As one of our favourite photographers, Michael Blann is a lot more used to spending time behind the camera than in front of it. While out with him for Paris-Roubaix, however, we found ourselves in need of a lean, cyclist type to help us show off our new line of cycling clothing. It only took a little effort to persuade Michael to get our kit on, cleat up and hit the cobbles.
Afterwards, we sat down with him for a chat.
Rouleur: You’re a cyclist, a photographer, and a cycling photographer, Michael. So which came first: the cycling or the photography?
Michael Blann: The cycling. I’ve been cycling since the mid-80s. I got into it when Channel 4 started first broadcasting things like the Tour de France, and that kind of spiked my imagination, and I started riding my bike then. I used to live in Hastings so I kind of went off exploring around the South Downs.
How do you balance cycling and photography? When you’re out on a photography job do you ever wish you were cycling, or even vice versa?
Every time. Recently I did a photoshoot in Monaco with Lizzie Deignan: three days with no bike, watching other people riding is like torture. I’m not really complaining because it’s great that there is this work within cycling now. In the grand scheme of things, I’m just really glad that cycling’s taken off in the UK, and that there are these opportunities.
When did you identify there was that opportunity to earn a living from cycling photography?
It’s still only part of what I do, it’s just that the balance is slowly changing: there’s more and more cycling, as opposed to normal photography. Also, because I’ve shot an awful lot of stuff now, I’m becoming known as a go to person for cycling shoots. Last week I had a call from a big ad agency, who’ve got a shoot they’re trying to put together for HSBC which involves cycling.
So there’s increasing overlap between the different worlds?
Exactly. It’s not just the cycling industry that wants to use cycling to promote their products. It is the likes of HSBC or other shoots like Esso who want to show cycling and its green credentials. These incumbents coming into it is really important and they have a much bigger budget that the majority of the cycling industry.
They’re seeing it as lifestyle are they?
Absolutely. And demographic. In terms of big advertisers, it’s the perfect target audience and it ticks another box for them.
Have there been times when you’ve gone somewhere for a shoot and been able to borrow a bike for the afternoon?
Yeah, I’ve got a shoot in Mallorca next weekend and when I did the mountains project, [Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs] I took my bike and rode most of the climbs I was shooting because that was a personal project. It was a really good vehicle for doing a recce of those climbs, enabling you to work out roughly where you needed to be to shoot. It was much better than the car in many ways and faster than walking.
You’re known for your mountains, but what’s the place you’ve most enjoyed photographing?
In terms of cycling I really like the Dolomites, in terms of both cycling and photography. They’re really dramatic.
The beautiful thing about photography is if someone’s taking you to do something, invariably they’re taking you somewhere quite special. I have a good client we travel a lot with and we’ve been to places like the marble quarries in Italy. They’re always really interesting places to visit which you probably wouldn’t for a holiday. It’s a privileged profession, that’s for sure.
You were out at Paris-Roubaix earlier this month for Rouleur. How was that?
Yeah, really good. I think when you actually go to a race and you watch it – you see them start in the morning and see them come through the first sector, and they’re still going at five o’clock in the evening – you just realise how tough these guys are and what a brutal sport cycling is. It just doesn’t come across when you watch the last 30k on Eurosport.
We did amazing by seeing Roubaix in five sectors plus the finish. We were turning up to sectors with three or four minutes to spare and sprinting up the road. Three or four minutes shooting, then back in the car.
What is it that you particularly like about photographing races?
To be honest, I don’t actually like photographing races! It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but the hardest thing is to do something different. There’s a million shots of cyclists riding by, though in fairness we’re quite privileged in that at least the landscape does change.
What really interests me is all these stories around cycling. Like when we went to Belgium and shot the surgeon who fixes up all the riders with broken bones.
How about your shoot with Sean Hardy? Was it weird being in front of the camera?
It’s a different experience but it wasn’t too weird. Shooting other people on the bike you know what you want someone to do if you’re photographer, so I just re-enacted what I would want. You get out the saddle, take something out of your pocket, rather than trying to put your game face on everything. Sean’s really relaxed as well, and fun to work with.
The only danger is you know too much, so you start to art direct, which isn’t your role. I was conscious of myself slightly doing that at times. In fairness to Sean he didn’t go “oi, this is my shoot!” He did some stuff that I suggested and all the stuff that he wanted as well. I think it worked out okay.
It’s kind of funny seeing yourself in photos because I’m by no means a model!