Interview: Rapha Australia

Stuart Downie of Rapha UK interviewed me about shooting one of their recent Explore projects in Australia:

Stuart Downie: Tell me about the vibe in the group – what were these guys like to ride with?

I landed in Australia with Jack Saunders (Art Director Sportif) and Verity Copeland (Jack’s wife and lovely friend and a rider on the shoot) a day before everyone else arrived. The three of us did a little shakedown/exploratory ride to check out the area the viability/rideability of a couple roads. This little intersection was not too far from our lodge that we stayed at, and I kind of tucked it into my mental rolodex of Nice Places To Take A Photo.

I started our shoot day by riding out with these three- Pat Drapac, Katya Crema, and Hamo Low- and think I feigned a slight mechanical or something so that they would stop here. It was a white-hot summer day and the sun was already high in the sky, so I had to do some Ansel Adams zone system exposure work to get the tones where I wanted them. It was a sweaty, hot, insanely bright and squinty day. 

The vibe of the group was excellent, I really love having a mix of men and women on the ride cause I find things become far more social, a bit more laid back all-around, and more fun in general :)

Love the joy in this one. Do you speak to your subjects much, or let others interact with them? I’m guessing there’s someone over your shoulder that he’s interacting with? It feels like we’re riding with him here, but I’m guessing it’s from a car?

Oh god, Pat Drapac, what an amazing human. We’d probably be close friends if we lived in the same place. Hi, Pat! I was shooting out of the side door of our minivan, and he’s having a laugh with Jack, who is driving. My overall goal with shooting cycling, or anything for that matter, is getting a mix of intimacy and a feeling of first-person participation and that you’re right in the mix (or observing it as a fly on the wall).

I love having someone else act as a foil to the point that the subject is just fully engaged elsewhere, and not with my camera, as it lets things just flow in a way where you’re getting the most absolutely natural expressions. The ride at that moment in time was one of those situations where everything is clicking: smooth road, gradual descent, effortless pedal strokes, wind on your face, sun on your skin. Pure joy in riding.

This spot looks great – when you found it, did they ride it over and over to give you options? Or is this a full send home run? Again, love the vibes.

Tell me too about location scouting – do you do much in advance – Google maps and the like – or do you like to give yourself time to Explore on location if you can?

This was another spot we scouted on our first day’s ride, Jack spotted it off the gravel trail we were riding. We think it’s actually a motocross course, somewhat similar to a MTB flow trail, but half the trail went uphill, which takes out the “flow” when you’re on a bicycle. For me there’s a lot of comedy in the photo: Hamo’s thick application of zinc below his eyes, the fact that he’s riding a 650b rando low trail bike on a flow trail, the sheer look of brawny “Australian-ness” in his eyes and his body as he rails the berm.

We almost never do location scouting, but sometimes it’s helpful to ride a trail or road beforehand to get a sense of where the good angles are, where there might be a good vista or switchback curve to document, etc. But I try to avoid/not lean too heavily on stationary shots where I’m standing on the side of the road, waiting for the riders to pass me by. I feel like they’re often to sedentary feeling, a little too removed from the exhilarating feeling of motion and inertia that I correlate to riding myself.

This shot has a real sense of tranquility for me. I can hear a breeze moving that grass, feel it almost, smell it. What do you remember about it? Often the end product looks vastly different to the feeling of being there... do you find that much?

This view was at the top of a beautiful dirt climb we rode as a group (it was impassable to vehicles, so I rode it and shot off the bike). At the top, we were rewarded with this painterly vista. Everything was tranquil: grasses calmly bending and swaying in the breeze, the road cutting a perfect S-curve through the landscape, a moment to just stop and revel in the place. In this case, the photo brings me right back to that place and those emotions.

This looks later in the day – is that right? Your trademark warm tones really sing with this setting and style of riding in my opinion. One of the things I love about this selection is the variety – close, far, in front, to the side – do you like moving about a lot? What are some of the things you’re ideally conveying in a cycling shoot? That feeling of movement maybe?

Yes, definitely movement, always. Oscillating in and out, macro to micro, sometimes about the expansiveness of a vista and sometimes about the curve of an eyelash. I think it’s how we create memories. They’re never at a fixed distance, they’re always a cascade of moments, sometimes intimate and sometimes incomprehensibly vast and wide; I definitely bring that ethos into the projects I shoot. Without sounding absolutely, eye-rollingly cliché, I think a lot about making photos that feel like they’re part of your memory of an experience, but captured in real time.

Cycling is so many things for me, but one of the things that’s kept me rolling out the door with my bike for over twenty years, multiple days a week, is for the sensory—and in turn— emotional experiences that hit you in waves when riding. You can never be numb on a bike. You’re always feeling something, whether its the magnificent sensation of picking up speed on a twisting descent, a meditative slow roll to the city coffee shop, absolute pain and fatigue during a race, the sun toasting the tops of your forearms. All things felt on the bike that I try to bring into photographic cycling.

This one makes me feel a real party to the relationship/vibes between the rider. I don’t think Pat and Hamo had met before this – do you get to see friendships blossom often on shoots like this? What difference does it make to the shoot when they truly get on?

Pat and Hamo definitely struck up a beautiful bromance on the trip to Adelaide. Not to keep waxing on and on about the wonders of cycling, but it’s truly such a terrific way to quickly get to know a group of people. It’s one thing to meet a stranger over coffee and have a limited canvas to share experiences and commonalities, but on the bike, there’s immediate camaraderie and teamwork and a lot of care you need to show for one another. I can learn more about someone on a two hour ride than I could in a day of… sitting in an office or eating meals or sitting in a car with someone I just met.

There’s also the physical element of riding- you have to read how someone rides and quickly discover their mannerisms and preferences and habits— all occurring nonverbally—and that can sometimes teach you more than a conversation. The folks at Rapha are definitely matchmakers, and I’ve never been on a shoot where we didn’t have a group of riders that gel together quite well by the end of the first day.

This has a real fairy tale vibe – the way the trees are almost closing around Katya. Tell me about what leads your eye/edit, do you look to show a range of emotion? I guess some people might shy away from a more ominous/foreboding shot like this? Maybe you don’t see it that way!

I definitely shoot to tell a story and show an oscillating sense of perspective and energy and flow (can you tell I live in California?). The edit needs to have a sense of pacing and varied high and low points. Given the nature of riding, there will always be high points and low points :)

This photo is so fun. I don’t know if it has been communicated to you (I expect so) that historically we’ve maybe been a bit too serious in the way we portray riding. What does riding mean to you? Do shots like this speak to you more as a rider, and of your experience of riding?

Rapha? Serious? No!?!? I’ve historically been diametrically opposed to the early Rapha slogan of “suffer” or “suffer for glory” or whatever it was. I remember shooting early Continentals in the 2011-13’s and it was written on the front of the Rapha NA Sprinter and I always wanted to rip it right off.

Cycling has NEVER been about suffering for me. Ever-ever. It’s an element of riding for some, especially racers, but quite literally, everyone I know whose Northern Star in cycling has been ‘suffering’ has unequivocally burnt out, often leaving the sport for good. Why would you chose to love a thing that continues to hurt you and provide you no joy? I don’t understand it. Riding for me is about elation and exploration and shared experiences and community and self-growth, all created under your own power and often bringing you to the most stunning, faraway parts of wilderness. I’m happy that Rapha has changed their tack and chosen to show the type of cycling that drew me into this life and keeps me stoked to get back on the bike every time I go for a ride.

Another new and interesting perspective on the group riding. Are you drawn to one aspect over another? If you could only shoot one angle on riders, what would it be? How did you get this high?

This was Jack’s idea, a nod to the transition from road to dirt that we all encounter, especially under the context of the “Explore” series. There’s an obvious metaphor here about ‘finding your own road’ or the adage of ‘searching for stoke yadda yadda’, but there’s something that’s admittedly very exciting about popping off smooth tarmac onto gravel lightly crushing underneath your tires… that feeling that you’re heading somewhere a little off the beaten path, less cars, more fun. The top down at an angle was just a way to depict this in a more visually clean manner, and was obtained by my handing my camera to Jack, taking off my shoes, jumping onto the roof of the van, then having Jack pass my camera up to me. If you stand on the roof of a rental car wearing socks, the rental agency will never know, but they might try to charge you if they see sneaker marks up there, as I’ve learned.

Could be the first time a mountain bike has appeared in a Rapha shoot. How does that feel? We’ve crossed the rubicon! I love the vibes in this too – super fun. I guess the takeaway from this selection is that they all feel like great fun.

Presuming they were shot over a few days, is it difficult to keep the vibes good?

Also, I heard you cooked for the guys – do you find that helps build camaraderie in the group? An all-for-one type of feeling? 

It is the first time a MTB has been in a Rapha shoot, I’m honored to be the person who documented it. Honestly we had a blast the entire time. Rapha shoots are never work, they are simply amazing trips to faraway places, rounded out with a stellar crew of excellent humans who head out on some phenomenal rides and enjoy our time together in the homes we stay in as well.

It’s never difficult to keep the vibes high… going back to the notion of suffering and staying away from that, we’re not running a boot camp and it’s not a photoshoot, it’s a mini-holiday where I want everyone to be excited to be there from the first to the last day, and you do that by making it an enjoyable trip. I know when to bring the camera out and when to keep it down, in the house, in transit, and on the road.

We’re all in it together, whether we’re in front or behind the camera. We all cook and clean and enjoy being in one another’s company. I do love to cook, and did make a meal or two for the crew, one that Hamo’s virgin Australian-British palette found extraordinarily spicy, I think he drank a thousand glasses of water and his face turned bright red. The poor guy was so hungry after such a long day of riding and all he wanted was a plain, bountiful, English meal, and I cooked the spiciest curry of his life Sorry, Hamo!