Tee for two generations

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A 60-year thread links the photos in this magazine, and it involves a father and son. One founded our photo archive, the other runs it today. We asked them how the life of a racing photographer has changed over the decades

Look at the photo credits through this magazine. Despite our long history, none of them says Motor Sport. Many of them say LAT, because that is where our archive now resides. But there’s a link that runs through the past 60 years: any LAT shot from the Fifties to the Seventies is likely to be from the lens of Michael Tee, son of Wesley J Tee, for six decades the Proprietor of Motor Sport. Anything from the Eighties to today may well be the work of Michael’s son Steven, now the MD of LAT. This pair has seen an enormous shift in the way racing is recorded, from roll film and tweed jackets to megapixels and day-glo tabards. We asked them to sit down together and compare their working lives – and there are surprises for both.

Although Motor Sport commissioned thousands of photos over the years, they are now part of the world’s largest motoring photo library, LAT. That company was set up by Michael, who as Motor Sport’s main photographer through the 1950s saw the commercial potential of images which otherwise would only be used once, and persuaded his father, the truculent and stubborn WJT, to let him set up a photo agency, the name taken from London Art Technical, a defunct illustration firm, to avoid paying to register a new company.

For over 40 years LAT was the photo wing of Motor Sport, becoming a major player among racing sponsors, but when in 1996 the magazine was bought by Haymarket, the photos went too, to join the archives of Motor Sport, Autocar and many others in this unrivalled collection. In 2006 Haymarket sold Motor Sport but retained LAT – which is why our photos reside in Teddington. That’s where we all meet, the first time Michael has been to see the outfit his son runs. And this extensive two-storey library-cum-lab, with 20 employees, is a world away from the cramped couple of rooms at Standard House where LAT began.

Both men were first taken to races by their fathers. For Michael this was the 1948 British GP at Silverstone. “I’d only ever seen black and white pictures, and I was amazed by the colours. I asked my dad why it looked so grey in the magazine and he said ‘if you think you can do better, try.” So armed with a Contax rangefinder camera and a motorbike Michael began to cover races, rallies, trials and road tests. “The old man wouldn’t give me a car so I’d be off to Devon for some trial in the middle of winter on this bike. I nearly died of exposure.”

All the equipment he’d have was a camera, couple of lenses, light meter and a few rolls of film. And a notebook – as well as taking and developing the films, he wrote the story.

“For 10 years I was the only one who could take a photo and write a report,” Michael says. “I would take pictures of the first two laps, then note down lap times for a while, alternating between the two. Then I’d rush to the pits to find out about the retirements. And I tried to write as much as I could at the track before rushing for the plane home.”

In stark contrast, LAT will send eight photographers and a full-time data technician to this year’s Australian Grand Prix… “I feel more like a tour guide now,” says Steve wryly.

As Motor Sport grew and was then joined by Motoring News, Michael persuaded his father to recruit another photographer, though with the Old Man constantly grumbling about costs and Denis Jenkinson’s view that no one cared about pictures anyway, it was a struggle. It was Michael’s idea to introduce the famous Motor Sport centrespread,where photos had a bit of space – against the will of his father. Bringing in colour was even harder.

“Back then it took a fortnight for Kodak to develop colour film. No-one was using it in magazines, so there was no hurry. I got the turnaround down to 48 hours.” That resulted in Motor Sport pioneering the exotic idea of colour racing photos.

Through the Sixties LAT took on contracts with teams and advertisers which meant a much better return on the costs of covering so many events, and it’s the same today, with many sponsor contracts as well as supplying coverage for a stack of racing titles. One major difference, though, is sheer proximity. Today, photographers (up to 100
of them) are in distant corrals, up towers or hundreds of yards away. “We were on the edge of the track,” says Michael, “so you were making eye contact with drivers every lap”. Photos show how astonishingly close photographers got to the cars back then.

“Drivers drove 1in outside the white line, and photographers stood 1in inside it,” he grins. “You weren’t a pro unless the 500cc cars were brushing the leg of your trousers!”

“What lenses were you using?” Steven asks.
“50mm and 135mm.” Steven’s eyes widen. “Now a 600mm is the usual choice!”
“At my first event,” Michael says, “Autosport’s man told me four things: never take your eye off the car, never put your foot over the white line, never stand on the outside, and never run away from a car. You’re like a magnet – the car will chase you. Jump sideways instead. Blow me if it didn’t happen on the first lap – a car came off heading for the marshal post. The marshal ran and the car chased and hit him. It was a warning.”

“I think you develop a sixth sense,” says Steve, casually adding that at his first ever GP, San Marino in 1984, Eddie Cheever went off and slid between him and two other snappers. Which was lucky compared to what happened when Michael took an 11-year-old Steven to his first race.

“I parked him behind the barriers and told him to stay there. Then an F2 car went off and hit a barrier which clobbered me and another photographer. I remember lying there with my foot pointing the wrong way and wondering what to do about Steven.” While Michael was taken to hospital another journalist collected the boy and took him to the press room. “All I can remember is that I had a great time with everyone looking after me,” Steven grins.

Michael was lucky not to lose his leg, but was soon back at work. And now Steven had the bug. Even though he was underage, his dad wangled a pass for the 1976 International Trophy, loaned him a Nikon SLR and gave him some vital advice: “just get the sponsor names sharp – don’t worry about the car.” By now big money was flowing through racing, and many major names were clients of LAT, now very much an independent business with sophisticated printing facilities. Cameras too had marched on: Michael’s Leicas and Hasselblads gave way to Nikon SLRs and zoom lenses, which he says altered the photographer’s technique. “With a fixed lens you framed your background and waited for the car to hit the sweet spot. A zoom let you track the car itself.”

In turn the SLR with its bulky external motor drive grew into electronic autos with continuous zoom and rapid motor drive, ever more vital as photographers were moved further back and lenses grew longer.

But the arrival of motor drive had a knock-on effect: by the 1990s the number of frames shot had reached a mad peak. “For a GP three or four photographers would shoot 100 36-frame rolls each,” says Steven. Michael laughs in amazement: “The Old Man would only let me take three rolls. ‘That’s 100 shots, boy – we’ll only use six’ ”. In contrast, the digital revolution means today’s snapper takes fewer shots. “In the archive you’ll see pan shots repeated for safety – every car taken singly at thesame corner to allow for focus or exposure or developing problems,” explains Steven. “Now we know immediately if we’ve got the shot, what’s worked, what’s missing. And no rushing for planes. We make our selections trackside, a technician sends them by satellite, and the sponsors have them in minutes.”

That plane home was the cause of much stress, right up to the Nineties when everything went digital. In his day Michael was rushing for a prop-driven Vickers Viscount and the prospect of many bumpy hours in the air trying to type two race reports, but even jet travel did not alter things much: the films still needed to be carried home.

“At, say, Rio we used to go to the airport on Saturday night and just ask someone in the queue to take the practice films back,” says Steven. (If there was a problem with the race shots, this was the back-up.) “They’d be met at Heathrow by someone with a sign saying ‘LAT’. After the race we’d rush for the last plane, go straight in to LAT and spend all night developing and selecting shots for the two magazines. I’d be going home with the dawn chorus, having been up since 6am on Sunday.”

“South Africa was the worst,” Michael chips in. “The race was on Monday, finishing about 5.45pm. The only plane was at 6.15, but the organisers had enough pull to hold the plane. One time they had a helicopter on standby for me and Philip Turner of Autocar, but it was only a two-seater, so I sat in the open doorway with my feet outside on the skid. We took off at 6pm and landed right by the VC10. Customs and passport people were waiting there, we were rushed on the plane and it took off straight away. I don’t know what the other passengers thought. Then I had to write both reports on the flight, and at LAT start developing the films. It was all on the page by 1pm Tuesday.”

In 1968 Michael began to pilot himself to continental races. “It was cost-efficient. Saved on hotels, and we got back promptly. I’d take off from Elstree alongside Graham Hill, and we’d park up beside the planes of Jack Brabham and Colin Chapman.”

Of course in Michael’s time there were six or seven GPs; now there are 20, some in ‘stayaway’ pairs. That means Steven could not conceive of doing the sort of ‘day job’ Michael alsohad. As production manager of Motor Sport, he frequently went with WB to photograph vintage cars, interview racers or perform road tests, or try out a new road car by visiting Stuttgart or Milan. Plus working some 40 weekends at everything from F1 to VSCC trials.

Today’s 500-man race teams have dispelled the ‘clubby’ world of the past, when Michael would stay in the same hotel as the drivers.

“We’d all have breakfast together, go to the same parties. You became friends, went water skiing with them. You wouldn’t see today’s Hawthorns and Collinses in a bar at 1am on race morning, tight and singing rugby songs.”

“In 1969 Bruce McLaren took me round Riverside in practice. I wore his spare overalls and helmet, and while we were out Chris Amon spun. Later I asked Chris what happened. ‘Too much partying last night’ he said. ‘I came up on Bruce and there were two of him in the car!’”.

“But we still mix with the drivers, especially if we have the team photo contract, “Steven adds.
“I’ve played five-a-side with Kimi and Ralf, been surfing with Stefan Bellof. I spent the afternoon in Tokyo last year with Jenson. It was for a sponsor shoot, but I’ve known him for years so it was just like going on the town together.”
“Do you remember at one race I kept asking you where the big lens had gone, and you denied moving it?” Michael asks his son. “And all the time Senna was falling about watching me get cross because he’d hidden it.”

Being so close to the track meant the drivers knew exactly where their photographer mates would stand. “Moss used to wave at me,” recalls Michael. “It took a while to realise that it was part of his performance, to make the crowd say ‘look – he can wave to a friend while he’s cornering!’”. But they could also be useful, as Michael remembers. “Chapman would saytogether; catching the whites of a driver’s eyes is rare. Today it’s a different task, but it’s still about long hours, a lot of walking, and constant readiness to seize that electric moment which tells a story – and sells a million. Everyone saw Steve’s shot of the Benetton mechanic enveloped in flame at Hockenheim in 1994.

“I can’t claim any creative skill for it,” he says. “I was in the garage ready for the stop, with a 200mm lens already aimed at the guys. When it all went up I couldn’t really see what was happening; I could feel the heat but I went on to autopilot. I didn’t know what to expect when it was developed. I got four frames: three were no good, that one was perfect. You just have to be there, pointing in the right direction…”

A simple mantra for a demanding but satisfying profession. In a new digital world of instant upload there’s little time for rose-tinted viewfinders, but the core of the job remains the same: you still have to be there, pointing in the right direction…

Gordon Cruickshank

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