Tales from the Peloton, January 12, 2006
Glamorous lifestyle or a mug's game? To find the answer to that question, Steve Medcroft spoke with one of cycling's celebrated photographers and Cyclingnews contributor, Jonathan Devich.
The picture that decorates the page for January in Jonathan Devich's new calendar of cycling photographs shows a switchback on the Plateau de Beille during the Tour de France. Within view are maybe a thousand fans, mostly clad in orange. In the details of the picture, you can pick out the RV's and tents that speak to the time these fans invested in getting a prime spot for their one brief encounter with the Grande Boucle. Deep with the ribbon of fans, a handful of the world's top bike racers work their way up the climb.
Despite the fact that you could stare at the picture for hours and not see everything it has to offer, I am struck by the moment it captures for the guy behind the lens. What was Devich thinking about at that precise second? Was his heart pounding? Was he standing on a stable platform or perched on shale, fifty feet above the crowd? And the bigger question: how did he come to be in that frozen moment of time, in position and with the tools to capture that image?
Devich is one of a select number of elite cycling photographers. Often relying on skill, luck and ingenuity to make a living, there is a romance to the work these mostly freelancers do. The images they capture are shown around the world. They travel with cycling's elite. They walk freely behind the barriers that separate the world's greatest bike races from the rest of us. They're at the line for all the great finishes the rest of us can only read about or watch on television. Their work brings them about as close to being a participant in the sport as a non-athlete can get.
So what are the keys to becoming an elite-level freelance cycling photographer? We asked Jonathan Devich, who grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia and is a frequent contributor to Cyclingnews, for his answer.
Start with a love of cycling
Cyclingnews: You started cycling young?
Jon Devich: When I was eight or nine, my dad bought me a road bike. It was a small-wheeled road bike, maybe 24-inch wheels. We'd do these long rides on the weekends; maybe three hours along the beach or through the state park. It was a big deal and I always looked forward to it. When I was thirteen this Italian family - who were completely into cycling - moved into the neighborhood. Our families started hanging. I would go with two cousins from the family doing club rides and centuries. When I was fourteen, I started racing; just real small, local stuff.
CN: Virginia Beach has an active racing scene?
JD: There has always been good training series and there was even a big pro race when I was growing up so, yes, it's a good cycling community. The local scene was influenced a great deal by these two Dutch brothers. One of them had been on the Dutch national team, had raced all over Europe and knew everybody there. His brother (Peter Teeuwen) was president of our local club. Peter was a good coach and a good friend; a motivator. He did a lot for the juniors and gave our club a solid racing background. Because of him, we were a top USCF club for a couple of years. We had juniors and women who did well at nationals and we put on a number of races, including the pro race.
CN: Did your racing extend further than the club level?
JD: The club was serious but the Dutch brothers also ran an actual team. The team was run at a higher level. We had regular sponsors and the team was run in a much more European way; a serious, stern way. For some people, it didn't work because it was too strict, but I really liked it and think it was good for me. It even helps me now; when I go to Europe I feel I understand the culture better because I had just a little bit of it when I was younger. Another thing that was important to me from Virginia Beach was that when I was fifteen, I started working in a bike shop. It was just myself and one other guy. He was young but had been around cycling most of his life so I learned a lot about how to be a mechanic.
Develop skill with a camera
CN: When did you first discover photography?
JD: My dad has always been a photographer, aside from his regular work. He's shot weddings since the sixties so cameras were always around but I was never interested, never had anything to do with it. I went to school for graphic design instead.
CN: So the thought of a career as a racer ended when you went to college?
JD: I had taken art all through junior high and high school. In high school, I went to a technical school for graphic design and earned college credits. To get the degree, I needed to keep going with it after high school so I went to community college. I was still heavily into racing; I had that big dream of going to Europe and racing there – like every good young bike racer does. But then my coach died. He was pretty young, like 43 years old, and it happened fast. That changed racing for me. I just couldn't get my shit together on the bike after that. I spent a lot more time at the bike shop and shifted my attention to becoming a pro team mechanic instead. I went to the first USCF mechanics clinic, in '92. I picked up photography only when my wife, Paula de Haen, started a company on the East Coast called The Fast Track, which was basically a web site similar to Cyclingnews - race calendars, results, photos even a little product testing - but just for the Mid-Atlantic area.
CN: Your work on The Fast Track brought cycling and photography together?
JD: We started the web site in '99. We went to events and took photos to go along with the race reports.
CN: This was pre-digital camera?
JD: We shot a lot of film but we did have this crappy little Mavica digital camera. The pictures were saved to a floppy disk. I don't even know how we did it; it was extremely slow and used tiny file sizes. It was fully auto – I couldn't adjust anything. I'd just get what I could get. I learned a lot using it though; both how to be a photographer as well as how to use this particular camera. I learned where to stand to get a good shot.
CN: Technology has made things easier?
JD: We started investing in better equipment. But what's important in our story at this point is that we moved out West, to Phoenix. Right before we moved, I went to race in South Carolina and we met a team guy there who said: 'Hey, I need some photos of my guys racing.' He said 'I'll pay you for it.'
CN: Were you even aware that there was paying work in the field at this point?
JD: No. I didn't have any idea. No clue. When we went West, Paula had gone back to the business world and we were phasing out the Fast Track stuff. I was trying to figure out what my next move was going to be when he approached me. I shot all film and got some decent stuff and when he paid me and I thought, 'this is pretty cool.' That same year, 2000, I had gone to USPRO Championships for the first time and shot there. We posted those photos on our web site and after we moved West, I got a call from a guy who worked for the promoters. He said 'we've seen your photos, they're great, and we're interested in having you shoot all of our events next year.' They also wanted my finish shot from the 2000 race for promotional material for 2001 so things started to fall together. It made me realize that there was a better living in photography than in the web site.
Invest in good equipment
CN: Do you constantly invest in equipment, always buy the new models?
JD: Yes. I bought my first real digital SLR body, the Canon 1D, in 1992. It was the hottest thing out there. Right now, I have a 1D Mark II. The Mark IIN just came out which I won't buy right away - it's crazy to spend another $4,000 when I don't need it. Canon bills the Mark II as their top-end sports photography camera because it's really fast; multiple frames per second fast. Fastest in the world. It also produces high quality (high resolution) images, a large digital image size. When digital cameras first came out, the images weren't large enough to print full-sized in magazines. When I first started with the 1D, I had a job for a bike company and shot a bunch of stuff. When I sent it to them they were like, 'we can't use this.' The technology was so new they didn't know what to do with it. But the cameras are high-enough resolution now that everyone takes digital as long as you can give them the biggest possible files.
CN: How much equipment do you carry to a race?
JD: A lot [laughs]. People give me a hard time about the equipment I bring but I like to be prepared. I carry two camera bodies, five lenses, two flashes, an external battery pack to run the flashes and spare batteries for the camera bodies.
CN: How much storage capacity do you carry with you?
JD: I carry about eight one-gig compact flash cards with me. I also have a 40-gig media card reader that I'll carry if I know I'm going to shoot a lot in one day; you just plug the compact flash card in, it downloads the images from the card and works just like an external hard drive when you plug it into your laptop.
CN: In a typical USPRO Championship-type race, how many photos will you shoot?
JD: On a big day like that, I might get a thousand shots.
CN: Out of a thousand shots, how many are keepers?
JD: I've never added all the ones I pull out but I'd say a hundred or so.
Live with the risks of business
CN: Who are you working for at a race like that? Media? Promoter? Industry?
JD: I shoot commercially and I shoot editorially.
CN: Which one is the foundation of your business?
JD: Both. You have to split up your time. You have to think both ways when you're out shooting because there are two types of customer. There are races where I have to get a shot of so and so on the bike for a sponsor or promoter but at the same time, if there's a break up the road, and I know it's a good break, I need to get up there and get photos because editorially, that's what's going to tell the story of the race.
CN: Do you always go to an event with multiple obligations?
JD: I always think that way because a lot of what I do is speculative. Most of what I sell is only bought if it's good and usually only after the fact.
CN: There are services that will pay photographers a day rate to shoot an event. Why stay speculative?
JD: I pretty much always keep the rights to my photos so I can sell something commercially. [In a day-rate assignment, the photographer is typically a hired employee and often forfeits all rights to the employer – ed.]
CN: How did you break into the magazines and web sites that use your photography now?
JD: I always try to send stuff in, try to meet people and make contacts. At the races, I try to meet people and say 'hey, if you need anything let me know.' I send stuff into photo editors as well. And I think that it has helped that I am consistent with which events I shoot.
Keep an eye on the future
CN: Besides editorial photography and commercial opportunities in cycling, you also do a gallery showing?
JD: I did the first one last year because I wanted to go back to Virginia Beach and show people what I've done. It went over really well. People really liked it. So I did three other shows in 2005.
CN: What's in the show?
JD: I do mounted prints on display and I sell the prints at the show. Then I do a slide show of about 20 to 30 minutes and talk about shooting, being at the races and try to tell stories about things I've seen. I had about three hundred images at the shows.
CN: You also produce a calendar?
JD: This year was our first for the calendar and so far, people love it. We have a ton more to sell [laughs] but the feedback has been good.
CN: Another speculative venture right? You print first then hope to sell out?
JD: Yes. I like to try new things though. I try to look at what people are doing in other industries as photographers and see if I can apply that to cycling.
CN: You're established as a cycling photographer now and the work you've put in is starting to pay off. Have you ever doubted your choice?
JD: Every other day. Every part of the work is hard. The travel – being away from friends and family – is difficult. It's hard when you're in another country and there's nobody to talk to; you're on the road for a couple of weeks and you're pretty much by yourself and you start thinking about home. Then there's the constant self-evaluation of whether this trip is worth doing - am I going to have enough jobs to cover my expenses?
CN: What are the sweet moments that make it all worth it?
JD: The rush. I've talked about it with other photographers. You have this anticipation of the group coming. You can feel this tension building. You feel it in the crowd. Then the group comes by. And when you flip back through on the back of the camera and you see that you got that great shot, you get this huge rush. It's like a drug. It keeps you going.
Click here to purchase the 2006 Epic Images of Cycling calendar.