Tour the 1957 24 Hours of Le Mans With the Man Who Took These Photos
In 1957, Duane Kinslow was 20 years old and stationed in France. He made the best of it, though, with a trip to the track.
One of the more wonderful aspects of this job is it gives me the opportunity to meet and talk to a whole host of unique and interesting people. And by that I mean I can write a story about practicing panning photography at a Formula Drift race in June and have a 40-minute conversation in July with one Duane Kinslow, who attended and shot the 1957 24 Hours of Le Mans race, bringing back photos and a story to share.
It’s hard not to reach for your camera at a motorsports event. They’re such a dramatic departure from what you see every day that they just make your fingers itch to preserve the moment. Today, thanks to the blessing of phones, everyone and their mother can snag their own little piece of the race to take home. It was much harder to do so when taking a picture and developing the film was a whole separate process.
That didn’t stop a young enthusiast, though.
The Weekend Splurge of a Lifetime
In 1957, Duane Kinslow was 20 years old and stationed at the United States Army base in Orléans, France. The deployment marked his first-ever time in Europe, and while there during the peaceful, post-WWII times, he figured he’d make the best of it. He and his friends decided to attend the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“There were a number of us there in the outfit that were interested in going to the race because we’d never been,” Kinslow told me during a call. “A guy had a Renault Dauphine. Imagine five big GIs in a little Dauphine going to Le Mans and you’ll get the picture.” The journey from Orléans to Le Mans is just about 100 miles, so it would have taken them over two hours one way.
Kinslow had been into photography off and on since he was 12 or 13 years old but didn’t seriously pursue it until he was at the base.
“The Army had a place to develop 33mm rolls of film yourself on the base,” he said, so he went ahead and bought a camera before the race. It was an Agfa Karat with an f/2.0 lens. Kinslow didn’t know much about it or how to use it but figured he’d learn as he went.
Being in the Army then didn’t pay much—only $66 a month, which is about $700 in 2022 money. Kinslow and his friends bought the race tickets, but Kinslow splurged on an extra couple of treats for himself: a pit pass and one roll of 36 exposure Kodak color film. All of his other film was of the cheaper black and white variety.
Off to the Race
Kinslow spent his time wandering the pits and everywhere else his pass allowed him to go before the race started. It’s also easy to trace his progress: Everything in color was taken before the race started, as that’s when Kinslow was using his color film.
“The weather was iffy,” he recalled. “It rained a little bit, was cloudy most of the time.” Because of these conditions, he said he couldn’t get any real good pictures. As there were no automatic features on the camera, and Kinslow was still new to it, some pictures “came out good and some came out dark.”
But still, he said people were happy to be there. The war was over and it looked like peace was there to stay. There was excitement in the air. Triumph. Hope.
One of Kinslow’s favorite photos was captured when he was standing at the top of the pit. (That pit pass more than paid for itself!) From up there, he could see the parking lot, and in the parking lot was a Maserati car carrier. He took the photo and then, years later, when he was researching it, found a picture online of the same car carrier at the same race but taken from a different perspective from someone else. Kinslow likes his picture more, though, because you can see the parking lot in his picture. There's more context.
He also saw Enzo Ferrari at the race but didn’t know it was him at the time. Ferrari would have been 59 in 1957 and Michael Kinslow, Duane Kinslow’s son, identified him to me as the silver-haired man in the gray jacket standing in front of the Maserati pit in this photo:
And standing above the number “9” banner in the Ferrari pit:
The pit pass allowed Kinslow to walk along the manufacturer boxes so he could see back behind the pits, as well as stand above them. In 1957, “you could basically go wherever before the race started,” he said. (After watching a modern Le Mans race, he remarked, “It’s not like that today.”)
When the race began, Kinslow found himself standing on the hill just past the Dunlop Bridge where there were barely any spectators. “I don’t know how I got there or how they let me get up there,” he said. “I took a whole roll of 20 exposure black and white [film] from the time the race started.”
He watched the drivers perform the classic running start, a move that would remain a part of the race until 1969. And when the cars tore away from the starting line, he was so close that, “the two [Jaguar] D-Types coming right by me, I could almost touch them.
“It was a thrill to see all those cars coming straight at you,” he added, and remembered thinking, “‘I hope no one has a wreck there because if they do I’m in big trouble.’”
In the end, the D-Types went on to dominate the race, netting first, second, third, fourth, and sixth places—a feat, considering that they were all private entries, albeit with some factory support.
Kinslow’s photos grasp the day well. He didn’t just bring back pictures of the race cars, though there are many of those. He also managed to capture the crowd, which really gives an event like this its signature feel. You ever see photos from a race with empty grandstands? It’s sad. Here, the stands were full. Everyone was looking at the cars. Kinslow was looking at them.
“All of the pictures that we took, the black and white pictures, we processed them ourselves,” he said. “The color film we had to send back to the U.S. to Kodak to get processed.”
Ultimately, Kinslow was stationed in Europe for two years and didn’t return to Le Mans for the 1958 race. He’d gone home already by the time it rolled around.
But even now, 65 years later, he looks back on those photos and still sees elements to fix, edits to make. Because as every photographer knows, things are always a work in progress.
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