We’re starting to roll out a number of features and interviews with recognisable icons within the world of motoring here on SkiddMark, with the aim being to show interesting characters in a light they haven’t ever been seen in before.
When choosing who we want to speak to, we look for those who’ve had a colourful career that can provide plenty of anecdotes and an ability to articulate themselves in an engaging fashion.
So you can imagine our delight when Keith Sutton, founder and CEO of Sutton Images (F1’s largest photo agency) and one of the most charismatic figures in the paddock agreed to speak to us about his life in F1.
Keith has been around motorsport ever since his Dad first took him along to Oulton Park as a six month old baby because his Mother grew tired of looking after him at home as his Dad enjoyed the races. Despite claiming that as an infant he cramped his Dad’s style at the racetrack bar, Keith’s amateur photographer Dad continued to take him to the races, further whetting his appetite for F1 and photography.
Many races later, Keith befriended one of the sport’s greatest ever icons in Ayrton Senna. We’re delighted to tell you Keith talks openly about growing up with Ayrton when they were both novices in their respective careers and their eventual successes at the top. From his days as a lone freelancer, Keith now runs the largest F1 photographic agency in the world, is known by all in the paddock and enjoys a comfortable and enjoyable lifestyle. If you see an F1 picture on Autosport.com or one of the popular magazines, in all likelihood it’s been shot from Keith’s agency.
There was so much Keith talked about that I’ve had great difficulty in trying to fit it all in here – the interview was only supposed to be for 20 minutes but we ended up talking far, far longer as he reeled off one hilarious or heartbreaking story after another.
What you won’t see in the text is how I spent half of the interview laughing or with my head buried in my hands despairing at some of the situations Keith somehow managed to get himself into. What I hope you do easily see however is how an excellent never-say-die attitude coupled with a smart business brain and talent in your respective field can take you a very long way. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did being a part of it.
Keith begins by telling us about his very early days living in the North West of England, struggling to get into the motorsport photography industry.
I suppose also my Dad was a keen amateur photographer, he did a lot of jazz concerts in Manchester, a few weddings and he’d process the films in the bath with his enlarger and he loved doing it, just messing about really. He took shots at Oulton Park and lots of shots of me. However in 1963, there was a race on August 31st at Oulton Park where at the end of the day he set me up next to a racing driver and he’d only ever done that once before.
He took my shot with this guy as they were packing away their kit in the back of their transporter and that was that. A couple of years later in 1965 and I’m now six years old and he shows me this picture again and says, “Look, this guy you’re stood next to is now a Formula 1 driver.” And that was Jackie Stewart.
So I suppose you could say my Dad a bit of an eye for spotting talent! Then in 1977 he went to the manager of Oulton Park, a guy called Rex Foster who he’d known because he’d be going to the circuit since it had opened, and his wife worked in the shop selling miniature cars – Corgis and badges etc. which I was always treated to at Oulton Park on each visit for being a good boy. So I got to know him as my Dad went to see him and said look, Keith’s taking an interest in photography, is there anything you can do for him?
He said “Not really, first of all he’s got to be 18 for insurance purposes and really he’s got to work for a newspaper or magazine. Anyway send him to me.” So my dad briefed me and I didn’t really need briefing because I was a very well brought up and polite child, went to see Mr. Foster and it went like:
Mr Foster: “So you want to be a motorsport photographer do you son?”
“And you’ve taken some pictures already over the fence?”
“Can I see them?”
“Good. So you’re struggling because of the fencing are you? Need to be near the track?”
“Yes, that’s right Mr. Foster.”
“And you do realise you have to be 18 to get a press pass because of insurance purposes? How old are you son?”
“Er, 17, Sir.”
“I’ll ask that question again. How old are you son?”
“Er, 18 Mr. Foster?”
“Correct. Here’s your pass for today and just be very, very careful because these cars go quick!”
Standing on the inside of Old Hall corner at the start of the race with no fencing, really gets you going. So I suppose that was the moment, when I thought yep, I want to be a motorsport photographer.
From here I was interested in how Keith went from photographing for a bit of fun to then developing his talents towards making it a full time career. What happened to Keith in 1979 aged 20 is one of the sweetest, more painful and incredible all rolled into one tales I’ve ever heard in racing.
I was desperate to get into photography, so I found this job in the Manchester Evening News, “Assistant photographer required in a studio in Manchester.” So I went along with no experience, just a load of pictures of racing cars, nothing to do with the job and this guy called Tony Hall from Tony Hall photography saw that I’d got great enthusiasm and gave me a job as an assistant in a photographic studio building room sets, doing studio photography. But I was more of a gofer, a van driver and an assistant because it was all shot on large format, 5×4, 10×8 negatives.
Then in 1979 I decided to cover the Aurora F1 championships for ex-F1 cars and I think there were about fourteen races of which three were abroad. One was in Holland, one was in Belgium and the other was in the south west of France at Nogaro. I had no holiday left, so the only way to do it was to go to the doctor and tell him I was ill! And I did, he gave me a note for a week off saying I was suffering from nervous exhaustion. I got the train down to the south of England somewhere then got in the truck with one of the teams where the car was a Lotus driven by Emilio de Villota and the owner of the team was a guy called Giuseppe Risi.
I got down to the hotel where the mechanics had also driven down, I had no money at all and I went into the restaurant to join them, but I couldn’t sit down as I could only afford an omelette which was a couple of francs. But they let me go to sleep in their car, I went to sleep and got really bad stomach ache. I went into the hotel and really began rolling around on the floor so they called the doctor. The doctor came round, took me to the hospital and when I went in there they whipped my appendix out!
So while I’m in hospital – and I’d missed the race now – the only person who came to see me was this Giuseppe Risi who was a mega bloke, spoke about seven languages and he was great and really helped. But they all went home and left me! So I was in this hospital now with a priest who’d been in a car accident, but because he was the head of a couple churches he had all these people coming to see him. Then one day, this guy came and he told his daughter about me, so his daughter came to see me. It was 1979, it was the Wimbledon tennis final, 2 sets all with Björn Borg against Roscoe Tanner and this gorgeous 17 year old French girl called Anique walked in. And I switched the TV off and can’t remember who won!
So she came to see me every day whilst I recovered, my Dad realised we were going to have to pay in excess of £900 [to mend me] and we had no money in those days. But there was a form called an E111 which we should have had, so my Father went to Stockport and managed to get it backdated and posted to me because they wouldn’t let me leave the hospital without this form or some cash. But there was a postal strike on in the UK, so we came up with this great idea where Anique spoke to her parents and asked me if I wanted to come back and relax on her farm. So … !
I went back there and ended up spending another month there because I was being so well looked after. Unfortunately, my boss phoned my mother and said “Where’s Keith?” And she said he’s ill and he said “I know he’s ill, he’s only supposed to have a week off for nervous exhaustion. Where is he?” And she told him I was in the south of France, having had my appendix out. And he replied “Well tell him to not bother coming back because he hasn’t got a job!”
I came back October 1979, no job, no prospects or anything. I couldn’t get a job over the winter and come February I said to my parents that I want to try and give this motorsport photography a go, will you support me? They told me they had no money to support me and that they’d have to charge me for everything, write it all down and if you make anything you’ll have to pay us back. And that’s what happened, March 1980, I started, 20 years old as freelance photographer.
I was aware Keith was close to Ayrton Senna, so I asked him if he could tell me about how they met and from there, how their respective careers developed. With his answer, I was intrigued by not only how strong a friendship they developed, but also how generous the two were to one each other as they mutually helped each other up their respective ladders.
First of all I got hold of the FIA yellow book of regulations and that amazingly had in the back of it, all the addresses of the magazines around the world. So I wrote to them all offering my services, telling them which races I could do because I started in 1980 putting down a race every single weekend. Not Formula 1, but Formula 2, Formula 3, touring cars, Formula Ford etc.
They all came back to me and said we’re all covered but from Argentina, Brazil and Japan they got back saying we need pictures of our drivers racing in the lower formulas. So that’s what happened, I’d go to the race, look at the programme, tick off all the BRAs, ARGs and JPNs and just go and follow those drivers around. At that time I was quite shy, so I’d just take the photographs and send them off to the magazines.
March 1981 came around and I was struggling on. I’d made £600 profit in my first year which was enough to my parents for my lodgings and that, but 1981 was a crucial year. Once again I’d planned all these races and I’d got to Thruxton and I saw the name “Ayrton Senna da Silva” so I just followed him around basically, took a load of pictures and then went home and sent them to Autosport Brazil.
What happened then was I had a race pencilled in at Brands Hatch but I had no money, not even for fuel. The story is I’d been eating a lot of Kellogg’s Cornflakes and if you’d eaten six packets, you got a free British Rail ticket for anywhere in the UK! And so I chose it for Kent, went down there, entered the paddock and he just walked over to me.
In his broken English he asked me why I’d been taking all these pictures of him at Thruxton. I told him I worked for Autosport Brazil and they want pictures of Brazilian drivers racing in Britain. He asked if I was a professional, I told him yes then he asked if I’d take some pictures of him as he needed them for publicity back in Brazil. I said yes as long as you pay me!
So we struck up a deal and that day he won his first car race in the heat and the final, so he was on the podium with his wife – late March, sun was shining and I got some cracking pictures of him and his wife, he was delighted. And that was it, I went to all the races and followed him all through 1981, then he retired in October 1981 because he didn’t get enough publicity and couldn’t raise the money for another season.
His father had paid for his first year in Formula Ford, so he basically stopped and said he was going to go back and work on the farm with his father. I was a bit shocked but he sent me some nice letters. He was an amazing letter writer even though his English wasn’t that brilliant. He said “Thank you very much for helping me in my career, all the best and I might see you again one day.”
But in 1982 he came back and I think a lot of it was to do with his wife who he’d married in February 1981. He was very nervous, hated England … didn’t work out. So he came back on his own, signed a deal to do Formula Ford 2000 with Dennis Rushen and I met up with him at Oulton Park during a test. I said to him “Look, are you serious? What is it you want to do? You’re not going to keep on retiring are you?” He said no and that he wanted to be in Formula 1.
I told him I’d help him as I’d been to a few Formula 1 races and that I’d noticed they do these press releases, so why don’t we do this press release service? We agreed I’d send them all around the world and I’d do an interview with him, take pictures and also send one to all the Grand Prix team owners. He thought it was a great idea and so we got it made on some nice headed paper.
And off he went – he was winning everything in England, Europe and the phone never stopped ringing from Bernie Ecclestone, Peter Warr and Frank Williams. Ron Dennis wanted to sign him up, pay for his F3 season in 1983, but he didn’t want to do that, he wanted to carry on on his own. And that’s what he did, he got some sponsorship money from a Brazilian Bank and a jeans company and he managed to finance himself. Then that year he drove a Williams in a test in 1983 and he invited me along to take pictures. Then of course at the end of the year he drove the Brabham, McLaren and the Toleman and eventually decided on Toleman.
I put it to Keith that it almost seemed more than just friendship as Keith almost seemed like Ayrton’s manager at times.
Yeah, the more success he got, the more publicity he got it helped me really, being connected with him. I was trying to push him to the Formula 1 journalists I knew, but I was far too young to manage and by this time he’d got himself a Brazilian manager anyway back in Sao Paolo so they were kind of dealing with it all. The only thing he did say was when we were going to Denmark in 1982 was where we flew out together, shared a room together and we’d talk a lot and he said he wanted me to be his photographer when he got to Formula 1.
He would pay me a salary, hotels, expenses, everything. But the only thing was he only wanted me to photograph him, so when it came to the crunch in 1984 when he’d got to Formula 1 and he asked me if I wanted to do that. It was just at the time that I’d been speaking to my brother Mark about setting up an agency and I had to say no, I couldn’t do it, due to the fact I’d be bored shitless standing at one corner photographing one car.
Any regrets on that decision?
No. I used to think in those days we were kind of on the same level, with music, girls, cinema and you could talk to him. But the money side, I was earning a few thousand but when he got to Formula 1 he started with hundreds of thousands and then millions … and I was a bit behind on that! You can’t relate to someone who flies around the world in a private jet and lives in Monte-Carlo tax free, it’s just another world. But I’ll always be grateful because it did launch me into Formula 1.
Forming Sutton Images Limited
I then asked Keith to give a brief summary of the path he decided he take instead – forming his own agency.
Then in 1985 a year later, due to some personal problems with women that I was going through, Mark Sutton [brother] came down and, well. I’d bought a house in 1984, my parents had basically threw me out, well not really threw out but it was about time I left at 24 years old! But I left this whole set up of the dark room in the cellar, it was very comfortable but I needed to get out. So I bought a three bedroom terraced house in Towcester for £16,000 near Silverstone.
Then Mark joined me in 1985 and Sutton Photographic was formed so rather than Keith Sutton Motorsport Photography, we had a little agency. Mark did a lot of the domestic races and I started doing the international stuff and it grew from there.
I’ll give Ayrton his credit though, he did pay for me to go to his first Grand Prix with him in Rio in 1984, paid for the flights and the hotels, looked after me I suppose as a bit of a thank you for what I’d done over the last three years. Rio was just amazing, the whole scene with the beaches and the girls.
It was my first, no, second trip out of Europe because Japan was the big making of me as back in 1982 I went to Tokyo for the first time. Good story that actually. After my second year I blew my money on an air ticket to Japan for three weeks, brought just myself and a briefcase and went knocking on all the doors of the magazines and manufacturers not knowing anything about Japanese business or etiquette! Just on the back of knowing a Japanese photographer friend who said I could stay with him – and I came back with three contracts. I’ve still got those contracts today by the way, thirty years on.
So what did a typical Keith Sutton weekend involve back in those pre-digital days?
A lot, obviously. I basically sum the 1980s as being a single guy travelling around the world and having the time of my life and not having a care in the world, just getting the job done. Then the 1990s came along and in the 1980s it was just working for magazines. But in the 1990s we started working more commercially with the teams and the sponsors, first of all in sports car racing with Jaguar and Castrol and then Formula 1 with Lotus, Jordan, Williams and it just snowballed from there.
The business grew, my other brother Paul joined us and then we got a secretary and a young lad to help us out in the dark room. The 1990s just went crazy and I had 25 people working for me full time and we’d moved from the three bedroom terraced to a three story building and then in 1996 we moved to a converted chapel in Towcester where we did all of our own processing of all our films.
A lot of it was rushing back with the films after the race, choosing the best shots and them duplicating them, captioning them and firing out 8,000 duplicates on Monday morning. Bear in mind with all the magazines in the world we were working for about eighty magazines and they used to get their packages Tuesday morning, they loved it.
Now we’re not rushing back as all the work’s done at the track where we have four photographers shooting and we have a technician. We shoot during the day, come back and take out the memory cards and give them to our technician who acts like a picture editor as he downloads them and edits the best pictures, captions them and then sends them back to the website. There’s a lot to do, obviously there’s the magazine clients but there is also the work for teams and sponsors.
I decided to switch things over to the actual weekends themselves now and asked Keith which are his favourite circuits to visit from a photographic standpoint.
Well my favourite is still Monaco and always will be. Just the fact you’ve got the ocean, the boats, the girls, you’ve got everything that me a Grand Prix should be like and has always been like. There are still loads of opportunities to get lots of new pictures from different angles and different buildings.
I love the street circuits. I suppose I also still love ones like Monza, the historical ones. I’m not keen on photographing Silverstone but I like the event and also that it’s on my doorstep and that you sleep in your own bed. Having done well over 400 Grands Prix it’s quite important these days!
Sensing it’d be quite easy to become bored of dull F1 tracks after visiting so many races, I asked Keith what he thought of night races. He then went to tell a hilarious tale from Valencia 2009 that will make him the envy of every other photographer on the grid and we’ve got pictures to prove it.
Love it. Just, I absolutely love new challenges after all these years. I mean, Valencia’s great due to the fact I’ve managed to get a fantastic spot for the start at the first corner. I went knocking on the door every building or apartment on the edge of the first corner until a girl opened her door and I asked her if I could just take some photos from the top of the terrace. And this girl said no because it’s full of corporate hospitality. Then I looked at her sleeve and she had a white top on but on her sleeve it said Red Bull, so I told her I worked for Red Bulletin and she told me to wait a minute.
Then this guy came along and he was the head of Red Bull Spain and he said I could come up but there are a lot of guests up there and true enough, it was three deep on the terrace, no chance plus I didn’t want to interfere with the guests. But next door there was a swimming pool and I said to him “If I take my shoes and socks off and get in the pool can I shoot the start of the race?” He turned to me and said that if I wanted to do that then why not?!
So then he came up to me afterwards and asked if everything was okay, asked me if I wanted a glass of champagne. They had a DJ up there, you know what Red Bull are like, the DJ, a BBQ, a bar, it was a great atmosphere. Anyway I told him I don’t drink, I’m shooting! He went away and I thought I must be the only or the first Grand Prix photographer to shoot stood in a swimming pool at the start of a race. So I called him back and said “I’ll have that champagne please – I’ll celebrate!”
He came back and asked if everything was okay, I told him yes and then he said “I’ve just had an idea. We’ve got no photographer to shoot the guests. Would you mind coming and joining us for lunch and shooting some of the guests?” I said no not at all I’d love to. He then said back “Well there are some towels there plus some sun cream.” So I did all that, got back in the pool, it’s now ten minutes before the race and he comes over and asks if everything is okay and I said “David, everything’s perfect, thank you very much. There’s just one thing missing. You wouldn’t be able to get me some girls in bikinis would you?!”
He laughed and said “For you Keith, of course I will.” The next thing, I’ve got all these girls around me. So I’ve shot all these girls overlooking the track and everything and then I wanted to get them on the warm-up lap, so I had racing cars with girls in the foreground. Then he asked me if I had all the shots I needed.
Me: No I need one more shot.
David: Sure, what is it?
Last year I met the owner of large wheel in Singapore, so at the start he let me in his VIP carriage and we timed it so just at the start we were right at the top. So I’m looking for new challenges these days. I don’t like some of these new places, I hate China.
At this point and not for the first time in the interview I started laughing and asked Keith if it was because of how far the circuit is from the UK, the distance he is placed from the circuit or entry VISA issues. After a long silence I put it on the table that maybe it’s just all of the above. After Keith stopped howling with laughter he calmed down and carried on.
Well … I’m never going back, I best not say too much! Oh, Adelaide. I had the best ten years of my life at Adelaide which used to be at the end of the season and really thought that was it. Then we went to Melbourne, hated it for the first seven years because we were working every day and every night. We never saw anything because of the film – having to process and select the film every night. Then once digital arrived and we didn’t have to do that, I ended up staying behind in Melbourne with some mates and now it’s probably there as #2.
For better, for worse
Widening the focus a little from just circuits, I asked Keith how he thinks F1 has gotten better and worse in the period of which he’s been involved on the front lines behind the lens.
Ha! Ah dear, that’s a good one. I always think whoever you speak to and there’s one photographer in particular who’s been doing it since 1960 and I think no matter what job you’re in, when you look back you’ll always think, those were the best times. The access was better and there were no pit garages! You could actually photograph the cars in the pit lane with daylight. All the pit garages now look the same, you could be anywhere, which is why so many photographers now like to go on the grid so they can shoot the cars stationary with daylight.
When I started there were no computers and no technology so when I went to Brazil in the early 1980s for example, practice would finish at two in the afternoon, the drivers would have a quick fifteen minute debrief and then they’d go back to the hotel and play golf, tennis and go swimming in the pool! Of course as photographers, we were already there waiting for them to come back, we’d have got there at 14.10. But there was no data to go through, so once that started coming in with engine management systems and computers they had to stay longer and the next thing you know we’re at the circuit until seven, eight o’clock at night. So we don’t leave now until the drivers leave, that’s one of the bad things about it!
I suppose ten years ago I hadn’t missed a Grand Prix in fifteen years and I had an opportunity to miss one because my wife works for British Airways and she was in Cape Town for seven days, so I decided to miss the Belgian Grand Prix and go with her. Once I’d missed one I found it easier to miss them, so I don’t do them all now. There are a few new circuits and locations coming up in the next few years, so that interests me as I want to go to new places and have new challenges.
I think I’ve managed to get a good balance between managing the business, spending time with the family/children and travelling.
Having enjoyed a couple of stories Keith had told me, I asked him to recall the most manic and crazy thing had ever happened to him. After much laughter he says he can’t possibly say the funniest stories as they’re completely unprintable, a statement I can well believe. Instead he offered to tell us one of his most significant moments career wise.
My major stepping stone was back in 1986 when I was the only freelance photographer at the end of the straight when Nigel Mansell’s tyre exploded. Once I’d taken that picture, put my big 500mm lens down on the floor, taken a wide angle to catch him climbing through the fence, following him back running backwards as he waved to the crowd, I thought to myself, I have got the shot of the year.
So once I’d done that, there just happened in those days to be a laboratory to process your film. Now, the transparency film was called E6 and that took an hour, so I basically forgot the rest of the race, went to the lab and put my film in. Then went back and shot the podium, then went back to the lab obviously after an hour and saw the picture and ordered 50 duplicates of it. Went back an hour later for the 50 duplicates, then went round the press room and named my price to every outlet in the room. And I got £10,000 for that and promptly spent it all on a new car … a Peugeot 205 GTi! Haha!
To close, I asked Keith to tell me his favourite photo he’s ever taken. I said to him I imagine it’s the Adelaide Mansell photo, but he instead gave a very different answer that returned to his friend he first met at Brands Hatch all those years ago.
Well as much as financially that was the one, I suppose the one that I’m associated with and has been on all the front covers of books and magazines is due to my relationship with Ayrton. It’s Belgium 1991 when he’s spraying the champagne right at me. The reason being is normally you would shoot the podium opposite them on a gantry or something, but on this occasion there was a room at the side of the podium, just a little bit higher up.
I basically went up there and opened the window and while he spraying the champagne I shouted at him and he basically came right over and started spraying the champagne right towards me! So I’m looking right down at him and the background is the green flooring of the podium.
Sutton Images Today
Once we finished talking about this picture, Keith then began talking about many more topics. Interestingly he spoke of the advice he’d give to any young photographers wanting to get into the business. He said he’d seen incredible burnout of many young men who couldn’t hack the relentless pace and travel that F1 involves, so you must really want it. What he really looks for though are for individuals who’ve already gone out and done something and made something happen for themselves. People just like Keith back in the late 1970s then.
As someone with no less than 10 Sutton Images prints dotted around my house ranging from shots of Jim Clark hanging it all out through Copse to beautiful contemporary shots of the Monaco harbour, I can’t recommend highly enough checking out Sutton Images’ incredible archive of pictures. From there you can purchase prints in a whole range of sizes to suit your needs, giving you tangible shots of some of motor racing’s most iconic moments.
Sutton Images also provides the photography in GPWeek, a free online magazine that turns around issues post F1 and MotoGP races faster than any other website and is well worth checking out.
Photo credits: All pictures in this feature are copyright Sutton Images.