Louis Klemantaski

12/2/1907 - 24/6/2001

Record updated 23-Jun-06

Famed racing photographer, born in Manchuria. He entered the Monte Carlo Rally three times and the Mille Miglia twice, finishing second in 1956.

Louis Klemantaski
Famed racing photographer was born in Manchuria. Louis Klemantaski was born in the Manchurian city of Harbin. The son of "rich but honest" parents. His mother was Russian and his father a Dutch national who had grown up in Hull, but came from a family that left Poland in 1815 after the suppression of nationalism following the defeat of Bonaparte. Louis father had hoped to seek his fortune there by exporting soy beans and importing Willys-Knight and Overland cars. Klemantaski returned to England for his education and, having learned to drive a car when he was eight, spent the 1930s racing supercharged single-seaters and, increasingly, taking photographs of cars during races and selling them to their drivers.

He also worked as a mechanic, and was once asked to fit an adjustable scoop to the passenger side of a Singer Le Mans for a raffish customer. After he asked the purpose of this modification, Klemantaski was told: "Oh, don't you see, old chap? If it's raining and I have a girl in the car, she gets soaked and it gives me an excuse to take her to my flat to strip and dry off. . ."

In 1933, Klemantaski had a serious accident which permanently damaged his leg. He then took over as secretary of the Junior Racing Drivers Club, probably the first racing driver training scheme in the world, but gradually built on his talent as a photographer.

Many of Klemantaski's greatest images were captured before cameras were equipped with motor drives, and taken inches from the track. He followed the Grand Prix circus around Europe in the pre-war era, seeming always to choose the best spot and the ideal moment for his pictures.

"I knew enough about racing," Klemantaski later explained, "to know what a car would be doing that critical fraction of a second after I pressed
the button."

At the outbreak of war he joined the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development at the Admiralty, where his photographic techniques were considered invaluable in assessing the potential of new weapons.

He was involved in the development of Barnes Wallis's bouncing bomb. Here his role was to take photographs which would allow an assessment to be made of the dimensions, trajectory and speed at which the bombs were most likely to be effective in breaking the dams.

After the war Klemantaski concentrated entirely on photography, continuing the portrait work that he had started before the war, and including among his sitters Margot Fonteyn and Igor Stravinsky.

Klemantaski also renewed his interest in motor racing and once again followed the circuits round Europe, photographing Fangio, Gonzales, Moss, Hawthorn and their contemporaries.

By this time his dynamic pictures and excellent taste had attracted the patronage of motor manufacturers, who paid handsomely for his services.

Anxious to improve his understanding of the sport, Klemantaski entered three Monte Carlo rallies, often with his friend Ian Appleyard, and subsequently took part in five Mille Miglia, Italy's 1,000 mile race on public roads - as navigator, first with Reg Parnell in an Aston Martin and subsequently with Peter Collins in his Ferrari 860 Monza.

In 1956, he and Collins finished second in the Ferrari and in 1957, Klemantaski's last Mille Miglia, the pair came within an ace of winning before a broken axle ruined their chances. Collins and Klemantaski also won the circuit of Sicily, which packed 10,000 corners into 671 miles.

In the meantime Klemantaski pursued his abiding interest in the arts and began to photograph ballet, opera and other artistic events.

Klemantaski was a great connoisseur and gourmet with a serious knowledge of wines and food. In his tours of the continent during the 1950's, in a small Fiat 1100 nicknamed "Plugly", he always took the opportunity to eat well, but eschewed Michelin-starred restaurants, favouring family-run estaminets. His favourite restaurant was Ricordeau at Loue near Le Mans, at which he was always to be found during the 24-hour race.

Klemantaski was a popular, dapper figure, distinguished by his bow tie and neatly trimmed imperial. After his final retirement in 1982, Klemantaski and his wife moved to Coombe Hay near Bath. In 1997, he was invited by Ferrari Equipe to repeat his Mille Miglia of 40 years earlier - but as a passenger, and not at racing speed.

His publications included an autobiography Klemantaski Himself.