Fred Bonatto: A Passion for Motorsport and Photography

While growing up, Fred Bonatto moved between the United States, Mexico and Brazil. He graduated high school in the U.S. and attended university in Brazil where he obtained a degree in international relations. His work has been featured in various Brazilian publications and was more recently the subject of a solo exhibit at the Vermont Center for Photography. Currently, he lives in Denmark, with his wife, where he works for a global B2B development firm and is pursing a master’s degree in journalism.

Fred grew up watching Formula 1 races with his father. In this interview, he describes his personal passion for photography and racing as exemplified in his “Question of Speed” series.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the story behind your “Question of Speed” series?

A: I grew up during the Ayrton Senna phenomenon. Weekends with my father watching F1 races in rooms with walls decorated with autosport posters, and I also spent my fair share of hours under the hood of an Alfa Romeo. The project has historic motorsport culture as its center point. We’re talking on cars that can be close to a 100 years old, cars that preceded the advancements in safety regulations and technology, cars that drove a quest for innovation in performance and reached, at their peak, unheard-of-speeds. Cars that propelled drivers into stardom. This project is about the families, the fans, the race marshals, the mechanics – people that come together and make these events happen. A “Question of Speed” is ultimately an extension of a personal passion for racing and tries to show what I think it means to be a historic Grand Prix racer in the 21st century.

Q: All the images in this portfolio were evidently shot on film and in black-and-white. What is it about this traditional medium that is especially conducive to your kind of reportage? Have you ever thought about using a Leica M9 or perhaps a Monochrom to capture images of this kind?

A: I do think silver-based film is a special medium. It carries with it a long and tried heritage and it’s delightfully simple. Black-and-white allows for the focus of a photograph to be reduced to subject, light and composition. When you add the fourth realm of color, you are creating a whole new visual experience, and for this particular project, there are extraneous colors that are not always harmonious. Speed and adrenaline, however, are. I’ve worked with an M8 before, and working with a digital M is (thankfully) a very parallel experience. The Monochrom is an interesting camera body, and one that proves Leica’s commitment to a very specific methodology; I would not hesitate to work with one.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I primarily use a Leica M film camera outfit (M6 TTL, 35 mm Summicron ASPH., 50 mm Summicron f/2), loaded with 400 speed black-and-white film which I develop myself.

Q: What particular characteristics of the Leica M6 TTL and the 35 mm and 50 mm Summicron lenses do you find especially useful in your work? Do you think there is something unique and identifiable in the way Leica lenses render certain subjects — the so-called Leica look?

A: Besides all of the benefits inherent to an M system, (size, rangefinder, operation and handling) the shutter speed dial on the TTL differs in orientation from the predecessor M6. This matches that of digital M bodies, so it allows for an easier transition should I need to use a digital body or a newer M7. In regards to the lenses I use, both the 35 mm and the 50 mm Summicron lenses are very solid performers, offering consistent results across the aperture range. The signature of both lenses run side by side, and offer a special kind of subject-background separation, perhaps what you refer to as the Leica look. In addition to this, I’m very fond of the ergonomics of both, something I always consider when making an equipment purchase.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Life alters its course in such rapid fashion that the preservation of a particular moment can allow the photographer and an audience to have a more in-depth review of what it was that happened. I think of my work as an ongoing exercise of self-awareness, a very personal undertaking. When I chose what to photography, I am invariably executing my individual interpretation that particular subject. Although I have great control over what I choose to photograph, the perceived truth lies, ultimately, within the viewer and how he decides to interpret the image. A frame gives me a finite set of constraints to work with within a circumstance of infinite potential, and that perhaps is the most fundamental power of photography. I get to decide what and how to frame, and when to create the image, but you get to decide how it makes you feel.

Q: This image showing the middle-aged winner of a vintage automobile race with a garland of flowers over his shoulder has a timeless quality, as though it could have been taken 50-60 years ago. Was this deliberate on your part or just in the nature of the subject itself? It also has a joyous quality — do you agree?

A: We’ve been celebrating human achievement for thousands of years. It’s precisely why we are easily able to identify with an image that shows this special kind of joy. The fact that there are a few cars behind them that are close to 100 years old helps the atmosphere out!

Q: There is a great feeling of spaciousness conveyed in this image of a more modern Formula 1 car on the side of the track. The relatively bald sky and converging lines to the vanishing point also give it a wistful quality. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release, and what do you think this image says about the vintage car-racing scene?

A: I guess wistful is a good way to describe it. Perhaps it’s the subject itself. The car in this image is very special, as it’s the JPS Lotus Renault that Ayrton Senna won his first Formula 1 Grand Prix with, 1985 in Estoril, Portugal. Being so close to his car, I felt inclined to portray it in a direct fashion. The driver is wearing all white and is not identifiable. For many fans, the legacy of Ayrton Senna is one that instills an even more special kind of passion within motorsport. An acquaintance once told me, the reason some of of these guys get into heritage racing is to somehow channel the spirit of their heroes, and nowhere can this be more exciting than behind the wheel of a car once driven by them.

Q: This charming and amusing image of a middle-aged driver standing next to a vintage single-seat race car evidently being interviewed by as guy wearing earphones and holding a microphone has a “grab shot” quality, but is also quite carefully composed. What’s going on here and why did you decide to take the picture at a slightly oblique angle?

A: This image shows a bit of the quickness of it all. His head is still sweaty, and he’s just gotten out of the car, and being in the podium, he was immediately approached by the head narrator. In regards to the composition, often times there is not an obvious rationale, rather, when something feels balanced seeing it through the viewfinder may be the instant I chose to press the shutter release.

Q: I love this picture of a gentleman holding his helmet and standing next to an E-type Jaguar. The harsh lighting certainly suits the subject and his expression is priceless. Although people on both the right- and left-hand sides of the frame are partially cut off, I think this helps to focus the viewer’s attention on the main subject while conveying a sense of real life as it’s happening. Do you concur and how do you feel about this image?

A: Thinking about both the left and right edge of the frame, had I been using a wider lens, or stepped back a bit, I could have gotten more of the whole scene, but perhaps not as close as I would have liked to be to the main subject. When I’m faced with a situation like this, I try to balance what I see in the viewfinder. Perhaps this manifested itself as compromise on the edges. Part of the thrill of photography is finding these expressions and moments that can speak to someone. The driver was telling me “Senna Forever”, and I happen to agree.

Q: The image of what looks like refueling a racing car has a very wide-angle feel as though it were shot with an ultra-wide-angle lens. I presume you shot it from a low angle with your 35 mm f/2 Summicron ASPH., but what technique did you use to achieve such an intimate ultra-wide feel?

A: This was indeed shot with a 35 mm, which in itself is already a wide lens — you can fit a lot in the frame — and this especially true if you get close to the subject. I was maybe a foot or two from the side of the car on this occasion.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years? Do you have any other vintage car racing reportage projects lined up, and do plan to explore any other genres going forward?

A: My work relies heavily on long-term reportage, and I like to be as involved as I can with what I am shooting. Over the coming years, this particular project will grow, as there are still a number of important European events I intend on covering. I’m also working closely with Damaso Reyes and a few other individuals involved in motorsport that have provided invaluable feedback on this story. I try to get as much as possible out of this dialogue, and think of the craft as an ongoing and evolving process. As time passes and I learn more, I come back and try to apply it to my photography. I’ve worked on diverse projects in the past and this will continue to hold true going forward.

Thank you for your time, Fred!

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Fred’s website to learn more.