year. And so it is the same with sports car racing. It has many great events, a great championship, and a legion of dedicated followers, but it suffers, and is likely to always do so, from the 'one great event' syndrome.

That said, sports car racing has the opportunity with the internet and mass channel television to offer its product to a far wider audience than it ever could in its 'glory' days of the 60s through to the 80s. And whilst I don't ever think it can compete with F1, it certainly has the opportunity to claim the prize of the second most followed motorsport behind F1.

KM:  Many ex-F1 people have lamented the changes in the circuits. While this has been done in the name of safety, it has to have had an effect on how you cover a race.  How have you dealt with this over the seasons of change?

KS:  It's certainly true that the freedom to shoot from anywhere on the circuit was diminishing in my time compared to my contemporaries in the 1960s and 70s and has continued to do so. Our biggest problem nowadays is that with the newer circuits the run-off areas are so vast that even with our biggest lenses we are struggling to capture the full-in-the-frame image. We are also more restricted with the number of red zones (Forbidden areas) increasing year on year. Long gone are the days of standing on the outside of Tarzan on the first lap and crossing over the circuit to the inside for lap 2! Because fences effectively line the circuits, we are restricted to shooting in designated areas where holes have been cut for us. This massively restricts opportunities to be creative and to shoot something different from our competitors.

At the end of the day we just have to accept that some shots are just not possible nowadays because we cannot stand in a lot of the 'dangerous' positions we once could. On the other hand, advances in cameras and lens technology means we can zoom in further, closer, and shoot cars at a higher speed than was possible 20-30 years ago, so it very much a case of doing the best you can with what is available at your disposal.

We still have circuits like Monaco, which retains most of the wonderful opportunities to shoot as close up as we used to. This year too we are visiting the street circuits of Valencia and the night race in Singapore, which will hopefully provide some pleasing photo opportunities as opposed to many of the bland modern circuit constructions.

One of my biggest laments is shooting in the pit lane. When I started we had near free access to be where we wanted, and for every car there would be only a handful of mechanics around it. Often the driver would be out in the pit lane, sitting on the car, chatting in full view of the handful of photographers around him. Nowadays we have quite often 50-60 photographers clamouring behind a barrier in front of a garage to shoot a driver who is hidden away at the back of a dark garage. Frankly it doesn't make for inspiring photography.

KM:  How many photographers do you have at any given F1 race?

KS:  Typically we will use 4-5 photographers at an F1 race and take along a technician, whose job it is to select and edit the photographers' digital images. At any session other than the race itself we will have two photographers in the pits and the rest out on the circuit. We will plan our positions carefully before the event to ensure that all angles are covered over the weekend.

KM:  No doubt many of our readers will want to know what gear you are currently using?

KS:  The company has traditionally used Canon. We currently use a mixture of Canon 1D Mk3s, 1D Mk2s and Mk2Ns. As a company we were one of the first to embrace digital technology and stopped shooting on film in 2005. Naturally, we have a full complement of lenses, from wide angles to 600mm pro lenses.

KM:  How do answer that age old question when someone approaches you at a race and asks, “how do I get to be a race snapper”?

KS:  Practice, practice, practice! Use national races to build up a portfolio. Don't be afraid to send your portfolio to many different people, but be prepared for rejection. Also don't expect to leap straight into F1. Like most other professions, it is nearly always a case of starting at the bottom and working your way up. And the bottom rung may not even be working as a photographer, be prepared to bide your time and learn the industry before progressing upwards.

KM:  As a pro, your own feelings of film versus digital? You can even wax sentimental if you want!

KS:  As I mentioned earlier, Sutton Motorsport Images was one of the first agencies to embrace digital technology and so have seen overwhelming benefits, in terms of cost, flexibility, distribution and immediacy of the digital format The first incarnation of our website dates back as far as 1996, and it was this early pioneering of hosting an archive of images that has enabled us to have over 480,000 of our four million images fully searchable on-line.

However, as a photographer who used film for the vast majority of his professional career, there is one aspect of the medium I preferred – and that is the thrill of developing your own film and eagerly awaiting the results. As a company we used to develop our own images, whether it be in our makeshift darkroom at our small house in Towcester, to our state-of-the-art E6 processor that filled an entire room at our company headquarters.

Whereas an image can now be seen instantly on from the back of a camera, our first opportunity to see the fruits of our labour when shooting film would come after a weekend of shooting, when we would rush back from whatever country the race was held on the first available flight back to our office. Whilst I certainly don't now miss those mornings after the race where we would often stay up all night processing the films, ready for selection and dispatch to our clients the day following a race, there was always a sense of trepidation to see how well shots had come out, especially if there was a 'special' shot amongst them. With the immediacy of digital, that trepidation is all but lost now.

I remember on a few occasions the shot you may have got was so potentially impressive that I couldn't wait until we traveled home, and so would have it developed at the circuit in one of the special dark rooms they had back then. I remember my shot of Ralf Schumacher crashing hard into the barrier at the Canadian GP in 1997. I was shooting on a long exposure time when the crash happened – I knew I had shot a sequence of the crash but was unsure if I had caught the impact. I had to have the film developed there and then; the moment when I put my loop to the frame of Schumacher – seeing him hit the barrier in perfect clarity was immensely satisfying.

KM:  How about your own top three of F1 races you have witnessed and don’t worry, you can change your mind as many times as you want, even after we have gone to post time.

KS:  I'll pick a race from each of the three decades I have covered F1 – I have many other favourites but if I can only choose three, I'll offer these:


Australian GP 1986. It was the decider to end all deciders, with four

drivers battling for the title – Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet. I love Adelaide – it has been my favourite venue for an F1 race, and is much missed. The race is best remembered for the sensational tyre blow for Nigel, one of the most memorable images in sport. I was the only freelance photographer to capture that moment and it made me a lot of publicity. It was a dramatic end to my first full season in F1 and crowned one of the best years of my life – living the dream of travelling the world doing something I loved and getting paid to do so.


British GP 1995. I was and remain a very good friend of Johnny

Herbert; he'd been a guest at my wedding just weeks before the British GP and it was his support and strength that had helped me come to terms with losing good friends Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola the previous year. He was halfway though his big break season with Benetton and when his team mate MIchael Schumacher and Damon Hill knocked each other out of the race, it was clear he'd never have a better chance of winning a GP. Johnny kept his cool and won his home GP. I could hardly contain my emotion when shooting the podium; there cannot have been a nicer, more genuine guy to have graced the F1 paddock, who deserved a cherished home victory as much as Johnny did.
I had to wait hours after the race to grab a moment with Johnny; he had countless interviews with the media. I wanted to take him back to the podium, to take a shot of him wrapped in the Union Jack. To our delight and surprise as we both climbed on to the podium, there was thousand of fans who had stayed back long after the race finish to continue celebrating Johnny's win. It was a wonderful moment.


Japanese GP 2007. Japan is a favourite country of mine, the fans are

so enthusiastic and passionate that they make each visit there something to savour. The tumultuous title battle was heading to a feisty conclusion in the closing rounds with the animosity between McLaren and Ferrari, and Hamilton and Alonso. The notorious Fuji weather played its role over the weekend; we faced the prospect of seeing the race firstly not take place at all, and then the duration of it being behind the Safety Car as conditions proved impossible.
When the drivers were set free to race we saw F1 at its chaotic and unpredictable best – Hamilton winning under immense pressure but with an element of controversy; Alonso crashing out dramatically; Kimi battling fearlessly for every point he could grab; Massa and Kubica battling it out in the closing laps just like Villeneuve and Arnoux back at Dijon in '79; and the heartbreak of Mark Webber losing out on a potential first win thanks to the 'kid' Vettel.
Not every race can be as exciting as that, and indeed in recent years we have had too many monotonous races. But when F1 has a good race, or a great one, there is still no other sport on earth that can touch it.

KM:  Jim Bamber says he gets more inspiration for his cartoons by staying home, do you still attend most rounds of the F1 circus or is it more rewarding handling the affairs of the business?

KS:  I still like to attend as many races as possible, as my passion for the sport is as undiminished as my first meeting at Oulton Park all those year ago. It is fair to say I don't shoot as much as I used to; the running of the company means that role is better left passed on to my staff. My work in the paddock is securing the contacts and the business that keeps the company running. Most of our business is still done in the paddock.

That said, I still get the same buzz on race day I always had. I miss morning warm-up – the light was invariably perfect - but the rest of the day remains the same. The paddock atmosphere building in intensity as the race start approaches; the grid with the palpable tension amongst the teams and drivers; the ferocious energy of the start of the race and the thrill of capturing any incidents that may come your way during the race; the finish and the podium celebrations – they are all just as thrilling and inspiring as I approach my 400th GP as it was at my first.

KM:  How come you still put up with Brooksie?

KS:  I wonder about that sometimes.

Kerry Morse March 2008

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Features and pieces by Kerry Morse