Interview: Rapha Scotland

Stuart Downie of Rapha UK interviewed me about shooting one of their recent Explore projects in Scotland. Here’s the transcript: 

Stuart: I grew up on the east coast, near Edinburgh, but I’ve been to the islands round here. It’s such a wild and beautiful place.  Broadly... had you been before? What were you expecting? What were you looking forward to?

Jake: I try to not go into any new place with much in the way of expectations or notions, in the past I’ve found it a really terrific way to pigeonhole the experience and/or not stay open to unexpected surprises and potential experiences. It’s like going to India and being like “I can’t wait to try how they do Saag Paneer” because it’s what I think I know of India, but in this case there are a hundred more exciting dishes I’d never know about or be open to trying because I’m so hellbent on getting Saag Paneer. In this case, and most cases, I just look at the weather and bring enough clothes to stay cool/warm/dry, make sure the cameras are fully charged, and make sure I’m not late for my flight.

I always remember someone telling me quite early on that railway tracks and brick walls are photographic clichés, but forget that small-mindedness, I love this shot. It’s got a sense of enclosed-ness, but also of opportunity, and adventure – that moody sky spilling in above, those overhanging trees... and the tones. Tell me what made you want to make this picture? Did you just come across the location or did you have to go looking for it?

I think it’s ok to shoot a cliché as long as it’s in a general context of other, better shots. Clichés are nice for a reason, they’re the pop songs we cant help but love even if we somewhat outwardly have to say we hate them. Most any Britney Spears top 40 song is a good example. On the Scotland shoot, the narrative arc/storyline was that we all met up in St. Pancras Station in London and took an overnight sleeper train up to someway faraway in Scotland. We all trundled onto the train with a thousand bags of product, proceeded to drink the dining car out of most of their finest, more affordable Scottish whiskey, then retired to bed at a reasonable hour.

I think, honest to god, it was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in the past decade. Maybe it was the whiskey, maybe it was that I was in a bunk bed under a sleep-talking Kimberly English, maybe it was the tight, womblike confines of the bed or the rollicking and rolling train. I woke up so clear-minded and looked out the window of this mystical foggy Scottish land, verdant and rugged, was moving past my window. I jumped out of bed (taking care to not bonk my head on anything in our 1 square meter cabin), grabbed my camera, and started running around the train taking photos like a madman, including this one. I had a nice moment with Josh Greet in the back of the train as we stood staring out the rear window, hypnotized by the undulating sight of the tracks disappearing behind is, getting our wits about us and excited for the trip that lay ahead. That’s around when I took this photo.

There’s something special about ferry crossings on a bike for me. They disconnect you from time in a way. Tell me about this setting, how did you find the spot to shoot it from, did you direct the guys in it, or did they happen to arrange themselves?

There’s seldom, if ever, a “scout day” on a Rapha shoot. It’s very fly by the seat of your pants, and I think it keeps my little antennas perked up all the way all day long. You never know what might be around the corner, proverbially or just like a really cool road. So I’m constantly looking about and weighing decisions about weather to run ahead or sit tight and shoot from the front or back of the van, etc.

With this, our good friend Jack Saunders, Art Director/Van Driver/Gentleman/Friend/Amazing Human Being had set up a ferry ride to cross a small bay. I’ve seen small ferries, but I’ve never seen a ferry that could only take pedestrians and bikes. As we were loading the bikes on (I doubt the ferry had EVER had five such nice bikes on it before), I was running around (in cross shoes) getting some wider angles that contextualized the Scottish-ness of the experience.

I definitely try to remove my own personal context of the experience and think about how a photo will work for someone who is dropped into the photo with no background on the scenario. In this case, it was so much more than just five nice bikes on a ferry, so it became pertinent to pull way back and show the hills, the water, the colors. The photographic focus on product often comes dead last, but it’s always contextually linked back into the moment, which I love about shooting for Rapha. As James Fairbank once told me “we can always get the product in studio, so just shoot what’s cool out here” or something to that effect (it was much more convivial and eloquent).

What do you remember about the boat crossing?

That it was quite short, only about 10 minutes, so there wasn’t much time to do anything other than feel so lucky that we were about to embark on a couple days of incredible riding with some terrific new company, and that we should revel and be present in that. That’s what I remember. Happy as clams. Oh and that Hamo has the perfect lüft on his beanie.  

I love this, all the detail in the clouds – did you shoot this job on MF too? Again – what’s it like shooting riders? What were the challenges in Scotland, did they differ from Adelaide (I think it rained quite heavily one day, I was actually on Arran while you guys were, but I was on holiday!)

I’ve shot everything on a medium format digital camera for Rapha for a couple years. It’s a Phase One XF camera, which is really meant for photographing Kate Moss in a castle or flowers that don’t move or Ferraris in a studio, absolutely not for shooting quickly moving motion, in drizzling rain, hanging out the back of a vehicle at 30 kmh. From a camera/weather perspective, Scotland was often rainy and Australia was hot and dry and dusty, and my camera hated both of them. Jack caught me cursing at it a lot, but when the camera hits, it really hits, and that’s why I keep just dealing with the single-point focus and lenses that have more indecision focusing than a squirrel trying to cross the road. It’s honestly horrible.  Please, Phase One, make a better camera for people not shooting models in a studio.

I’ve photographed cycling professionally since 2011, and shooting out of a van is the angle I’ve exhausted the most. Anyone who shoots a lot of cycling out of a vehicle can attest to the same thing. You have a front angle out the passenger window, a side shot out of the sliding door, then the rear angles out the boot. You switch it up over and over and over, but I really try to not take the same shot over and over just with the new season’s rider and jersey color.

I grew up riding MTB in the early 2000s, then got into trials, then cracked my leg in half doing that and got into road, then cross, and now long distance dirt. As my fitness got better in recent years, I decided to try riding within the pack of riders, still with the Phase slung around my shoulder, because I desperately wanted new angles and the kind of visual intimacy I have when I’m riding in a pack. So that’s been a new, dicey, supremely risky endeavor but so far I’m pretty excited about the potential to embed and get cycling images that feel participatory and feel like you’re there, cause the photo was taken off the bike, mid-ride. They might not be perfectly exposed and focused, but I’ll take feeling over technical execution any day.

I wondered about this if you crop the head out so that the viewer can imagine themselves in the scene? Or was it more just that the composition worked like that?

And if you imagine that you’re the subject of this photograph, what is it you’re making? Tea? Coffee? Something else? Following on from that, tell me what your go-to shoot pick-me-up is – do you have a little treat to boost yourself when you’re flagging, because I bet shoots like these are exhausting.

Honestly Josh Greet is too handsome and I was worried it would take the attention off the bag. Sorry, Josh!

We were making coffee on a sopping wet day and the grass was too damn wet to enjoy sitting in it. I don’t think I have too much of a go too… the good thing about doing long dirt rides is that it teaches me what it feels like to be truly physically and mentally depleted, so as long as I have some water, food, and nearby access to a toilet, I’m pretty happy.

This is pure magic.

I’m a big fan of your work. I like seeing how you see places, the way you view of something. Scotland to me is a bit greyer, a bit bluer and cooler, but yours is still warm – tell me how it felt to you to be there, what are your enduring memories?

I think we partially lucked out with the weather… every day gave us a smorgasbord of sun and rain and dramatic clouds and dynamic mysticism, often all piled one atop each other; I think this photo was taken in one of those moments. I used to shoot a lot more film, particularly Kodak Portra, which naturally has some warmth and ruddy tones to it, and I think over time, my eye has really just settled into that color palette. Though, honestly, I think I’m missing a couple rods and cones in my eyeballs that make things more warm and red/yellow than they actually are, but it just looks normal-ish to me.

This was atop a short climb (by Californian standards), and Dan and Hamo were just having a laugh (laff?) and I was on foot, running backwards, trying to make sure I got the moment. I’m a golden retriever and there’s not much to my work, it’s just really about keeping the mood light and not making it about a pHoToShOoT, but a really terrific day of riding, to the point where everyone drops their guard and I just just creep in with my camera and get some nice fly-on-the-wall observed moments.

Here’s the rain! This shot is so great, it’s like Reservoir Dogs or something, so hard-hitting. Did they just stop like this? What can you tell me about it? Were you riding here too? The path looks pretty small... 

This was an epic day, an epic hour of riding on an epic road, an epic storm that had just rolled through, and an epic location. The situation was like a heavy metal 80s hair band playing the climax of their craziest stadium rock song.

Jack and I came up on these guys drying out, getting a little food, and just looking awesome and badass. But everything just felt very heroic and… quite grand in this moment. There was no rejiggering of the scene or people’s positions, it just took me walking a couple steps over and getting the shot. I kinda hate telling people where to stand and what to do. I might give a suggestion of “it would be cool if you were to ride this line here” or “do you mind sitting in this nice patch of sun” but that’s about the extent of it.

I think this is the sort of shot you don’t normally see in cycling edits, it might get called flavour and just get left out, but it’s almost tangible for me in the way it adds such substance, it’s like an entire dish on its own (yes, I’ve made it into a food metaphor, I’m sorry!). What made it catch your eye?

What makes you choose things like this to add to edits? Do you ever think of photography as being like food?

I think life, or photo essays, or music, or food, would be pretty boring if it were all bangers and no nuance. Look at any good piece of prose or music album or meal: you need some highs and lows, some loud and quiet, some pacing and variability. I think it was The Pixies that said “we play loud and we play quiet”. And on top of all this, how fucking boring would it be to see photo after photo of just riders in the latest Rapha? It defeats the point of traveling to these places and providing some environment to ride through and engage with.

It would be a pity to breeze by all this goodness, and only make a circle jerk photo essay about bikes and looking fast and cool (needless to say, we are fast and cool). Luckily these Explore shoots are a carte blanche to shoot whatever is of interest in the areas we roll through and stop at, from the fuzzy mossy mountainsides to the quaint tablecloths of a location Scottish restaurant to incidental portraits of the people we meet along the way. The whole point of riding through these places is to experience the joys and novelty of travel, so this little photo is one such moment.

This photo makes my knees feel cold! But it’s so cosy. I imagine that sometimes making product photos can feel a bit paint-by-numbers. This has so much character (I know Jess quite well, I’d say she tends to hide the goofiness but this perfectly encapsulates it). Tell me about how this moment came together?

I’m interested in how you work through client requests (i.e. we need a shot of this jacket, or a shot of these shorts). Do you like it to be quite organic or have you developed a way of getting them in so you know you’ve got what they want, giving yourself a safety net kinda thing, allowing you to be free as you go?

Speaking of fast and cool! Jess is just terrific. I mean, to tell a mini story, Rapha used to make a lot fewer things. I came in after the great Ben Ingham Classic Collection days where the Rapha line was one jersey, one bib, and one cap, but in the early days, the product range was more limited and the focus was always always always the stories and moments first, never about the product. It’s always organic and happened upon. I do little to no placement of people in a certain zone and generally eschew giving direction, I prefer being patient in letting the right moment to crystalize.

The company obviously keeps ramping up the collections and the features, but I still very much stick with this ethos of caring about the moment. The photos are generally about these riders I follow, and they’re always wearing Rapha, so that product tie-in is not difficult to maintain. It would be pretty boring to essentially make a bunch of studio product photography in the field, and I’d rather use the opportunity to catch a moment that’s about the person, the emotion, and the beautiful thing that was happening in that briefly stopped moment in time.