Sicily Cycling Club had the pleasure to work with James Startt from Peloton Magazine here in Sicily for a photoshoot for Zipp. Besides the outcome of some beautiful pictures we also had the chance to sit down with James and talk a little about photographing and his career.
How and when did you start photographing?
I have been photographing cycling for nearly 30 years now. I started the same time as I started cycling back in the mid 1980’s. But at the time I never thought I would be a sports photographer. I went to art school at Indiana University and got a MA in art history with a concentration in photography, but street photography was my passion and I was inspired by artists like Garry Winogrand and William Klein. But I was a cyclist and was passionate about the sport and so I guess it was just a matter of time before I brought the two passions together. In the 1990’s I moved to Paris, France because of the artistic tradition and because Europe was the center of cycling. And I still live here and have my working base today.
How did you get into cycling and racing?
I actually started running while I was at university. I ran the New York City Marathon but I was always suffering from problems with injuries. Therefore I took up cycling and it just took off from there.
How do you plan on shooting a race - are you on Moto or standing by the road?
It is a mix - Sometimes I am on the moto and sometimes by the roadside. At the Tour de France I am always by the roadside. I try to shoot the start and the finish and some highlights in between.
When you are on a moto you obviously have more opportunies, but the problem is that you don't always have the time to think. When you are in a car you can go ahead of the race and chose a good spot with a good light and you have time to choose you frame for the photo, and just wait for the race to come. On the moto you have to stay 15-20 meters from the break or the pack and you have like 10-15 seconds to shoot pictures then you have to move away and let another photographer come in. The race organization has “regulators” which orchestrate the order of photographers.
Best advice for people who would like to photograph cycling?
Don't use cycling photography as a reference. What other kinds of photography are you attracted to? Look to other schools or styles of photography. Maybe it is fashion. Maybe it is commercial. Maybe it is landscape. Maybe it is crime photography. What other styles that you are interested in as a photographer?
See what you can apply from those styles to the sport. I came from street and fine art photographing. And I used these styles when I photographed cycling. Through this background and over the years I developed my own style as a cycling photographer.
Elaborate a little more about you style as a cycling photographer?
When I started photographing cycling, so much sports journalism seemed to be about stopping the action, but for me, cycling is all about movement, so I tried to capture that, often by letting the cyclists blur through the image while I focused on something static like a fan or a building, or sometimes I used some fill along with a slow shutter speed to get such effect.
Also, as a cyclist who raced for nearly a decade at a decent level, I know first hand that cycling is not always about winning...in fact most times it is not. As a result, I have worked on a series of photographs over the year that I call "After the Line." It focuses on the emotions of the cyclists after they have crossed the line. Sometimes they are celebrating victory, but often they are just exhausted and empty...I try to capture those seconds immediately after the race. Probably my favorite image from that series is one of Jens Voigt, moments after winning a stage in the 2006 Tour. His face is filled with emotion and the viewer gets more of a sense of wonder and disbelief than a celebration of victory. Framing is also hugely important in these moments as what is included in the edge of the frame can also add tension and drama to the central figure...that is something that street photography taught me, and it certain holds true in this image. Learning to build a frame takes a lot of work, and that is even more true when you only have a split second to do it.
Another project I have worked on for over a decade is "In The Buses"...I love this series because it captures the calm before the storm in a sense, as the riders take care of final details before going out into battle. Cyclists are rarely seen quiet moments that combine reportage and portraiture. In the last few years certain teams have photographers embedded within the team which is tremendous because there are so many great stories to tell behind the scenes. But I started this work in 2004, so I’ve got a historical perspective that is becoming interesting. One of the images that really set the project in motion was of Richard Virenque, who is momentarily lost in his own world as fans gaze in.
Such images are not easy to obtain today, but I have been doing it for so long, I can still manage to get a few moments in the buses, like with the young up-and-coming rider Julian Alaphilippe when he was leading the race in the recent Paris-Nice race. I love this picture and I love the way Alaphilippe has created his own little space in the bus, with different jerseys pulled over his seat and of course the stuffed lion awarded to the race leader.
How do you see the cycling scene now and then?
It is easy to be nostalgic about the past and there are certain things I miss. But I really like the present generation of riders. I find them interesting and many of them are more educated than many riders from past generations, or at least they have more diverse backgrounds. As a result, I talk to them about different aspects of life that I did not do to the same degree with past generation of riders in general. Also, because of the effort to stop doping - both from the governing bodies and the riders - I see a higher degree of openness in cycling today.
Name a rider of present generation that you like?
Romain Bardet I really like. He just got a Masters degree. I sat down with him last season at the end of the year. We just met in Paris in a bar and had a beer and we never talked about cycling. We talked about politics and other aspects of life I really enjoyed that.
Julian Alaphilippe is also a guy I like and I think he will surprise at the upcoming Paris-Nice (Ed: He actually wore the yellow jersey for several days in that race)
He is just an old-school bike racer in the best sense. He is always looking for opportunities and on the bike and is a tremendous technician. I think he will be one of the greatest riders of his generation.
But there are a ton of great riders. That is one thing that is so satisfying about covering the sport. There are just so many actors!