not so very long ago, apple computer carried a feature on their website as testament to the way their wireless technology was benefitting the work of a photographer at the winter olympics. if my recall is as accurate as i believe it to be, the fellow in question was covering a speed skating event, during which he carried an array of three digital cameras and an assistant. while he was busy firing off shot after shot, the assistant was removing the card from one camera, while handing up another to the photographer to allow continued shooting as the event progressed.
the assistant would offload every image onto an apple macbook, perform a quick edit and send the chosen images wirelessly to a picture editor sat way above the action in the press area of the stadium. this editor would complete a more comprehensive edit and one or two image adjustments before sending these on to the newspaper's picture desk some considerable distance away. this, we should be pleased to hear, would or could mean that the photos snapped only minutes before, could conceivably be in the throes of being printed in the next edition before the event had come to its conclusion.
that's one way of looking at it.
guy andrews, author of this magnificent book of cycling photography from the archives of france's magnum agency tells an altogether different story. "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."
that, in essence, is what makes magnum cycling such an addictively exciting book. though the majority of photos are gleaned from the era of steel frames, downtube levers and toeclips, it is the inherent skill of magnum's photographers, whether from robert capa's images of the 1939 the tour de france, guy le querrec's embedding with the renault-elf team's winter training, or cartier-bresson's capture of the 1957 paris six-day, these are images that are testament to the eyes of the beholders rather than a demonstration of the technology du jour. and to underline a further point made by andrews, these are cycling images by great photographers, not specifically cycling photographers if such an individual truly exists.
i asked guy that, on the basis of there having been quite a number of excellent cycling photographers both past and present, what was it that fascinated him about magnum?
"Their incredible hit rate. I also don't believe that there is a thing called a 'cycling photographer' per-se. There are photographers and some of them do sport (and all the excellent ones have moved on)."
a valid point and one that often featured in conversations i've had with team sky photographer, scott mitchell. throughout his time accompanying the death stars, scott maintained that he was a photographer who simply happened to be taking pictures of cyclists. nowehere is this better underlined in the contents of this book. those of us obsessed with cycling as opposed to the camera would likely have concentrated on the paraphernalia that holds our own interests, rather than taking in the bigger picture (if you'll pardon the pun). though not specifically a cycling photograph, cartier-bresson's image of france's vel d'hiv in 1945, shows the velodrome being used as a makeshift prison for nazi collaborators.
shift forward some twelve years and his photos from the '57 six-day race demonstrate not only a revitalised venue, but almost certainly not the images seen by the average fan in the seats around the track perimeter. likewise belgian cyclocross as seen through the lens of john vink in 1982. cyclocross was an altogether less crowded affair over thirty years ago, with little or no physical separation between the often very few spectators and the mud-spattered riders. rather than appearing to be the result of a passionate embrace of this aspect of the sport, the images convey more that of a documentary. this as true of vink's 'cross imagery as it is of harry gruyaert's 1982 tour de france sequence.
on the basis that some of these photos have had scarce exposure to an expectant public, it seemed a not unnatural question to ask who approached who? guy or magnum?
"In all honesty it seemed to just 'happen'. Lucas Dietrich from Thames and Hudson and I have been in touch over the years about similar projects, and I knew Ruth Hoffmann and Hamish Crooks at Magnum quite well. So it was an obvious and natural step to do a book with Magnum about cycle racing. To be quite frank I would have done anything to do this book. I love the work and the subject matter is my passion, added to the fact that much of it is from my 'era' of the mid to late 1980s too, just made it all the more perfect. It was a dream job."
unlike guy andrews, i am not a photographer; i can take pictures, but i am most certainly not a photographer. therefore, though my knowledge of the contemporary photographers' milieu is perhaps less than it ought to be, in a world of individual freelancers, was/is the concept of an agency such as magnum, not a tad unusual?
"Yes, but remember that Magnum is a co-operative that also stands up for its members and has fought on copyright issues and payments to professionals, especially when they started out in that post-war period. They changed photography for everyone. It is amazing that they are still here and doing amazing work, with the exact same ethos and concern for their work. They are truly unique."
in a book featuring in excess of 200 images, choosing which would grace its beautifully printed pages can't have been an easy task. by comparison, my occasional dilemma as to which of a dozen or so photos ought to accompany a washingmachinepost review, seems trivial by comparison. how long did it take guy to bring magnum cycling to publication? "About a year in total, from start to printed copies." was it difficult to separate the inevitable obsession of researching such glorious photography with the need to produce a book in a timeous manner? "Yes and no. I knew the work pretty well already, although there were some surprises too... It took hundreds of hours of editing and sifting through contact sheets in their archives in London and Paris."
if you've ever attempted to print your photos of cycling or just family holidays on the cheap paper bought from viking or amazon, you will be well aware of the severe disappointment that a blotchy, ink-saturated colour print can produce. it's not for nothing that the majority of inkjet printer manufacturers recommend their own particular brand of high-quality photo paper to bring out every nuance you hoped you'd captured on clicking the shutter. it would be therefore tantamount to unholy disrespect to reproduce this selection of superb magnum photography on anything less than heavy art paper. in that respect, this volume does not disappoint.
"It's Thames and Hudson, they do really good books and their repro is pretty excellent. Magnum also look after their stuff. Some of the images were re-scanned especially for the book, notably Harry Gruyaert's glorious Kodachrome Tour de France story and some new frames of Robert Capa's 1939 Tour work."
the magnum photo agency was founded in paris in 1947, with robert capa, david seymour and henri cartier-bresson amongst its founding members. tautologically, this would lead to its 70th anniversary being celebrated next year. though it seems very likely that cycling imagery forms a very small part of the agency's output over so many years, is andrews aware of any remaining images in the magnum library that might feature in a second book? or is this pretty much it?
"Oh no, I don't think we're done yet... Just watch this space."
this book is a truly magnificent collection of photography, the likes of which we may never see again, if not only for apple's celebration of wireless editing procedures and the availability of burst mode on the majority of contemporary digital slr cameras. i doubt very much whether all the great photographers are in the past; magnum has many excellent contemporary members, but few, if any have concerned themselves with the world of cycling. there are also very many talented individuals who have pointed their lenses at the modern-day peloton. but cycling has changed as has photography; it is not, i think, looking through rose-tinted glasses to celebrate the great photography of the past in place of the present, but i do think that sensibilities and, dare i say it, artistic appreciation has changed considerably. between the work of paul cezanne and that of tracy emin, i know which choice i'd make.
guy andrews' 'magnum cycling' is a superbly judged and quality production, featuring some of the finest cycling photography on the planet.
thursday 9 june 2016..........................................................................................................................................................................................................