Racing Glen. Remembering the Glen Enthusiast’s evocative scrapbook of American motorsport photographs. Jack Holliday was an avid photographer who made the most of his time living in Watkins Glen during the 1950s. Malcolm Thorne explores his superb legacy. Photography Jack Holliday.
To anyone with a passion for ’50s Americana, the everyday street scenes to be found in a small town in upstate New York in the rock ’n’ roll era would no doubt excite and inspire. Yet it’s easy to forget that for those who were there, the age of fins and chrome was just daily life, not anything remarkable or extraordinary.
Fortunately for keen amateur photographer Jackson McIntosh Holliday – or Jack, as he was known to his friends – when he found himself living in Watkins Glen in the early 1950s, he had the luxury of a colourful spectacle to enliven his hobby. It wasn’t until after he died in 2013, however, that Holliday’s family discovered the extent of his remarkable hoard of images.
“Jack was a man of few words,” John Oliver recalls of his grandfather-in-law. “We knew that he had a large collection of pictures, but didn’t really know what was in it until he passed away.” Oliver is a keen photographer himself, and a fan of traditional film in preference to digital.
For this reason, his father-in-law, who had been left the albums in Holliday’s will, passed them to him, along with Jack’s much-loved Leica, which Oliver describes as a particularly pleasing piece of kit: “He was an optical engineer by trade, so I think he must have appreciated the quality. “Jack wasn’t especially interested in fast cars or motorsport. He never owned anything fancy – he was always a Buick man – so it was fascinating to unearth these pictures. It must have provided him with an exciting and colourful subject for his hobby. Living in a small town, I guess that there wasn’t much to stimulate him in that respect.”
Holliday had discovered photography in ’1932 at the age of six. His father had died when Jack was still a small boy, and the family left its home in Hillsdale, Michigan, to live with Raymond McIntosh, a favourite uncle in Green River, Wyoming. “Ray gave Jack his first camera, a Kodak Pocket Vest,” recounts Oliver, “and he soon developed a real appetite for taking pictures.”
The young Holliday rapidly progressed to a Kodak 35 Rangefinder and a Rolleicord III before upgrading to his prized Leica IIIc around 1947-’1948, at about the same time that he graduated from Hillsdale College. After finishing his studies he moved to Watkins Glen, where he began working at the famous Jefferson Hotel, which belonged to the parents of a friend, Bill Timms. It was there that he met Timms’ sister Virginia, who he would go on to marry in 1955.
“He attended the Watkins Glen Grand Prix for the first time in 1951, at which time the course still passed through the centre of the town. He returned regularly from then until around 1960, when he moved away to Virginia.”
Shot on Kodachrome and Ektachrome film with a 50mm lens, the photographs are hugely evocative. Their non-commercial nature meant that Holliday was free to choose his subjects, and the result is a wonderful insight into the carefree optimism of 1950s motorsport.
The pictures of racing span the rapid evolution of the venue. Beginning with the 6.6-mile street circuit, the collection charts the switch to the safer 4.6-mile hilltop layout – adopted after a fatal crash in 1952 – and the purpose-built 2.35- mile Grand Prix course that was first used in ’1956.
What really brings the set to life, though, are the glimpses of behind-the-scenes activity. Cars being fettled in the rudimentary paddock, mechanics toiling into the night and spectators enjoying the carnival atmosphere all contribute to what is a fascinating compilation. Published here for the first time, the images are a fine tribute to a keen amateur photographer and a superb reminder of a long-lost era of motorsport.