Far from the world, the city and the light pollution, I stood in a green forest where the breeze couldn’t even penetrate the trees around me. This was an area that only existed for me in my imagination after many times scrolling through Google Maps and letting my mind wander.
In the distance, I could hear the dull rumble of a slow-moving freight train struggling to climb the hill I had perched on. As it got closer, I could see the tree line in the distance interrupted by the heat haze emitted from its exhaust stacks. This is when I was able to calculate my exposure, as I had a visual reference of its speed. And then I saw the locomotive break the vertical silhouette of the trees. He was somehow alien to the landscape around him, like a metallic dinosaur crawling through uninhabited land, miles from civilization. It was an opportunity that I had only seen when I was dreaming but which became possible thanks to… a bicycle.
To be fair, this article didn’t start out talking so much about bikes, but more about what it would take to reach remote lands to photograph trains. As a commercial photographer, I’ve been conditioned to see that the only product that matters is the images at the end, but the journey to get them is just as important to me.
When this e-bike project started, I found myself going to every local bike shop to learn about e-bikes and what their capabilities and shortcomings are. Between searching in person and searching the internet, there was a lot to look at. However, my eye began to gravitate towards form being just as important as function. Maybe it’s the side of me that desires the aesthetic, or maybe it’s just the fact that I got really sick of seeing so many e-bikes with a big black box of a battery slammed on it which exhausted me.
Eventually I came across Aventon, a California-based company that has a smaller selection of e-bikes than most, but the ones they had were aesthetically striking. In many ways, the bikes look like regular bikes, but with fat tires. The batteries are built into the chassis so they’re hidden, and the lines remind me of some of the cars I photograph. I contacted them early on with the initial plan to transport the bike to a location with my car and ride further into the forest for photos. For this reason, the first bike I got was a Sinch.
The Sinch is a bicycle that folds in half and squeezes the handlebars in order to slip into the trunk of a car. Although it was one of the smallest bikes they made, it still felt quite capable. My thoughts were that if I could just get a bike that would carry me and my camera, it could only serve as transportation to make the production possible. However, once it arrived and I rode it for the very first time, it stirred something in me that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. In many ways, it felt like my first time exploring the wilderness on a bike. There were always places around me that I wondered what they would look like visually, but I didn’t want to walk there with a backpack. Now, with the e-bike, I can get to a place, look around, then ride further, see the world in a way I never knew existed. I found locations for future photoshoots of people, landscapes, and even new angles on trains.
When I returned from my first e-bike ride, I never even took the camera out of the bag. Even still, I felt I had done something that would benefit my photography, not to mention my physical health as well. I was on the right track and immediately plugged the bike in with the goal of riding again the next day.
It was around this time that the heavy monsoons started in Flagstaff, where I live. There were flooded houses due to burn scars that existed on nearby mountains from two wildfires a month before. I thought it was more important to help those in need protect their homes from further rains, so the e-bike project was put on hold. I spent most of my days building or laying sandbags and sometimes shoveling mud from the streets. All the while, I was in a hurry to get back on the bike and waited for the weather to allow it. Somewhere in the middle of that I got a call from Aventon asking how I was enjoying the bike. I told them it was all I could dream of but hadn’t created an image using it yet as I tend to get distracted and roll around for hours every time I go out .
In a small effort to force myself to be creative, I invited my best friend Mike to Flagstaff to ride my bike and take pictures. I figured if my will wasn’t strong enough to stop and create images, I hope hers would be. He too loved the bikes made by Aventon and got an Adventure. Because this bike didn’t fall apart and was absolutely huge, it handled the train photoshoot even better. With gas prices being as high as they were, we found we were saving money riding them rather than driving our cars, not to mention the fact that we couldn’t even fit the bikes in our cars. The first day we rode together turned out to be like every other day I had ridden alone – we got out and rode trails but never even got the cameras out.
On the second day, we were blessed with incredible light and felt compelled to take the photos we had planned. We got on the tracks and immediately got lucky with two cool trains that had passed. However, I knew it would be a while before more trains arrived, so instead we turned the cameras to the bikes and took pictures while riding them.
While the idea of creating some kind of action-based bike imagery existed in our minds, Mike and I both realized that our physical conditioning as well as our riding skills wouldn’t make it possible. We thought about turning off some lights and taking semi-posed photos around the forest while waiting for the trains. Call it silly or juvenile, but in truth, it’s often fun photoshoots like this that remind even the most professional photographers why photography is so special.
After taking a few more trains we went back to my house and washed the bikes as they had both been completely browned from the mud. After enjoying a few beers, we thought it would be fun to set up a studio to photograph our bikes. After all, if I were to write an article about them, people might want to see what we’re actually talking about. We set up lights and effects and photographed each of the bikes. In many ways, it was the practice I needed because I wasn’t going to be on set for a sports campaign until two days later.
In the weeks that followed, I too purchased an Adventure and now see how people are going down the rabbit hole when it comes to buying e-bikes. In many ways, they’re the camera accessory I didn’t know I needed, or wanted. However, after the last month, I feel like e-bikes might be one of the most important tools for a photographer.
Photographers have learned since the days of Robert Capa that the first rule of photojournalism is to get close, and the second rule is to get close. What the bikes allowed us to do was take a step back from using the zoom ring on the lens and move around in our images, sometimes finding details we didn’t know were there. existence before. I now find that my time spent off set or away from production meetings is now consumed by looking at Google Maps for trails in an effort to walk them and find views of nature I never knew existed. We once used a location I found on The Adventure as a production rig for an outdoor campaign, and I sincerely believe I never would have found it if I hadn’t gone for a ride this that day.
I want to thank the local bike shops in Flagstaff as well as Aventon Bikes for taking the time to teach me the capabilities of modern e-bikes. I also want to challenge you as a reader to go rent a bike, put your camera in your backpack and ride around to see what you might not have seen before in a car . Be open to the possibility of the world surprising you.
About the Author: Blair Bunting is a commercial photographer from Phoenix. You can see more of his work on his website, blog, Facebook and Instagram. This story was also posted here.