Published on February 26, 2013 | by Sam Rowntree0
Pit stops and polarisation
It takes a while to get Darren Heath to pose for a photo next to his picture of Ayrton Senna as he scrubs an inconsiderate fingerprint mark off the frame with a tissue, but it is understandable when you witness the level of detail in his work.
The 44-year-old walks around his exhibition at the Collyer Bristow gallery in High Holborn, London, indulging every wide-eyed fan of his, describing to them the intricacies of the work he has developed over the years.
ALN caught up with him a few days later to talk about his most recent exhibition, his early photography memories and a famous scoop which made him enemy number one in one particular garage.
“Since I was a little boy, I was really interested in photography,” Heath said. “I’d followed Formula One and when I got to 12 or 13 years old I got my first camera and realised while going to car races that I liked photography, so it’s a case of narrowing the two. The goal for anyone who wanted to photograph, or drive, or anything like that in motorsport is Formula One.”“I started in 1988 at an agency called Zoom Photographic in Fulham. They were at the time the premier agency in motorsport, but primarily an F1 agency and I started as a junior black and white printer, because it wasn’t digital back then.
It’s the way you start, like a Formula One driver starts in go karting, that’s how you get into working in these places, and immediately one is trying to prove to your boss that you are worthy of going to the races.”
The breakthrough proved to be crucial for Heath as access to the races gave him almost unlimited options: “By getting your work to a level that they are confident to send you to work for clients was very important. Weirdly, the problem for me was when I wasn’t working at a bona fide agency.
Once I got passes through working for Zoom Photographic I could get into just about any circuit I wanted so that year, (1988) I did something like 40 weekends at racetracks.
A lot of the time just going to get better, just to be a better photographer and that was just Formula Ford, Formula First which was a championship then, touring cars, just loads and loads of junior formula races to get better and better.”
Heath joined the Formula One circus that year, the frenetic, globetrotting glamour-bowl that had captured his attention when he was a boy. Heath admitted that it’s not just podiums and parties: “It’s a lot of booking flights, it’s a hell of a lot of travel, but it’s bloody enjoyable and it’s a great life. I’m damn fortunate to be able to do it”
With 20 races across five continents last season, a little community of people who attend every race forms an ecosystem that is full of suspicion in the arms race that exists between the teams. A covert battle that many photographers become a part of: “There are occasions when I photograph flexi-wings on the McLaren (a performance-boosting aerodynamic system) but I’m not a spy photographer.
A number of photographers in Formula One make their living from other teams who want to see bits and pieces on other cars, so everyone in the sport thinks all of us are spies and we are not.
“Red Bull can’t stand photographers buzzing around their cars. They hate it, but that’s because they’re on top right now. When that DRS system came out or when Brawn and Toyota introduced the double diffuser they wanted loads of pictures of that, so it always makes me laugh when you see (Red Bull team boss) Christian Horner and Co moaning about these things, even though they employ a spy photographer! But the teams all do the same.”
Although not a spy photographer, Heath had a large coup more than a decade ago: “I was taking a picture at the 1997 Austrian Grand Prix and positioned where I knew (David) Coulthard and (Mika) Hakkinen were under acceleration.
“The rear brake disk, the one on the left rear, was glowing and I got two pictures of Coulthard and two pictures of Hakkinen doing it. I looked at it and thought ‘well that doesn’t seem right’.”
“I got the editor of F1 Racing magazine to come and look at it and saw that no other cars were doing it and we resolved to investigate it, surmised that they probably had another pedal within the cockpit that would switch on that brake, and we resolved that they must be doing something quite clever.”
“At the next race, I just waited for the McLarens to break down and if they broke down on circuit I could get to them; I could take a picture looking down at the footwell, so we would be able to see it. Both McLarens broke down within two laps of each other and were parked near the pit lane exit, so I rushed over.”
“DC (Coulthard) had put his steering wheel back on so I couldn’t get my camera in with a flashgun because that’s quite a tall thing, and I couldn’t take the wheel off, I know how to, but I didn’t want to tamper with the car. Hakkinen hadn’t, he put it on his seat, which was good news for me because I could stick my head in and see the little pedal.”
“I stuck the camera in and shot quite a lot of film. I had to get away before any other photographers came along because they didn’t know what was in the car, but if they saw me doing that then they may well think that they should do it too.”
It caused a ripple in the paddock because the confidential system was providing a significant-enough performance boost for McLarens’ rivals to adopt it next season: “They went bloody mental. Ron Dennis (McLaren’s boss) and I squared up to each other in the paddock in Jerez when they had the European Grand Prix after the magazine went out and McLaren went crazy. But I hadn’t done anything wrong, except expose an ingenious system that they were running.
“It’s 15 years ago now, so at the end of the day I exposed that. Then, in 2010, a journalist and I again exposed the flexi wings on the Red Bull, and McLaren had absolutely no idea that those wings were flexing beforehand, so they gained out of that. It’s swings and roundabouts.”
The immense knowledge of the sport that is needed when figuring out this kind of engineering flows through Heath. He also shows it when he talks about drivers and the situations which prompted the photos that hang in the exhibition: “In any field, or any job you get to know the characters, whether you’re working with them or photographing them. You try and bring out what they give you.”
Heath continued: “Bernie Ecclestone is not going to give you the same shot that Kimi Raikkonen is. Kimi Raikkonen is not going to give you the same shot that Michael Schumacher is, so you try and bring out those character traits in the works.”
A picture of Michael Schumacher illustrates this: “He broke down and I had taken a bit of a risk and went to a bit of the track that was opposite where all the other photographers were. I decided to go on the inside of the track, then five minutes later Schumacher broke down and parked his car where I was and then went into the trees, trying to get away from me and the one other photographer that was there.
It was like when you see a hunter stalking a deer, he couldn’t really see me in the trees. He was aware I was in there, but he couldn’t get away, I took a lot of photos, but that was easily the best one.”
The positioning that day wasn’t fluke as Heath expends a huge amount of effort thinking about these decisions: “I obsess over it endlessly. I think about each Grand Prix that’s coming up or when I’m at the Grand Prix, I’m trying to think three years ahead.
If I can’t do that shot this year, then I’d be pretty sure I’d be going back to that racetrack in a few years’ time then I can do it then, and there are pictures that I try not to do because they are so dull, or I’ve done them in the past.
“It’s nice to show all facets of the sport. That’s what I’m trying to do and obviously photographers can go to some places TV can’t and even though it’s less and less now, because it’s so secretive and so controlled, it’s nice to show guys who are getting their hands dirty and working on cars that you don’t perhaps realise they do.
There is so much going on in the sport that sometimes people within the sport don’t realise that people outside it are thinking ‘oh that’s nothing special’, but people who don’t see it every week might find it interesting.”
What is special are the range of locations and the breadth of scenery he encounters on a weekend by weekend basis: “Monaco is great, I love Monza, I love all of the circuits. They’re all great for different reasons. Melbourne has some good places and has got better in recent years because we have a race start at five in the evening, so you can imagine it’s great because you’re shooting cars in sunset which is bloody wonderful.
“I guess the most challenging two are Silverstone and Shanghai. They’re both places where it is damn hard to do stuff different from other people. Silverstone is hard because no matter how much they try it will still be a World War Two bomber base. But at the end of the day I love them all, even if it’s a crappy location the challenge of the photographer is to bring something out of them.”
It is this skill that makes Heath’s work so enjoyable, capturing characters, cars and crashes in such style, and in a way that makes you think he might have been grinning behind the lens: “Anyone who has a body of work, there are a certain selection of pictures that are special.
They’re special to me, that Senna one, the Schumacher one. Of course there are other ones that you hope people like, and that means something to me. When your pictures are put together for an exhibition, you’re also trying to think commercially, but that’s not the main consideration when I choose the pictures.
“The consideration is whether people like the work and it’s just something about the style of work that I’m doing. If people want to pay money and stick them on their wall then that’s monstrously flattering, it makes you feel great, not in an egotistical way, but in a really proud way.”