After 50 years of motorsports photography, Michael Tee swopped his camera and film bag for an OLYMPUS digital kit to capture the magic of the ’98 Goodwood Revival. Story by Deborah Tee
As the eldest son of the founder and publisher of ‘Motor Sport’, Michael Tee was born into a world of motor racing and publishing. But it was no foregone conclusion that he would work in the family business… certainly photography was not at the forefront of his mind. In fact, in 1948, Michael was still at school and trying to decide whether he would go to university or the London College of Printing. Then he managed to arrange a trip down to Goodwood for the opening meeting and, clutching a Contax camera with a 50mm lens and a 135mm lens, he took his first motor sport photographs.
“It could have been a disaster,” Michael remembers. “There was another photographer at the meeting called George Phillips (who later became Chief Photographer at ‘Autosport’) who was keeping an eye on me. He gave me two pieces of very good advice. He told me never to take my eyes off the cars, and never to run away from a spinning racing car. ‘You can leap to the left or to the right,’ he said, ‘but if you run it’s sure to chase you.’ He also had a third suggestion that day. ‘One more thing, son, you can’t take a photograph unless you remove your lens cap.
Michael sorted out the lens cap and went on from that weekend at Goodwood to become one of the greatest and most prolific motor sport photographers in the world. In the early days he would set off around Europe on his motor bike, covering everything from Grands Prix to hill climbs to rallies – some more inviting than others. “It wasn’t much fun tearing up hillsides in the early morning February drizzle, but when you had a centrespread to fill each month, summer and winter, you had to get around.”
Michael has never thought of himself as a photographer – he was also to take on the role of Managing Editor of ‘Motor Sport’ and ‘Motoring News’ – but he always relied on his photography to create an intimacy with a subject that fascinated him and so spread his enthusiasm of motor sport.
“I was never a good enough writer to become a journalist”, he said. “Working with people like Dennis Jenkinson and Bill Boddy meant I had superb wordsmiths around me. But I felt I could portray all the fascinating elements of the sport in the best possible way with my camera. I also think, as a photographer, I was in a unique position to get as close to driving the cars without actually sitting in them.
“And in those days I had a real interaction with the drivers. Before the days of telemetry and computers, they would rush over to me after a race and ask how they looked through some corner or another, were they lifting a wheel, and could they have a photograph at one particular angle or another. Before a race, people like Colin Chapman would even ask me to shoot his cars for two or three laps through a certain corner from different positions to help in his design process.
“There was a strong relationship between drivers and photographers. That has all changed now. While I believe my son Steven, who followed in my footsteps, is probably a better photographer than I was, I don’t think he will ever be as much of a racing enthusiast as me. He will never get quite as close to his subject.”
By the Sixties the sport was changing. With sponsors and advertising came more demand for photography. Michael persuaded his father Wesley to set up an independent photographic agency which could deal with all the needs of ‘Motor Sport’ and later ‘Motoring News’ plus outside requests. LAT Photographic, a motor sport photographic agency, was born.
It is now called LAT Archives and deals with the demands of all Haymarket’s motor sport titles, plus those of hundreds of sponsors, teams and advertisers throughout the industry. Without doubt it possesses the largest motor sport library in the world. In 1987 Michael handed over the reigns to Steven, who remains LAT’s Managing Director and Chief Photographer.
“After 50 years of photography with conventional film, from Goodwood 1948 to Goodwood 1998, I tried the C 1400L Olympus digital camera. It took a very short time to get a feel for the camera, but a little longer to realise that I could cancel any shot I did not like and retake it without losing space on the chip. With so many old friends and drivers at Goodwood it was marvellous to be able to see exactly what I had taken and cancelled and retake the shots that were not quite right! “With your computer the adaptor will enable you to edit, print and cut photographs to shape.
These digital cameras will give a new meaning to the future of photography.”