|On Becoming a Photo-Moto-Journalist
by Clement Salvadori
It was taking photographs that got me into my latest profession, and having been in it for some 20 years now, one might actually call it a career. I'm a free-lance journalist who writes primarily for motorcycle magazines and has to take a good many acceptable photographs in order to sell the articles.
Essentially what I do is to go to different places around the world, whether it is to the new national monument at Carrizo Plains some 50 miles from my house, or the island of Kaua'i, or Rajasthan, or South Africa, ride a motorcycle around for a few hundred or a thousand miles, click off a lot of pictures, return home, write a couple of thousand words, throw away 90 percent of the slides, and send a well-illustrated story off to a periodical.
All I can say is that I wish my college had offered a degree in photo-moto-journalism. It did not, and since I am not the sharpest pencil in the box it never occurred to me that I might become one. Despite the fact that I was reading every motorcycle magazine I could find since the age of 15.
I received my Bachelor of Arts, did the then-mandatory army stint, got a graduate degree (thanks to the GI Bill of the Vietnam era), acquired a real job with the U.S. Department of State, and a few years later decided that I did not much like being a federal bureaucrat, diplomatic variety. And resigned my commission as a Foreign Service Officer in order to go traveling on my motorcycle. Part of which trip being what my first three columns were about.
But all good things seemingly must come to an end, and that happened to me after three years, the end being running out of money. I went back to Boston, my city of choice when stricken by poverty, got a job teaching ungrateful students, and commenced to work on the mediocre American novel. And sold a couple of short stories which could only be labeled, "biker fiction"; it was fun stuff to write, but the market for such bodice-ripping trash was very limited.
Shortly before coming back to Boston I had been down in Central America, where I was shooting slides with my little Rollei B35; I decided to whip off a travel article, with photos, for a motorcycle magazine that specialized in touring. It was published right away, and almost got the cover of the magazine -- the editor loved the shot of me and the motorcycle in front of the major temple at Tikal, Guatemala, but magazine policy would not print a cover in which the rider was looking at the camera. Lesson learned. And the magazine wanted more well-depicted travelogues.
It did not take long to appreciate how an editor looked at a travel piece. Manila envelope comes in over the transom and sits in an IN-box for a week or two. On a slack day, usually right after an issue has been shipped, the editor rips the envelope open, gives the cover letter a very quick read, then pulls out the sheet of slides, holds them up to the light and takes a long look, fumbling for his loop in the drawer. The words hardly matter, because they can be rearranged if necessary, but if the pictures are not good, it is no sale.
Up to that point I had been a reluctant shootist, preferring to capture images on my neural scanner rather than on silver nitrate.
Sure, photos were nice, but what was I going to do with them other than bore friends and fill up shoe-boxes? I had been carrying a camera for a number of years, but usually forgot that it was tucked away in my tankbag.
That was all to change when I realized that photos would determine the salability of my articles, and thus my standard of living. When this bit of universal editorial truth hit me, I
upgraded my Rollei to a Pentax K1000, which is a Box Brownie to any serious photographer, but it was all I could afford. I bought a couple of clunky lenses and considered myself on the dull edge of photo-moto-journalism. Until one day I set up a great shot on the edge of the Grand Canyon, set up a tripod, put on my 105mm lens -- and found that the vibration of the motorcycle had caused all the bits of glass in the cheap lens to come unscrewed.
Then my fiancée gave me her Canon A-1, with three very good lenses, thinking she was doing me a wonderful favor. However, that rather weighty gem was just too damned complicated for my simple soul. Some people have an aptitude for photography, or sailing, or chess, or playing the stock market; I do not. Not for any of those pursuits.
I struggle with a camera, and while vaguely understanding the rudiments of such simple notions as bracketing, depth of field, exposure compensation, I have to think about them really hard in order to make proper use of them. And on a motorcycle one does not want to be burdened with too much camera equipment -- there is not enough room. One body, two lenses at most.
Some eight years ago I bought a Canon EOS Rebel, which I love dearly; it is light, has a compact 28-80 lens, and 99.9 percent of the time I leave it on the Full Automatic Mode. The camera is simply brighter than I am. For me taking a photograph is still pretty much a point and shoot operation, though I have some sense of framing a picture, of figuring out how best to use the available light. However, not being paid on the same scale as the National Geographic photographers, I make do with what light is available when I am wherever. A shot of the Taj Mahal might be better done at dawn, but if I am there at one o'clock in the afternoon, I am not going to wait around for 17 hours. And since I pay for my own film and developing, if I have half a dozen pictures on a 36-roll of 100-speed film, and I find myself in a situation where 400 would be better ... chances are very good that I will shoot the 100.
And I still do not really understand what I am doing. The other week I was in Kaua'i, doing a story for a motorcycle magazine on riding the 200 miles of the island's highways and byways. I cannot do the entire shoot myself, as the magazine wants some shots of me riding; my Kaua'ian contact says he knows a photographer. I scout some good sites, and we meet. Turns out that Jerry's specialty is black and white portraits, which he develops and then hand-paints. He has never shot slides, never shot a motorcycle, never shot a moving object.
Unfortunately, since he had never ridden a motorcycle, I could not switch around and shoot him. And though I knew what was needed, I found it hard to explain it all coherently.
However, patience, and enough rolls of film, and we got something workable. He bought all the slide film he could find in his local Long's Drugs, equal parts 100, 200 and 400 ASA. He asked me lots of questions, about changing the film speed, about bracketing a full or a half stop, about how crisp the background had to be, et cetera. And I did not know the answers. I told him to shoot each shot as many ways as he thought necessary, and I'd be happy to make U-turns for as long as it took.
The trip was a short one, which meant I had to take the undeveloped film back with me, and wait to see if I had a success, or a disaster, on my hands. Hoorah! Success! Admittedly, there is a great deal of junk in those hundreds of slides, but enough good stuff to keep the Art Director happy.
Like most skills, both riding a motorcycle and taking photographs require constant learning. Ever since I got my license I have been diligent at working to improve my riding capabilities, but since embarking on my photo-moto career, I have been more than a bit delinquent in bettering my picture-taking abilities.
I'm going to get to work on that.
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I go to different places,
ride a motorcycle around, click off lots of pictures, and write about it
I upgraded my Rollei to a Pentax
However, patience, and enough rolls of film, and we got something