We have something a bit different today…a guest blog. And not just any old guest blog, either. This one is about the current state of cycling magazine photography, written Guy Andrews (the man who founded and edited Rouleur magazine). It’s though-provoking stuff, and not just a shameless plug for his new book.
In the Spring of 2007, at Gent–Wevelgem, I climbed up a tree on the Kemelberg, before the riders arrived for the first time to get a better view of the race. Once up there I watched, slightly transfixed, as German photographer Olaf Unverzart walked up the other side of the road and set up his box camera. There couldn’t have been anything more inappropriate to lug across the mud and cobbles of Flanders and the race was due any moment, but he almost nonchalantly picked his spot on a mound, high above the ten deep spectators that lined the road. He knew what was coming, so he climbed up the bank, set up and he had a clear shot of the cobbled road down the hill. Olaf made some wonderful double exposure photographs of bike racing in that period, usually just one a day. Timeless, ghostly and beautiful images that you can look at for hours and never tire of.
Cycling photography has become a bit of a ‘thing’ these days. It’s probably fair to say that I may have managed to help that along a bit myself, but cycling and photography have had similar historical paths to the present day, maybe that’s one of the reasons why many people love both: they’re both addictive and the inventions (the camera and the bike) are both perfect. Many photographers like cycling for that reason alone and many are now exploring the world of bike racing. But photography, like bicycle technology, is reaching a thin end of a wedge.
When Rouleur Magazine first started we used a few (only one or two) black and white stories, the pictures were contemporary, set in current racing, but the process was old-school. It looked different and surprisingly shocked a few people, but I was happy that it made an impression because it shook up the apples a bit. However some critics latched onto these few early stories and started saying stuff like it’s ‘retro’ and because it was black and white (the one I really hate) they said it was ‘Arty’ – like that’s a bad thing. I remember one reviewer saying that the photography was ‘unusual’ which I took as a compliment. I remember Ben Ingham and Herbie Sykes did a story on Evgeni Berzin, the ’94 Giro winner. It was as tragic as it was beautiful. Somebody said it was ‘too sad’ and it upset them. I thought well it’s reality, sometimes that’s tough. But if it’s that beautiful? Everything doesn’t always have a happy ending. I always wanted to break the formulaic approach of representing sport and sportspeople. Sure, sport is about life, about struggle and about cultures, competition is merely the entertainment and in cycling that entertainment happens in the real world, that’s what excites great photographers. And sometimes it’s sad.
Read any magazine feature about a bike rider these days and you see a clear formula: photographs of them racing back in the day and then some portraits of them now, usually in their home with their trophy collection and a pot of tea… that’s all fine and dandy, but where’s any emotional connection? Just saying that this is now ‘behind the scenes’ is simply not enough, because photographers are not doing their job unless their pictures challenge ‘something,’ anything. And does it tell us anything new or unexpected, other than just a world coloured-in beige? Right now that’s all I see.
Fundamentally this shows a distinct lack of understanding of photography — not the technical, but the cultural aspect. Reportage photography is more than a tool to record what everybody else can clearly see already. It should inform the viewer and challenge them to consider and reconsider, it should inspire them to think and question, it should provoke emotion. Simply shooting ‘In the style of…’ or believing that ‘adding a filter’ to get an ‘effect’ or (horror of horrors) simply by turning it black and white – cosmetic but if the image below is meaningless, it will remain that way.
At one point you could differentiate between the work out there too, in 2008 Camille McMillan, Rein van Der Wouw, Taz Darling and Tim Kölln all went to the same races, but shot very different things and made some very individual statements – because they all have a unique and individual style and wanted to say something very personal. Your photographic/visual voice is what differentiates the intention, execution and the content of the work – which is why the work is original when the voice is personal and honest.
Only this week, I looked at a series of galleries from the spring classics, not only did I see work heavily aped, but all the galleries looked pretty-much identical. It may sound harsh, but I cannot believe some of the blatantly lazy copying and hackneyed nonsense that perfectly competent photographers are trying to pass off as original work. That is pretty depressing to see. This is where the ‘cycling photography rules’ come into play, or ‘Belgian Bicycle Photography Bingo’ as I like to call it. There are dozens of photographers (as we speak) in Belgium taking pictures of toothless old people, Flandrian flags and children asking for autographs (not forgetting the beer and frites) and therefore depicting a clichéd and patronising representation of Belgian racing culture, but is this doing any good? It’s turning into some sort of bizarre National Geographic social-photo-documentary experiment rather than a true reflection of the sport. It’s like there’s a checklist of shots to ‘get’ when most often one good one would do it.
When starting Rouleur magazine I set out to try something different, and now everything’s looking alike again. In 2005 it was certainly easier to make a difference and perhaps magazines have now cherry-picked some of those ideas we started (although in fairness very few ideas in magazines are completely ‘new’ and there is a marked difference between inspiration and influence to simply copying). So you can now get something a bit similar, but perhaps a bit cheaper. That’s not sour grapes that’s just the solid fact of publishing, we had a good run of it and I knew that eventually people would catch-on. In fairness much of what we were doing was emulating the late, great Jock Wadley who had a great eye for a photograph and his covers of The Coureur and Sporting Cyclist were true gems of magazine design. But I digress, copying is a reality of consumer magazine publishing and usually it’s the publishing house with the most horsepower who ‘wins’.
Photographers need to make a living and so they simply shoot what they are asked to, follow the ‘cycling photography rules’ and never try anything different. In all honesty though, this is the fault of the editor, not the photographers, and how many editors actually understand or even appreciate what makes a decent photograph? In the main, like publishers, they just want it cheap and to look like what the other mags are doing. An old publisher I worked for many years ago once said to me, ‘just use something average, it makes the ads look better’ and I’m not sure that attitude has changed that much. Keep to path of least resistance, keep it safe.
There’s a distinct lack of consistency too and it is the responsibility a photographer carries to understand the strength of their visual commentary – so holiday snaps just don’t do the job. As a result, what we have now is dozens of perfectly technically capable photographers who all produce piles of very adequate work – albeit with predictable, one dimensional and dull results. Nobody appears to consider what they are doing or why, it’s just ‘carpet bomb’ the thing from every possible angle and hope that something turns up in the edit. It’s safe, it’s over-familiar and it’s being over-done.
Perhaps having to get the images published way too fast has also skewed the quantity over quality for good too and many would argue that modern technology hasn’t really helped photography, it’s just made it quicker, cheaper, easier and perhaps more environmentally friendly, but I’m not convinced that the work is any better – I’d actually say, in the wrong hands, it’s getting worse. Film meant photographers took more time, they would take the camera down from their face every once in a while and actually have a look at what was going on but what’s to stop people still working this way?
I was watching a race the other day from 1988 and as a break went away from the peloton, the photographer on a moto watched and waited for the riders to accelerate and settle down into their rhythm, then, as one of them counter attacked, he took one shot. It happened to be the race I was researching for another book and I was trying to find out where and when this impeccably timed photograph was taken, and there it was as plain as day: the single perfect shot. The best racing work is usually when the photographer had to take his time, reload a film or look and wait to see a situation develop, then taken the one shot that mattered.
If you are a sports photographer all this fuss is probably a good thing, if it’s not ‘arty’ or ‘risky’ you’re after, if it’s newsworthy podiums and finish lines then there’s still plenty of work to be done out there and I have a lot of respect for that. Events need to be recorded and if that’s the intention, so be it. It’s a bloody hard job requiring long nights in sweaty press rooms, relentless travel, awful food and terrible hotels and those folks work extremely hard, but my gripe isn’t about them. Maybe at this point I should also acknowledge that many of the best photographers move on at some point, that is that all of their work is transient, they may work on a single subject all their lives and revisit it from time to time. Or they are happy with what they have done and move on naturally to the next subject for them. Or they may decide that the road has become crowded enough and they’re done. Every dog has it’s day, and all that.
I had the privilege of working with Magnum Photo Agency several times during my time as editor at Rouleur, their work is unique and their members are, arguably, the best in the business. So when I had the chance to do a book of their cycle racing work, it was a dream job come true (shameless plug: Published by Thames and Hudson at the end of April). Looking back over the collections of these great photographers, highlighted several things – that they have an amazing hit rate, they shot very little, and what they did shoot and publish was exceptional.
Robert Capa followed the 1939 Tour de France and shot just 35 rolls of film, some of the contact sheets are only half bike racing, some from other places. He probably had a few days off (it looked as if he’d spent a few days on the French Riviera, but he was fond of a party, so who can blame him?) despite that, what comes off these contact sheets is how he worked, you can almost see him thinking and exploring through the pictures before he finds his shot – photography has always been all about the decisive moment, and Capa was a maestro. It’s interesting to note that many of photographers view the ‘either side of the moment’ which carpet-bombing produces – as being the ‘almost the moment’ shots.
Elsewhere in the archive is work by photographers embedded in teams: Harry Gruyeart’s story about Bernard Hinault at the 1982 Tour de France and Guy Le Querrec’s about Laurent Fignon and the Renault team a couple of years later (it was 30 years ago, but behind the scenes at a training camp never looked so fresh and despite the volume of ‘similar’ work recently created, this has never been bettered for creativity and true photographic legacy).
The Magnum project taught me a couple of things about photography: firstly; whatever you think is a good shot of a post-race portrait, crowd scene, or a racing landscape, a Magnum photographer probably got there first. And secondly that truly talented photographers make a lot more of something they don’t understand than an average photographer would of something they do understand – and that being a ‘fan’ makes you the worst kind of commentator – your view is wholly biased and subconsciously will attempt to influence the audience.
This is why so called ‘behind the scenes’ is now more marketing than reportage – one is simply dressed in the ‘style’ of the other. Many of the best photographs taken around a bike race were taken by people who’d never seen a race before and probably had no idea what the Tour de France was – they may not ‘understand’ the celebrity pecking order or racing strategy, but they do understand people, emotions and humour. They may have only, especially in the case of Martine Franck, taken a couple of frames, but those frames are worth a lifetime of some of the work we see today.
If Magnum Photography is a bit ‘arty’ for you, then take a look at the late, great Bernard Thompson’s work or Gerry Cranham’s fabulous sporting archive or simply buy a copy of Visions of Cycling by Graham Watson (who is still shooting today). Graham’s 1989 book is still one of my favourite cycling photography books, it has pictures the likes of I’ve seen a thousand times since and some you’ll never see again, but it’s his timing that’s important – every one a winner.
I hope these comments don’t get misconstrued and I’m not saying ‘stop taking pictures everyone, ‘cos it’s all been done,’ because I love photography and I love cycling. All I’m asking is for people to take a few risks and be mindful there is a dire need right now to strive for originality and authenticity – because that is your responsibility if you want to be taken seriously as photographer. Just to stop and think occasionally, because cycling’s a fast, fun and furious sport – so you need to take your time.