BILL SHAPIRO: Your Graflex is 110 years old. Just for context, it was made the year Harriet Tubman died, Joseph Stalin was hauled off to Siberia, and the crossword puzzle was invented. How does the camera feel in your hands?
JOSHUA PAUL: I’ve owned a bunch of different cameras over the years, but this one fits in my hands like it was meant to be there.
Modern cameras are made of lightweight magnesium compounds or plastic. Not this. The Graflex is made of mahogany and leather and a little metal. It’s about the size of two shoeboxes, weighs 8.6 pounds, and it has a way of tapping into all of your senses. It smells like an old Mercedes from the ‘50s, like old leather in the sun. When I’m holding it, I feel like I’m holding history.
BS: Digital cameras shoot F1 at a shutter speed of an 8000th of a second. But you only shoot at around a 30th or a 60th of a second. Obviously, at that speed, you can’t catch the cars flying by. So what are you hoping to capture in your pictures?
JP: The beauty of this camera is that it has the ability to create a sense of timelessness. And that can make a moment feel important, even epic. My Graflex came with a brass Bausch & Lomb lens, I’m guessing from about 1880. I’ve never seen another one like it, and I sort of stumbled onto a unique way to rearrange the elements of the lens so that the focus is sharp in the middle but there’s an immediate fall-off in sharpness.
So it creates a vignette effect. To me, that gives the images more emotional impact. They sort of summon the history of racing in each frame, almost as if you’re capturing the past and the present in a single moment. It also creates this wonderfully anachronistic friction, like you’re shooting these rocket ships with a tool invented when people still used a horse and buggy. That’s part of the magic. It’s just so unlikely to be shooting Formula One racing, where cars are made of carbon fiber and other space-age materials, with this camera. To your point, though, I’m shooting pictures that are about more than cars. These aren’t news photos and it’s not about who won or who came in third on any given day.
BS: So, what are these images about?
JP: They’re about beauty, about shapes, about light, and creating a body of beautiful images. I love the fact that I can get a photograph with interesting shapes and shadows – a Ferrari in silhouette in the background, a moving tire in the pit in the foreground, and the gorgeous clouds above - regardless of the subject matter. And with respect to the “timeless” aspect of the pictures, I should say that by shooting with my Graflex, where it’s only going to be sharp in the center of the photo, the advertising on the cars is blurred out, so you just see the shape of the car, which hopefully evokes memories of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.
BS: So you’ve been shooting with F1 with the Graflex for nearly a decade. What are you most proud of?
JP: I’ve photographed nearly every living Formula One driver. Forty in all, including some of the guys who won in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I think I’m the only one who’s done that. The first world champion I shot was Sir Jackie Stewart. When I asked him if I could take his portrait, he was a little hesitant and asked why. As we walked and I talked, I showed him the camera and told him it was from 1913. Since then, I’ve photographed him half a dozen times.
But honestly, even though I’ve been doing this for a while, when I’m down on the track, whether I’m shooting a world champion or a pit crew changing a tire, I feel like a little kid. I still get goose bumps. It’s just this incredible, powerful thing, the sounds and smells and the shifting light. Your senses are heightened and I can’t believe I get to try to capture it all with the Graflex.