As per my usual morning routine of taking the shame-train in to work, making an espresso with 4 sugar packets, eating saliva with a side of Tylenol for breakfast, and then finally sitting down to peruse whatever there might be over at Trackosaurus Rex, I was puzzled to find there are now two new books competing for the ever elusive title of “most credible thing on the streets.” You know, this subculture really does care about who has paid their dues, and who has not — who is an outsider looking in, and who happened to be in from the beginning. It makes for a nasty mess of in-fighting and back-biting, to be quite honest.
The first book coming out is by photographer, Beryl Fine. The book is simply a collection of portraits of bicycle-couriers against a white back drop, ala Avedon. Without romanticizing the situation or providing some sort of overwrought and terribly thin reason for why these portraits should or should not be acceptable as art or otherwise, let’s just face facts – the book is coming out whether we agree with it or not. The messengers pictured should feel glorified, as anyone having their portrait taken should feel a bubble of pride swelling - though the consumers who this book is aimed at seem to be a bit puzzled, given the comments on the Tracko-blog. Perhaps this is the reason for the hate: it is a self-gratifying and semi-masturbatory product that only the 23 people involved seem to care about. I mean, we all got school photographs taken but no one would want a book filled with them except our own mothers. Most of all, though, the main charge is that showing couriers standing still while holding up, or leaning against their bikes does not “capture the scene” and does not glorify their deeds and hardwork enough! Of course, the standing portrait before a white backdrop may not be the most creative way to photograph a person who pushes parcels all day long to no thanks for the recipients, but it is still a widely accepted and classic “portrait” technique - so for that fact alone the criticism is moot (not to make the easy comparison again, but when Avedon did this exact same thing he was indeed able to capture the “inner essence” of the sitter – not to say that Beryl is or is not as good as old Avedon, that’s a point for a different post…) So, sure – a portrait of a cyclist should lend itself to some sort of action shot, or a portrait taken in the person’s “natural environment” – but that’s a choice that rests entirely on the shoulders of the artist and it’s not a place any critic should violate. Besides, the fact is that a good portion of the messenger’s day does in fact involve sitting around, rolling and smoking joints, and hollering at pretty girls — sit at The Wall or One Post for an hour and tell me otherwise. People stand around, it’s totally human activity, it is not a big deal to pose them in such a way despite the fact that a majority of their time might/might not be spent riding their bikes. Luckily, we have a second book coming out to fill that gap (though, it should be noted here that both of these books seem to be filling gaps that might not even really need to be filled…)
Matt Lingo has a book forthcoming as well, and it is the exact opposite of Beryl’s book – and he’s quick to point that out himself. What Matt has done, per his promotional copy, is: ” …spent seven months working with over 50 riders in San Diego, and hauling generators/cameras/studio lights out on location to photograph them in traffic.” On Location. Yes, he is treating his traffic as though it is a movie set with him sitting in the directors chair. Car in the way of an otherwise nice shot? Re-shoot! Sun behind a tree? Light it up! Too much traffic? Block off the street! At what point do we call this a “set” and not an actual slice of real life? You can see my point – there is not much that is honest about this take on “riding in traffic” and it could be called “performing for a camera”. The whole balance of his book is based on the fact that he is shooting photographs of riders in their natural habitat (outside, on a street with cars), yet he is adding generators, lighting and cameras into that habitat where they don’t already exist. If Beryl is allowed to pull messengers from their gritty streets and drape them in front of a white backdrop, then I suppose Matt should be granted the freedom to set up a street as though it is a controlled studio and re-create traffic for the camera. It is a bit frustrating, though, that his stance is so one-sided and that he is so vocal about that. Historically speaking, bikes used to exist in a world without any traffic at all, save for the occasional horse pulled buggy. A bike surely has meaning inside traffic, but it also has meaning outside of it.
Mainly, though, I find it hard to believe that there is a right and a wrong way to photograph a person who rides a bike – though this seems to be a point which he hangs his entire portfolio on.
The main intention here is not to critique or trash either book, though; the main point is that in the comments section for the post about Beryl’s book, there is a sort of disparaging remark from Matt Lingo himself. Had one cycling-photo-book maker not publically called out another fellow cycling-photo-book maker then we wouldn’t be here to ponder these things, but he did and thus opened himself up to the world:
that sounds like one hell of an experience pig pen. having to deal with those kinds of weather conditions for eight hours straight all while dodging
the kind of traffic you’re talking about, that would make for some good pictures that would really show us what it’s like. but seeing twenty three
messengers standing over their bikes or nonchalantly posing in the studio really doesn’t even give us any idea of what you’re talking about.
the only thing this project “captures of the scene” is how you dress, what you look like, and what your bikes look like which is something that’s been done numerous times before. so while i’m sure your job is very difficult, i’m sure i don’t see traffic/hail that feels like needles/dedication that you’re talking about in any of these pictures.
By his own argument, his very book is just as unnecessary and contrived as the one he criticizes! He rightly points out that all Beryl’s book provides is an intimate look into how a certain slim subculture dresses themselves – while insinuating that a book showing riders in traffic would be much more appropriate (which sounds an awful lot like the book he is working on!) For Matt, placing messengers in a studio and snapping their photograph is somehow a disgrace, yet re-enacting a traffic scene for a still camera, complete with studio lighting and generators, is acceptable by all means. He’s allowed himself the use of controlling studio factors such as lighting, power generators, and posing of his models - but so long as there is no white backdrop, he’s capturing something much more real and can sleep better at night knowing he is contributing an honest portrait to the world. A portrait that apparently we’ve been lacking so badly that there are now two books tackling the topic!
I do not mean to be so hard on Matt here – I applaud anyone that goes out and makes something by themselves with little or no help from anyone else, and a photo-book is a tough endeavor these days. What upsets me is his comment to another person who is out there, doing much the same thing as him. His stance that he is more “in the scene” amounts to nothing more than the stinkiest and most effete snobbery, and the back-biting will not get a person very far. It’s a tiny, tiny world we live in and criticizing a fellow bicycle-book-photographer is just in poor taste. Mud slinging is for politics!
There is a very small chance that I am entirely mistaken, though. Looking back at the Tracko-blog, Beryl’s book was announced/posted on the second of June, Matt Lingo’s comment appeared on Bery’s post on the third of June, and lastly on the fourth of June the announcement/post for his book pops up fresh on the home page. I imagine this could be a divine sort of marketing ploy meant to drum up some enthusiasm in both books. I picture Beryl and Matt sitting at a table in the dark corner of some shitty restaurant planning out the course of their separate books rise to stardom – each one feeding off the hatred from the other. Just think of the tabloids and gossip out in the celebrity world: Britney’s breakdown, Jon and Kate’s divorce, Sham Wow guy’s untimely arrest — all of these “troubles” seem to happen just as the celebrity is about to release some stupid thing into the world, Britney had her new album to promote, Jon and Kate have a new season of sadness on TLC, and the Sham Wow dude is just mentioned for good fun. It is not a stretch to assume that Beryl and Matt are in cahoots, and are simply feigning the fight to drum up some promotions for each of their projects! I sure hope so. I hate to think that reality really is the way that it sadly is.
Consider this po-mo, meta-criticism. I cannot believe I am commenting on this blog about the comments from another blog. This world we live in, it is a strange and fantastic one. And as for purchasing the books, and our own stance on the subject at hand – we firmly believe the only true path is that of fairness and kindness; and CycleZine will buy them both and see what’s really up.one comment