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Back to the Beach for the 'Greatest Race on Earth'

Jonathan Thorpe heads to the Jersey shore for the 'Race of Gentlemen' with his Tamron SP 24-70mm VC G2 and SP 70-200mm G2 lenses.

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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Jonathan Thorpe

Every year, New Jersey celebrates "a simpler time, when guys were gentlemen and cars were king." That's the description on the website for the "Race of Gentlemen," an annual automotive festival that features races of classic cars and bikes and that, because of its carnival-like atmosphere, has been nicknamed "The Greatest Race on Earth." For the second time, Jonathan Thorpe, a motorcycle enthusiast himself, headed up to the auto fest from DC this year.

"I ride and build as a hobby, so it's fun to go down and watch these drag races on the beach and meet so many cool people," he says. "Everything is retro. The bikes have to be pre-World War II-style, and many people dress to match the period of their bikes. It's basically a weekend-long party."

The three-day festival begins with an opening party on Friday night with a band and beer brewing, and the second night there's a bonfire and more bands playing, with vendors selling their wares throughout the entire event. "Everyone's really nice, no one's fighting, no one's drunk," Jonathan says.

The two Tamron lenses Jonathan used to document the event this time around: the Tamron SP 24-70mm VC G2 and the SP 70-200mm VC G2. "I wanted a focal-length range that would enable me to tell the complete story of the weekend, from the details of the cars and bikes, to the races, to portraits of the participants," he says.

Thanks to a friend, Jonathan was able to secure pit access as a member of the media. "That meant I could go into the staging area where people were getting their bikes and cars ready for the races," he says. "Most people don't have a lot of access to that area, and once I was inside, everyone was very accommodating in terms of helping me with my pictures."

Naturally, among the goals on Jonathan's to-do list for this event was capturing the races themselves. "The first day of the event consists of the qualifiers, when you're getting your brackets together," he explains. "Then on the last day all of the winners from the first day compete against each other."

© Jonathan Thorpe

The course is about 100 yards long, meaning each race is over almost as soon as it begins. But even before the heats started, Jonathan focused on the flag girl, which he notes is a big deal at these type of shows. "It's a privilege to be asked to do it," he says. "They were actually training a new girl this year, so this may have been her first time. She had to run and jump, and it's pretty scripted—there's a particular way to time it just right. She must have done it a hundred times, and I was able to keep taking picture after picture. Having the 70-200 allowed me to stay in the same place and simply zoom in and out to change my perspective."

© Jonathan Thorpe

Jonathan also zeroed in on the classic bikes and cars, trying to keep what was going on in the background of his images to tell a fuller story. "I took a photo of this guy in his red car, but I had a bit of the Ferris wheel in the background peeking into the frame," he says. "What's funny is I had also taken a photo of a woman at the show with a bunch of tattoos, and I found out later that was his girlfriend."

© Jonathan Thorpe

But it was the portraits that Jonathan was most interested in capturing. "I've never thought a portrait should just be a portrait," he says. "You're telling a story with a picture of a person, so I like to set the scene. We were there for a reason—for the race and the motorcycles and cars. So those are the aspects I wanted to show, as well as the beach in general and being in New Jersey specifically."

The natural-looking portraits he sought at this event were easy to achieve. "I'd just ask the participants if they minded if I took a photo, and because I was carrying all of this gear, they knew I was a professional photographer and just let me do my thing," he says. "I didn't even really have to pose most of them—their faces all have so much character and photograph so well."

Jonathan brought along a strobe with a softlighter for his portraits. "I tried to position everybody so the sun was over their shoulders and not in their faces," he says. "Then I'd kill my exposure by a stop or two just to make sure the portrait subjects stood out from the background. These were all taken at midday, when the sun was the highest in the sky."

Only two women in total participated in this year's race, and Jonathan wanted to make sure he captured a photo of at least one, if not both. "I spotted this woman on line to race next," he says. "I had permission to go on the track, so I ran into the pit and asked her to look my way. She gave me a little smile for a natural, relaxed-looking photo."

© Jonathan Thorpe

Capturing some of the participants right after their races allowed Jonathan to show the emotion behind the event. "This guy in the aviator sunglasses had just completed his course," Jonathan says. "That's why there's sand all over his face. There was no posing at all: I tapped him on the shoulder, and as soon as he turned around, I fired a couple of pictures off. You could tell by the exhaustion on his face that he just wanted to get out of there and get some rest."

© Jonathan Thorpe

Some of the participants were so straight-faced that Jonathan tried to add levity to their photos. "I knew if I got this one guy to laugh it would make the portrait better, because he's such a serious, rough-looking dude," he says. "His buddy was standing next to him and I said, 'You have to make him laugh.' So the friend turned around and mooned him and that's when I snapped this image."

© Jonathan Thorpe

A few of the people who found their way in front of Jonathan's camera were repeat subjects. "I actually photographed the blonde in the bikini, who's a photographer in her own right, last year," he says. "She's only 23, but she has so much character that she looks like an old soul. She actually recognized me from 2016 and ran up to me to ask for another photo. It's crazy that with all of the photographers walking around this event that she remembered me. I was glad to take her photo again."

© Jonathan Thorpe

Jonathan even managed to capture the official festival photographer. "I saw him standing there and asked if I could take his picture," he says. "He had this old-time box camera, the type where you pull the cloth over your head and snap the photo. That's the actual camera he used to take pictures of everyone. He posed for me by slinging it over his shoulder. The first four or five images I took of him, he was staring directly at me, which I don't really love. I asked him to look off to the side and that image came out much better."

© Jonathan Thorpe

On the last day of the event, Jonathan, who will be showing these images in a DC-area exhibition in September, walked around and presented a photo to each person he'd taken a portrait of. "I would find my subject and say, 'Hey, this is the picture I took of you yesterday,'" he says. "They were so grateful. It was a great way to end the weekend."

To see more of Jonathan Thorpe's work, go to http://jthorpephoto.com.

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