A multi-award winning photographer, Heath uses his camera like a paintbrush. He’s changed the way people view Formula One. Using speed, light and color, Heath creates timeless images of a sport that’s constantly racing against time. This is a conversation about motorsport, time and life, through the lens of Darren Heath.
Let’s go back in time, Darren. When did you first fall in love with photography?
Well, an artistic bent runs through my family. My mother and father, particularly. My mother has been an artist for many years. And my uncle is one of the world’s top superyacht designers. But really, my interest in photography came as a result of my interest in motorsport. I was going to races with my father from a very young age and at around the age of 12, I got a camera for the first time and it really became a situation of just marrying the two together.
When did it strike you that, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life?’
Quite quickly, and I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant, I realized that I was pretty good at this. It seemed to come naturally. I seemed to know what to do, where to position myself, I had an appreciation of light, reading the race correctly and those kinds of things. So I started to spend all the pocket money I had on camera equipment, and then resolved when I was about 14 years old that this would be the focus, no pun intended, of my professional life.
So, why Formula One?
Formula One is the pinnacle. That’s where every young photographer who photographs motorsport wants to be. So I was continually pestering my father to take me to racetracks, drop me off in the morning, pick me up in the evening. And then it was a progression from there.
What excited you about Formula One photography?
There were photographers, Japanese photographers especially…it was less admiring a Japanese photographer, it was more admiring the style and the feel that they would bring across. It was their kind of impressionistic speed and color that really excited me.
Singapore Grand Prix, 2019. Photo by Darren Heath (@artoff1)
Was that a reflection of Formula One photography in general?
So we’re talking late ‘70s, early ‘80s, that kind of period. There were two other photographers, both French, that I particularly admired for their use of light and color. And what they would bring into their work. But generally, photography of Formula One was really kind of, I would describe it as ‘cars parked on corners’. It was taking all the dynamism and all the kind of emotion that is so evocative of the sport, and getting rid of it and putting a car on a corner, where you can read every sponsor, every word on the tires and sucking the life out of it. And I resolved that the direction of my career had to stay true to my principles, and to bring out what Formula One means to me.
Was there a moment that changed the course of your career?
It happened very early on in my career. I needed minor surgery on my foot, so I couldn’t work at this race, so I went to watch it with a friend, who was working. I sat next to a corner on the circuit and watched the race. It was a junior formula event that only lasted about 25 minutes to half an hour. When you’re covering an event such as that, you’re rushing like crazy, shooting the drivers getting ready, you shoot the start, you rush to the corners that you can get to in time, you rush back to get the finish and podium celebrations. When I watched this event, I sat there and…everything seemed to slow down. I saw it all playing out and I watched the other photographers work. And from that moment, this happened in 1989, I realized that you’ve got more time than you think you have. Yeah, it was a seminal moment in my career.
Sounds like it changed everything.
[Laughs] Yes, I watch photographers rushing around like blue-***** flies, excuse my French! And they look at me and think, ‘Why is he just standing there? He’s just standing there doing nothing.’ But I’m trying to look at what’s happening and then go in to take the picture and that’s maybe relative to the time we’re talking. We’re all obsessed with being fast, all the time. Everything is so sped up these days. And I just try to slow things down sometimes.
I’m curious, how do Formula One drivers react to your work?
I once did a private shoot with a well-known Formula One driver. He sat in the car and I introduced myself. He said, ‘You’re the photographer who does different things, who takes different pictures, aren’t you?’ And he may not know my name, but that will do for me. Because everyone has a brand, or I think you should have a brand, along with a perception of what you stand for. That’s all he needed to say, that I’m the guy who does something a bit different, because as a photographer, you’re just trying to stand out from the crowd. Having said that, and I hope this doesn’t sound too disingenuous or too dismissive, but most drivers in Formula One don’t know a good picture if it smacks them in the face! [Laughs] All they think about is racing and when they’re not racing, there’s other things on their mind. And it’s not photography.
Are there any moments you regret not capturing?
The one that I still think about, I just almost want to cry, is the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. When Nico Rosberg won the world championship, I got myself in the absolute perfect position, with the perfect lens, to get a picture of him. He quite famously stopped at the finish line, did what we call doughnuts, spinning the car with lots of smoke. He got out of the car and stood on the bonnet. On the nose section of the car, and I had that. I was photographing it thinking, this is great. And then, he jumped in the air and he jumped ridiculously high, tucked his legs up, held his arms out. And in that split second, when he went up in the air and he held his arms out, I stopped shooting. To this day, I don’t understand why I did that. Maybe it was just the moment. Maybe it was just, I don’t know, the emotion. Although I wasn’t emotionally attached to him. But I still just tear my hair out because I didn’t shoot that moment. Now, as far as a career is concerned, it’s not particularly a big miss, but it’s a moment. It was a moment that encapsulated that race and perhaps that year, and I’ve never talked about it before!
United States Grand Prix, 2019. Photo by Darren Heath (@artoff1)
Here’s a slightly deep question. What is your relationship with time? At work and outside of work?
[Laughs] That is a deep question.
I’m just trying to stay on brand here!
I guess on a materialistic level, I love watches. I have quite a collection of watches, including some Heuers. And I’m not just saying that because we’re here. But the first watch that I obsessed over was the Monaco because Steve McQueen wore it in the film Le Mans. So as a boy, I would watch that on repeat. And of course, I was aware that he was wearing this square watch. So, I have a Monaco, not exactly the same model that McQueen was wearing though. But yes, my relationship with time, I love it in a real, in a purely analogue, sense.
But in the sense of time as it plays out during a day, I never seem to have enough! I wish days lasted longer. I’m not someone who sits around unless I’m editing pictures. But I never sit around, metaphorically speaking, not doing anything. I don’t think there’s been a day in my life where I’ve been bored. I’m always doing stuff. And, you know, my wife is just the same. My children are very active, although they spend too much time on computers. But we’re very active!
So is there something that’s driving you to be active all the time?
What drives me is to always take the best pictures that I can. To never let my standards drop. I hope that people can tell that my work is distinctive. And I think it’s important to have a brand, to have people recognize one’s imagery, or one’s writing, or work. In whatever field you’re in. So really, that’s what drives me. As long as I do this job for people, for my peers to think, ‘He’s doing a good job. He’s still got it.’ It matters just as much, possibly more to me, that you like my work than it does if a Formula One driver likes my work. I want everyone to like it.
I do like your work. Very much!
Are you looking forward to the new Formula One season?
Sure, as I do every new F1 year! After two years of a two-year sabbatical due to all the obvious reasons, I’ve learnt a lot by not being at the races. How Formula One is perceived, how it comes across. And I think that it’s probably the same in any sport, or the movie industry. When we live in such a bubble, such an obsessed bubble, it’s difficult to see outside of the arena that you’re in, and how you’re perceived by people outside of it. Formula One is perhaps the greatest example of this, this ego-driven, money-driven, excessively pressurized environment. We think that what we do really matters, it really matters on the world stage. The farce of Abu Dhabi last year and how the title was won, the farcical nature of that…within motorsport and within the sporting world, that was important. But on a global scale, with what’s been happening over the last two years, the way governments behave, the environment and those kinds of things, it doesn’t mean anything really. Or it’s so infinitesimally unimportant on the world stage. On a universal stage. Due to no fault of my own I stepped away from Formula One for the first time in over three decades, and I’m seeing how it comes across. It’s not all positive, so I think when I do go back in, I will be very aware of that and perhaps my photography will reflect my new perspective on a sport I still adore.
It feels like another seminal moment. And it’s probably a good way to end this interview. Thank you so much for your time, Darren. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Discover more of Darren’s work on his Instagram here!