Categories: Features
September 15, 2015
| On 3 years ago

Photographing Motorcycles Parked in Front of Places

We hear a lot about how it’s the ride, not the destination. Okay, understood. But, since you need a place to turn around, the destination has to figure in there, right? Not that you have to actually know where it is when you set out, but when you get there and say okay, time to turn around, that was it. Destination Point. The place to which you were going, whether you knew it or not. So you take a picture.

Of course you also take photos along the way, but the turnabout is key. The turning point, the middle of the story, the place that offers rest and good food. Which is followed by the new perspective, and even point of view, of heading back home.

Some motorcycles, like the ’74 Ducati 750 Sport, dominate any background with their classic form. The author has let two of these get away over the years. Two. The shame. So this photo remains on the wall to remind him of his errant ways.

And when you get home, those pictures all have a story attached. Some stories that come back into the active memory file at random moments, the ones worth re-telling. Because every picture does, in fact, tell a story, and oftimes more than one. A point in the history of your particular motorcycle may figure in, or not. An event that occurs in the background might be the setting for another tale; making a new friend, seeing an old pal, getting laid, whatever.

The vertical format works best for tallish backgrounds that are key components of the image. And they can reside side by side, each to contrast locales, as they do here with Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains and Harry’s Night Club & Beach Bar in Pismo Beach, Calif. Far different stories.

The photos become the settings for the stories, and the ride becomes the narrative thread that stitches them together. Since the tale is fact rather than fiction, there is no plot. So in a sense, the story tells itself. The road is the stream of consciousness, the river of remembering things past – and of many other possible metaphors, similes and analogies. Words to go with the pictures.

Even when the motorcycle is in foreground, the background can tell the story. Here it’s the real hamburgers and milkshakes in New Cuyama, Calif. Featuring the Buddha Burger, with five beef patties. No guarantee of enlightenment, though rotundity is likely.

But the words, however well chosen, will only tell part of the story – the one behind the picture. Of course it’s always nice if the words and pictures complement each other, but unless you’ve made the grievous error of trying to make a living in motojournalism, worry not about rhapsodizing over the ride.

The great T.E. Lawrence put it this way on riding his Brough SS100: “…across Salisbury plain at 80 or so, I feel the earth moulding herself underneath me. It is me piling up this hill hollowing this place, stretching out this level place. Almost the earth comes alive, heaving and tossing on each side like a sea. It is the reward of speed. I could write you pages on the lustfulness of moving swiftly.”

Right on, man. The dude was layin’ down some poetics. But the point is, old T.E. wrote precious few more words, let alone pages, on the lustfulness of moving swiftly. The reward of speed does not lend itself to literary elocutions. (An exception could be made here for Hunter Thompson, although he probably shouldn’t have been on a motorcycle, in his condition, in the first place.)

My all-time favorite roadster, the ’81 Ducati Darmah, put me in an Italian state of mind on every ride. A local winery offered a convenient Mediterranean setting for this shot. Puts me right back in Florence, with Francesca at a sidewalk cafe. Magical.

So, while neither words nor pictures can fully convey the riding experience, the photos of motorcycles parked in front of places serve their narrative purpose. To illustrate not only the setting of the story, or emphasize one of its details, but to provide structure and punctuation to the chronicle. A means of transition between one part of story and the next. And a good way to evoke long-forgotten details from the fog banks of memory, which grow foggier with age.

These shots represent my own notions of ad-lib composition, often the only kind available on the road. Digital cameras have made the game far simpler than it once was, and video, as well, is now easy for amateurs. Since there’s usually little choice in terms of lighting, the magic of computerized photo editing is also a big plus. A godsend for geezers and klutzes alike.

Yes, it is a bicycle. But it has a motor. An electric beach cruiser at the beach, with a beach volleyball backdrop. A possibility for the Avila Beach Chamber of Commerce calendar.

As a writer who takes pictures (as opposed to a pro photographer), I’m short on technical tips here. This is on-the-fly moto/photojournalism; pick the background (when you can), frame the shot and click. Couple-three more times to be safe. Handing your camera to a stranger to take your picture can be dodgy, but usually works out. These personalized shots can be helpful in proving to your wife that you went where you said, or to your mother that you’re still alive. They’re also potentially handy in future court cases. (“The date is right on the photo, yer honor! As you can see, I was in Boise the day my mother-in-law was mugged.”)

Sometimes mother nature comes bearing little gifts in the night. What at bedtime was the prospect of a leisurely morning trail ride had become something quite other. October, Lockwood Valley, Calif.

The most important reminder for photographers shooting motorcycles parked in front of places, is to carry two full camera batteries and, if you’re on the road for any length of time, a camera battery charger. Looking at the perfect shot while holding a dead camera can cause acute disappointment; like having chips with no salsa, or chocolate chip cookies with no milk, that sort of hapless dismay. In the old days, a backup camera was a given, but nowadays, the cell phone can serve the same purpose. Carrying smaller and lighter equipment is another technological blessing of the contemporary modern world we live in today, when the battery’s up.

Now and again the motorcycle and backdrop are a thematic match. The retro Triumph Scrambler fits nicely in front of the antique shop, with a finishing vintage touch from the blue mailbox.

When you have remembered to pack everything but your cell phone charger, and have to call home. But that was a clever way to carry the video-cam helmet, wasn’t it?

So, these moto-snapshots provide not only an easy way to keep your own riding journal, they may also be submitted to motorcycle publications, where the editor will look at them and usually respond with “Thanks, but…” Or, if they include the bones of what may be an engaging story, could result in a lavish spread of text and photos, producing only moderate payment but gobs of artistic satisfaction. Like this one.

The mechanicals of old British motorcycles all but guarantee a swell portrait. The Vincent and Norton stand in stately repose, and the panorama of the Big Sur coastline doesn’t hurt either.

None of this, you will note, has any application in the art of Photographing Riders Dragging Knee in Fast Turns. That takes more sophisticated cameras, lenses and an acute sense of timing. And an adult portion of patience. We are fortunate to have a number of shooters worldwide who are quite good at it and who deserve our admiration and support.

Say you’re waiting for the ferry at Lecco, ready to float the Guzzi up to Bellagio and ride down to Como. Then along the western edge of the lake, a young lady compliments you on the bike. Her name is Gina, and she’s fascinated to know that you’re related to George Clooney… (Another story.)

No, these are but snapshots in the road’s gallery of life. Postcards of points in time, what once were glossy prints in a 10-pound album of black pages, and now are electronic images in a computer file. Some may become prints on paper for the office or shop, or refrigerator magnets for the grandchildren. Or just find themselves consigned to boxes in the back of the closet or the attic. But they will retain their stories, to be told to others, sometime down the road.

Not all photo stops are necessarily fond memories, but they can also serve as permanent reminders of unseemly behavior, too much fun, or just plain bad luck. Some folks think of them as trophies. (Photo by Jonathan White)