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Wednesday, 23 August 2006 15:51

Peter D'Abbs - Motorsports photographer

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Peter D’Abbs - Motor Sport Photographer, 1921-2006 By Martin Stubbs with the assistance of his widow, Judith D’Abbs. Peter’s career in the photographic industry and his passion for motor sport photography probably started quite by accident early in 1948 when he met Dacre Stubbs who likewise had recently migrated to Australia after the war. Dacre was just establishing his commercial photographic business and had a shared interest in vintage cars and motor sport. He encouraged Peter’s growing interest in photography and in the possibility of combining this with motor racing. Peter soon mastered the necessary skills to eventually become a leading motor sport photographer starting in 1956 with the Melbourne Olympic Grand Prix at Albert Park. Over the subsequent 40 year period he amassed approximately 180,000 images, mostly shot at Victorian events including what has probably become his most famous image, the start of the 1958 Melbourne Grand Prix.  
  In the 60s he covered the popular Mobil Economy Runs with his wife Judith, she acting as a observer for competitors to ensure they didn’t cheat with techniques like coasting down hills in neutral while Peter was out ahead of the field at various locations photographing the cars as they came through. Although he was not paid or sponsored, Mobil purchased many of his photos for publicity purposes and some were also purchased by competitors. Soon after leaving school I experienced first hand the difficulties and the patience required of motoring photography when I accompanied Peter on his coverage of the ‘Experts Motor Trial’ in the hills of north-east Melbourne in the early 60s. After a futile day chasing lost rally cars in the pouring rain we ended up at a remote check point at night at a flooded creek crossing, our thinking was that this would be an exciting location to get some shots of competitors crossing the creek. By this time we had abandoned Peter’s Citroen for a Land Rover which had been supplied as a ‘Tail End Charlie’ to recover stricken competitors. Finally cold, wet and in complete darkness we managed to get one or two shots as only a Peugeot and a Volkswagen had made it through to this point.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Peter and Judith both attended the first Sandown event in 1962, Judith as a scrutineer and Peter as a accredited photographer. On this occasion he managed to persuade a helicopter pilot to take them both up over the circuit to get some aerial shots of the track, Peter standing on the landing skids without any safety devices with only Judith hanging on to prevent him falling. The separate male and female toilet facilities consisted of cans with seats on top, privacy was provided hessian strung between poles. As they flew overhead coming in to land the hessian walls were blown away, the women frantically making the necessary adjustments to their clothing and running out with embarrassment while the men just stood there gazing at the helicopter above. How things have changed!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Having a good relationship and being on first name terms with event organizers, officials and drivers both local and internationals, in particular Jimmy Clark, Stirling Moss and Ron Flockhart, gave Peter respectability from all he associated with and opportunities to attend functions and access to locations often denied to others. This did not necessarily extend to spectators who resented his freedom to observe the action from the best vantage points. At Calder they decided to throw beer cans at him after they had consumed the contents, Peter thought this behavior was most reprehensible and disappointed when race officials didn’t allow him to throw them back.                                                                                                                                                                                                              A typical day for Peter was to arrive early to the event and make himself known to all and sundry, get to know who was competing and in what cars, familiarize himself with the layout and of the best vantage points for photography. Check his equipment which he would then festoon around him in carry bags, cameras both 35mm and 2 1/4 square, various lenses and enough film for the day. Once the racing started he would be on the move around the circuit from location to location constantly, many times without stopping for food, drinks were often supplied by the track marshals particularly in hot weather. After the event on a Sunday it was straight home to develop films, then off to work on Monday leaving the processed films to dry during the day.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Then that evening it would be back home to print the proof sheets and answer any phone calls from competitors wanting photos. It must be remembered that Peter was an enthusiast and didn’t rely on his motor racing images for an income. He took photos for his personal satisfaction and I think he probably felt that this creative outlet would have been somehow compromised if it had been a business. For example he would get very angry with photographers and spectators for taking shots of accidents, although this may have been what various media would pay well for. He felt that this was being disrespectful of the driver and beneath the dignity of the sport.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Peter died after a long illness on the 5th June this year, he will be remembered by those that knew him in the motor racing fraternity as a great personality and will be sadly be missed by family and friends. His valuable collection of images which illustrates the history and development of motor sport in Australia was purchased by David Blanch of Autopics in January 2002. ‘The Peter D’Abbs Collection’ can be accessed by contacting Autopics on their web site  

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