I first met Emi Honda, the daughter of famed Japanese motorsport photographer Joe Honda, at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan in Tokyo back in February 2020. At the time I did not know the family history. But over some tea a few nights later she filled me in on her father, his work, and his life.
“Growing up, my father’s images of 24 Heures du Mans adorned our walls at home. I grew up seeing them without realizing the superhuman effort that had gone into documenting the cars speeding on the rain-soaked track at night and the adrenaline of the drivers and fans during the day. Just like the competitors in this fierce round-the-clock race, Joe’s images from the Circuit de Sarthes convey the determination needed to always push yourself to the limit and beyond to seize what you love in life.”
To mark the Centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, two exhibitions of the Japanese photographer’s work covering Le Mans are on exhibition simultaneously at the Maison Franco-Japonaise from June 8 to June 22, and at Fuji Motorsports Museum, both in Japan, from June 9 through July 9.
The grit and glamour of motor racing’s golden age
Honda was born in Tokyo in 1939 as Nobuyuki Jozuka. “Joe Honda” became his work alias later in life. He had no connection to the Japanese auto maker, but rather thought Joe Honda sounded catchier and would be easier for foreigners to remember.
He studied photography at Nihon University’s Department of Fine Arts in Tokyo. But Honda was already into racing as well. As a student in post-war Japan, he would often skip class to race his motorbike around abandoned sites around the city with his friends. They would even time their laps to see if any of them could be fast enough to perhaps compete professionally.
After graduating from school, he trained with photographer Yuji Hayata, before setting out on his own and going freelance. But a chance encounter set his career in motion
In 1966, at the age of 26, he went to photograph Asia’s first Indy Car race. While covering the race, he had a chance encounter with Scottish drive Sir Jackie Stewart. With Japan still building up its car industry, their meeting steeled Honda’s resolve to go abroad and document the culture, people, and technology of the global motorsport.
So in 1967, with two cameras, $500.00, and speaking only a few words of English, Honda headed to Europe. Before he left on a Soviet ship, he shipped his own car, a Toyota Corolla, ahead of him. He would drive that car all over Europe. And he never looked back.
What followed was a career that spanned five decades, covering every kind of motorsport imaginable. From the Paris-Dakar Rally, to Formula One, to motocross, to NASCAR. But the cars and bikes were only one part of the story. They were just part of the human narrative that Honda immortalize the raw experiences. The photographs range from the visceral to the purely functional, immortalizing the raw experiences of motorsport. His archive of over 300,000 35mm negatives spans the grit and glamour of motor racing’s golden age.
Takuji Yanagisawa, President of Shashin Kosha, puts Honda’s career into perspective in terms of how Honda worked and was able to create a visual history of motorsport in a way no one else had ever done before, while creating a path for the next generation of photographers.
“Joe developed his photographic practice during an era where there were no teachers, guides, or online tutorials to refer to — he set out to document the global motorsports scene in the 1960s when the sport wasn’t yet popular in Japan, and there were few motorsport photographers. Over the decades, he experimented in the field — scouting the best positions to shoot from, working out how to frame cars and best capture the human drama of the circuit; constantly innovating as he went. In doing so, he changed how motorsports were covered, inventing a unique visual language and paving the way for the next generation of photographers.”
But there is nothing like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. First run in 1923 as a “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency,” the race has become one of the most iconic races in the world. Held every year in June in Le Mans, France on the Circuit de la Sarthe, the race has one condition for victory: the car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours is the winner. The race starts in the afternoon, and finishes at the same time the following day. The usually hot conditions, combined commonly with rain, test drivers, their teams, and the cars alike and push all to the extreme.
Ferrari vs Ford
So Joe Honda was there documenting all that went on both on the course and those in the stands, the winners and losers. Honda’s photographs come from the period of 1967 through 1971, mark the final years of the dramatic Ford vs. Ferrari duel, and the rise of Porsche. Meanwhile, Japan was still watching from outside, well aware of the race, and starting their own moves into it.
“Back in the 1970s, people in Japan had seen the Le Mans film starring Steve McQueen and they were in awe of that race. As global makers participated with their formidable machines, Japan was still watching from the sidelines. We wondered if there would come a day when Japanese makers would also compete alongside them. Then finally, in the 1970s, Japanese drivers like Hiroshi Fushida became among the first to represent Japan at Le Mans with the Mazda 12A powered Sigma MC73s. They paved the way for greater participation as the 1980’s saw Toyota machines enter the race and in 1991, Mazda became the first Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans” recounts Katsuhiko Inatomi, the project manager at the Fuji Motorsport Museum.
Masanori Sekiya, first Japanese driver in history to ever win 24 Heures du Mans recalls Honda’s photographs of the race clearly. “No other Japanese photographers had captured 24 Heures du Mans when Joe Honda ventured there in 1967. If his photographs from that era didn’t exist, Le Mans would be an imaginary world that we would only be able to explain with words. Joe captured this race’s legacy, allowing drivers like us to reflect on the images of the past and connect and explain our experience to others. The human drama conveyed in Joe’s images makes it easier for people to understand our shared heritage.”
On the centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Inatomi also sees the importance and power of Honda’s photographs, and why they are important today for the legacy of the race.
“Joe Honda’s images evoke the formidable power of the racing machine, the fervor of the crowd and the reality of Le Mans in that era – in short: the images transport us back in time while reminding us of the enduring legacy of the race as it marks its centenary.”
24 Hours of Le Mans: To the Limit – and Beyond (1967 – 1971) are on view in Japan at the Maison Franco-Japonaise, Tokyo, from June 8 to June 22, and at Fuji Motorsports Museum, Shizuoka, from June 9 through July 9. More of Joe Honda’s photographs can be seen here on his website www.joehonda.com.