After studying cinema and growing up in the world of ballet dancing, photographer Emily Maye was inspired to turn her lens on bike racing after playing fantasy cycling during the Tour de France. From the Tour of California to the Spring Classics in Europe, she has shot the preparations, the excitement, the action, and the aftermaths with a distinctive eye for tone and emotion.
On the eve of her solo exhibition at the Rapha Cycle Club, Emily talks swapping ballet dancers for cyclists, the logistics of following a cobbled classic, and capturing that decisive photo during the chaos of a race finish…
Could you tell us a bit about your background and what led you from the world of ballet to photographing pro cycling? There doesn’t seem to be an obvious connection between the two… I first started photographing ballet mostly because I had spent my whole life around it. My mum was a ballet dancer and I grew up wanting to be one as well. The connections to cycling don’t seem obvious at first but there are a lot similarities and I see more and more of them as I spend time around cycling. I studied cinema in school and became interested in photography as a means of telling stories.
After college I wrote and taught ballet and worked as a photographer and graphic designer. Sort of a fragmented life. I’ve since focused much more on photography than anything else and that’s my primary artistic ambition at the moment and where I’ve been spending most of my energies in the past few years. It’s been an interesting experiment to take the photographic style that I had developed and apply it to a sport – in many ways I think I see cycling through the lens of dance instead of a traditional sports eye. The daily dedication and repetition of both ballet and cycling, and that element of costume interest me. But also the sacrifices one makes to be a professional day in and day out in a career that will end when age or injury catches up with you.
We watched the Tour de France growing up but I had spent years away from watching cycling. In 2009 my dad was doing a fantasy cycling group with friends online and I did it for fun without much knowledge. The more I learned during the process the more it fascinated me, trying to absorb everything I could. It seemed such a silly passing thing at the time, but now it’s changed my life. I really became interested in photographing cycling when I started to get into the history, looking at old photos and kit designs. It’s an incredibly beautiful sport in so many ways. Even its flaws add complexity to it.
In 2011, I went to the Tour of California and photographed four stages. From those photos I was able to build connections in the cycling community and got a lot of positive feedback. I then covered the Tour of Utah and US National Track Cycling Championships. I went to Belgium this year for the Spring Classics and was brought on as the Behind the Scenes photographer for the Bontrager Livestrong Team for Redlands and the Tour of California. I have also been contributing to theCollarbone and Paved Magazine and have a solo exhibit that starts on June 20th at the Rapha Cycle Club in San Francisco.
The Tour of Utah: Levi Leipheimer and Janez Brajkovic during their pre-TT warm-up (middle shot).
Cycling, and pro cycling photography, seems to be a male dominated world, and as far as I’m aware there aren’t many female cycling photographers around – do you think you approach things from a different angle than your male counterparts? I certainly respond to moments that are away from the tip of the action and don’t go for flashy action shots. But I think that’s most likely down to artistic inclination. I think my time photographing dancers, and my background in cinema, probably has the most determination on the different angle that I approach cycling from.
“I really respond to the atmosphere beyond the riders because I think that’s an important element in the energy of cycling. Fans are essential. Without all of that, there’s no one to generate excitement. The fans are such a crucial part of the mood and I would say tone is what I’m most concerned with trying to capture.”
I think my favourite of your shots are of the melee surrounding a race, the riders before and after, and the fans who’ve come out to watch. Is there something specific about pro cycling that you try to capture in your work? Those moments hold the most interest for me. I really like preparation shots. There is a meticulousness and attention to detail that I respond to. Everything has to be assembled just right and then after the race there is a completely different feeling. The more time I spend around cycling the more I feel that the day rarely feels the same at the end of the day as when it started! Something always happens.
I really respond to the atmosphere beyond the riders because I think that’s an important element in the energy of cycling. Fans are essential. Without all of that, there’s no one to generate excitement. The fans are such a crucial part of the mood and I would say tone is what I’m most concerned with trying to capture.
There are so many TV cameras and photographers at a race and an infinite number of shots someone could take. That’s where an individual photographer makes a choice of what shots they are going to take and how they are going to tell the story of that race or a particular person. It’s really nice to point your camera in a different direction from everyone else sometimes and see what you can see that is being missed.
What do you think photography adds to how a race is experienced – often fans will watch the race on TV, then read the race reports in magazines and on websites. What is it about photography like your’s that captures a different perspective on the event? I think photography slows the moments down and allows you to look at parts of the race for much longer than they actually happened. That gives them importance. It can also allow you insight into parts of the race that aren’t covered by television coverage. Access is so hard to come by and very valuable when you are trying to tell that side of the story. Even fans can be difficult to access because you have to get to where they are and that’s not always easy. But being able to show how teams prepare and the lifestyle of being a professional from morning to night is what I am most interested in and you won’t see that on TV or in a race report.
Polaroids taken during the Tour of California.
What sort of kit do you use? I also noticed a Polaroid of Laurens Ten Dam on your blog – do you shoot a lot/any film or is it all digital? For digital, I use the Canon 5D MarkII and a 28mm & 50mm prime lens. I also use the 70-200mm though only really during the race. I have shot some film but digital is more practical for client work. For the Tour of California I shot 200 polaroids and those will surface soon. The Laurens Ten Dam one was part of that. It was pretty fun and a different way of making decisions of what to photograph.
Could you give a brief account of a race day – the sort of planning you do, how you decide where you’ll get the most interesting shots, how you travel from point to point, and how you manage to compose and shoot during the madness of a race finish? There’s a certain amount of trusting yourself and your eye that is important to how I approach the day. There is so much that can’t be planned for and I’ve sort of settled into that being my preferred mode of operation. I have some vague long term goals of shots I would like to get but I just trust that I’ll find those when the opportunity arises.
That being said, you have to know the route the best that you can and plan as best you can. I mostly travel by car or in the team car and those are very different experiences. It really is specific to the type of race. Planning for a stage of Tour of California and planning for Paris-Roubaix are quite different. Actually, you’ll see the race much more during something like Roubaix, which is good since you get more opportunities to get the shots I need.
It can definitely be hectic at the finish. It’s always a fine line between getting what you want and having to deal with how pushy those around you can be. It’s a strange negotiation. Sometimes even getting to the finish in time can be a problem.
The days are always really long and logistics can be stressful. Then after it’s all done you have to edit and that is its own battle. I’d love to edit them all much later when the day is sort of a vague memory but that’s not possible with how quickly images need to be made public.
A selection of shots from the Spring Classics earlier this year. Emily’s collection from Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders is available to view on The Collarbone iPad app.
Is there any difference when covering American or European races? How do the experiences differ, do they pose different sorts of challenges or opportunities? This last spring was my first time at the European races for the Spring Classics and I was blown away by the differences. Culturally there is a huge difference. When I got to Belgium, pretty much every person I talked to (strangers, not just race affiliated colleagues) knew about the races coming up and could give you an opinion on riders and who was strong and who wasn’t. It was such an overwhelming atmosphere. There is, however, the issue of knowing the course in a place you’ve never been to before, with road signs you can’t read. There are a lot more people and so access is much harder to come by.
Some of the biggest riders in the world will be impossible to shoot in Europe but in America they will just hang out relatively unbothered. The busses are also parked a lot further from the start at the European races and so there can be challenges there. Negotiating with the police proved difficult at times in Europe as well. On the other the opportunities are everything. For what I am interested in capturing, it can’t be beat.
First/Last is Emily’s forthcoming exhibition at The Rapha Cycle Club in San Francisco. A series of portraits taken during the Tour of California, beginning with the pro tour debut of a young rider, and bookended by the retirement of one of the stars of the sport’s recent history.
Could you give us a flavour of what to expect at your Rapha Club exhibition? The Rapha exhibition is a series of photos taken during this year’s Tour of California. It is titled “First/Last” and begins with Joe Dombrowski getting ready in the hotel for his first day on a pro tour race and ends with Robbie McEwan waiting alone after the Tour for his last press conference on his last day of his pro tour career. Between those two photos are a series of portraits.
What have been your race shooting highlights so far – any favourite shots, experiences, or people you’ve met that have been particularly memorable? At this point I have been photographing cycling for a year and everything has been a highlight! They just sort of keep one upping each other. Some of my favourite memories have been conversations about the sport that can’t be photographed and for that reason I’d very much like to do interviews as well.
Photographically, the opportunities with Bontrager Livestrong have been great and I really like documenting a team. Belgium was a particular highlight that could have only been made better by rain. I really wanted rainy Spring Classics! I have a portrait of Eddy Merckx of him just after Ronde which is in the current issue of Paved Magazine, and that was a nice moment. There is a photo from last year’s Tour of California of a Liquigas rider heading down a climb and putting something in his jersey pocket that I particularly like. It was my first day of photographing cycling and the first photo that I felt captured something I was after.
Emily was recruited as the ‘behind the scenes’ photographer for the Bontrager Livestrong Team – a development squad set up by Lance Armstrong to support young talent – during Redlands and the Tour of California.
What’s next for you and what ambitions do you have for your cycling photography? Will we be seeing more work on The Collarbone for example, and are there any big events – such as the Tour de France, Giro – that you’d like to cover some day? A book is definitely the ultimate ambition and the Giro is my dream race to cover. That would be the goal for next year. I would also like to cover more of the Spring Classics. I will be doing the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August. Then cyclo-cross!
Emily’s exhibition First/Last opens at the Rapha Cycle Club in San Francisco on the 30th June. A selection of her work is available to view and buy on The Collarbone iPad app. For more information and to see more of her work, check out Emily’s own website.