Ercole Colombo, the Ferrarista photographer

Born in Monza, Italy, in 1944, Ercole Colombo is one of the most respected and experienced Formula 1 photographers; a man who has been a regular fixture in Grand Prix paddocks around the world since the late 1970s. Since then the veteran photographer attends motorsport events for some of the leading Italian and foreign newspapers, having become one of the most assiduous and careful witnesses of the Formula 1 on tracks around the world. He has attended more than 600 Grand Prix, an enormousness. Ercole has a studio just a few hundred metres away from the Monza circuit. He has watched and photographed races, key moments, characters, technicians, drivers and team owners, starting from Juan Manuel Fangio to date, telling the story of Formula 1 with tremendous images. A professional life lived in circuits and paddocks.

“My father imparted in me the passion. He lived just a few hundred meters from the Monza race-track, and he took me to watch the races, from when I was six or seven. I remember the names of Giuseppe Farina, Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and other champions at the time. Living in front of the Park of Monza, it was natural that its beauties were immediately source of inspiration. Combining a passion for motor racing with photography was natural, too. The snaps I took were good, and I have a few magazines and a handful of sponsors; it was a hobby that quickly turned into a profession, and that I regard as the best job. I went to amazing places, met so many people, have lots of friends. It wasn’t like today.”

“The first camera I used was my father’s Voigtlander Brillant, a 6x6; he allowed me to use it from time to time. Entering the paddock is always a thrilling experience. The first time at Monza I was so happy, my heart was beating so hard. I couldn’t believe I could actually touch the cars and walk near the drivers.”

“In more than forty years the world of the Formula 1 has changed from day to night. It used to be much more authentic, but today… Forty years ago, Formula 1 was a real circus, as all the main players moved together and set up camp from circuit to circuit. We were all friends, drivers were absolute rivals on the track, but then we all would go to restaurants. We were on good terms with each other, drivers, managers, journalists, photographers, we all lived together. Not these days. Now we deal with firms, efficient and more or less aseptic, the marketing and the image prevail, and relationships are reduced to an absolute minimum. Drivers also don’t talk much to each other and some of them don’t even know colleagues of less competitive teams. For a photographer, this is an additional complication; years ago, to take a picture of Regazzoni, you only had to ask him and he answered: “OK, I can be there in two minutes”. In the modern F1 you must go through the press officer first, his assistant possibly, who has to talk to the manager and the driver’s press secretary… We are close to a sheet of stamped paper. There are exceptions, of course, and helpful drivers and press coordinators still exist.”

“When I started my celebrated career, every year two or three drivers were losing their lives, but since then safety is increased.”

“As for the technique, at that time it was quite difficult to take a photo with the name of the driver clearly legible on the car with everything else in blur. I took a picture of Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari and won the Dino Ferrari award in 1979, a genuine Oscar for F1 photographers, because the award was presented to the winner by Enzo Ferrari. The Drake was a myth. Genial, with a brilliant dialectical, he turned any press conference in a show.”

Monte Carlo is one of the few tracks where the photographer can still get pretty close to the big players, thus open to images different from any other.

“I have met many drivers, and I am friend with lots of them. The drivers of the 1960s were legends in my eyes. From 1970 onwards, Clay, Vittorio (Brambilla), Arturo (Merzario) became friends that I travelled with and went out to dinner with. Over subsequent years, I saw drivers grow in lower formulas, and the friendship with them was stronger; we often went on holiday together between one race and the next. Now it is much more difficult. When pilots have some days off, they prefer to stay off the circus to relieve the strong media pressure. Even into the pits the situation has changed. Years ago, in some circuits, as for instance Long Beach, Detroit or Monte Carlo, there were no pits and mechanics were working outdoors. Now pits are practically the same worldwide with backdrops, lights and identical graphic for the whole season. Those characteristics, that made it easy to distinguish a photo taken in the pits of Monza in comparison to Silverstone, are lost.”

The demands and tastes of the buyers, with wider television coverage, have remained more or less the same. The newspapers want photos of facts the television showed, but in greater detail. The sponsors, instead, want pretty images for their promotion campaigns, with the logo highlighted and capable to convey the sense of dynamism and prestige of Formula 1, to match it to their trade marks.

Thinking about the performances of the actual professional reflex cameras, if we make a comparison with the autofocus film ones, there is not a big difference. The camera technique is not changed. The difference, in comparison with the film, is that now you can immediately see the result in the monitor of the camera and, where necessary, you can get it right.

“In the past, until you had gotten to the dark room, you could not know if you had done a normal job, good or not, or even if long lasting. You could realize it, as you were in the most favourable position and knew to have taken the picture at the right time, but the key moment always came deferred. And it was absolutely emotional. Now, however, you know right away if it’s a good photo or not: a lot of pathos has been lost.”

The second major gain of the digital is a chance to move from a low sensibility for images in bright sunshine to a high one for the interior in case of bad weather. If we think of the manual focus in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the technique is different and results as well.

“In the past, you should focus the area where you thought to take a photo and then pressing the button a moment before the camera would have passed through that point. Should the unexpected occur, you should be ready to follow the accident or driver’s off the track, adapting the focus, with uncertain results. At that time, however, we had at least the advantage to be closer to our subjects, whereas today, due to security reasons, we have moved farther away. In the ‘70s, into Tarzan turn, the first at Zandvoort circuit, in the Dutch Grand Prix, there was no guard-rail inside and we took photos till the edges of the curb to use the wide-angle. Once Jackie Stewart even stopped just past the curve to tell us to take half a step back, because we got too close and he was likely to run us over. Always in Holland, during the race it was also allowed to cross the track. These days these things are unthinkable and thus longer and longer telephoto lenses are used and the quality is amazing.”

The first requirement of a F1 photographer is the thorough technical knowledge of the equipment, because the photo cannot be repeated and the first shot (and the other of the sequence) must be good.

Great reactivity and understanding of the most efficient angle are also needed. A proper training is requested, a good photographic experience in sports or news is not enough. In motor sport competition, you can’t control the whole circuit. In fact, it’s needed to analyse the situation to decide where to take pictures, knowing what could happen, where and when. That said, it cannot fail the taste, the eye of an artist, the power to create the image in a good and non-repetitive way. For its beauty or for the contents, each photo has to impress in some way, it has to give some feeling. That’s what a photographer is for.

“Today the developments in technology are quick. When I get a new model, I study it, read the manual, test it. Actually, it’s not like each model totally changes in comparison with the earlier version, so usually it’s enough to check just some things. Once you have taken some test shots, not necessarily on track, I go for a test session with the new camera only. I do this to prevent the first doubt or setback that might make me want to leave the new one for the old. The camera is the working tool that has to give you the security to create the image you wish. Flashes, for instance, are all electronics, integrated with the camera, wonderful and smart, but this intelligence must be on your clock, to avoid bad surprises. During a GP, considering tests, race and post-race, we take 7-8000 photos among two people. We always shoot in Raw and Jpeg format, to have photos ready to be sent right away, and the top-quality files for the archives. In fact, it has to be taken into account that, after the race on track, another one starts to be the first to select the best photos and send them to newspapers. Today each photographer is like an Agency: he competes with Associated Press or Reuters and is capable to send the images worldwide right away. With presentations, tests and races, you are committed for at least 200 days a year around the world. In the past, camera and lens could last even for 10 years. The rapid technical evolution forces us to be up to date, with photographic equipment, computers (desktop and notebook ones) and related post-production software systems. Nowadays the equipment has to be renewed every three years on average, and camera heads even more often. In the end, you spend more in equipment, compared to what film and processing cost in the past.”

“Ferrari represents my passion for motorsport. As a kid, as soon as I heard the roar of engines, I went to see what ran on the track, jumping over the wall or passing through the holes in the fence. I have always been a true Ferrari fan. Ferrari red has always been, and continues to be, the colour that has dominated my camera lenses and my eyes. I’m Italian, and so I can access the Ferrari more easily, where I have been acquainted for years and I have a bit more chances to go in their pit. I had the good fortune to meet Enzo Ferrari, a man of great charisma, who was always quick with a sassy comeback, and dedicated his whole life to set up a winning team and a global brand known worldwide.”

“Having to choose a team owner, I’d pick Enzo Ferrari. A true professional with an impressive personality, Enzo has put his indelible signature on Formula 1, both for sporting results and his management decisions.”

“As for drivers, first, it would be Jim Clark. A natural. Faithful to Colin Chapman and his Lotus, he was the driver who led innovative solutions to the track, risking at times, testing them for the first time. His actions generated a real evolution in car racing. My other driver would be Michael Schumacher. A driver right at the top. Since his start with Jordan, Michael always gave the best. With great passion and professionalism, he managed to get great results from the teams he was part of. With Ferrari, from 1999 to 2004, he did extraordinary things. I enjoyed working hard with him.”

“Talking about team principals, I choose Jean Todt. Conducting Ferrari is a complex and difficult task yet Jean was able to take advantage of the entire potential offered by an important company to obtain the best result. I want to mention at least three other favourites, even just for the sake of respecting them: Colin Chapman, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis. All professionals and perfectionists who have clogged their hands in the oil before getting to the top.”

“I’m in trouble, even for Technical Director’s choice. Having been able to appreciate and live the evolution that has occurred in Formula 1 since the 1960s, I think it’s a mistake to put on the same level the technical directors who have been involved in designing and managing the cars. I would probably pick Mauro Forghieri, who was a mix between a design engineer (aerodynamics, chassis, mechanics and engine) and a strategist. In the current era of Formula 1, I’ve noticed similar features in Ross Brawn. However, on the technical side, I can’t afford to forget about Adrian Newey and Rory Byrne.”

“There are two cars that I always select as my favourite ones. The first one is the Lotus 88 – an extreme car designed by Colin Chapman, who surprised everyone for the technological innovations that were introduced, such as the “double chassis”. Extreme to the point that could not race on the track with the other cars. The second is the Brabham BT52, known as the “arrow”. Born out of Gordon Murray’s pencil, following a change of regulations, the BT52 was, in addition to being a powerful car, really beautiful to observe and photograph.

Aug 21, 2017
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