PURE MAGIC: MOTORCYCLE PHOTOGRAPHY THROUGH THE EYE OF A 100-YEAR-OLD LENSApril 24, 2018
Since the dawn of the digital age, photographic imagery has been evolving at an accelerated pace. Our eyes have grown accustomed to the overload of ultra-high definition pictures and videos that clog our social media feeds daily. We scroll haphazardly through content, hardly slowing down as we only partially absorb the bright colors and global subject matter flashing across the screen, “liking” away even our briefest periods of downtime.
Cameras have grown smaller, faster and better with each successive “S” series or upgrade, allowing us up-close perspectives on things we’d never have been able to see otherwise. Mounted miniature cameras, aerial drone photography and smartphoneography, showcased on an online platform, have saturated our collective minds’ eyes with so much information that we risk becoming desensitized altogether.
But amidst all the HD, 4k, 3D and VR there is a growing movement among art photographers back to technology invented as early as 1850. The result is beautiful and often breathtaking —invoking what might best be described as a pre-digital sentiment, transporting the viewer back to a simpler time.
Three of the most noted photographers engaged in pursuing this artistic avenue agree it’s like magic, and we were fortunate enough to talk to them about what’s involved in the process while finding out a little bit about them in the exchange.
Susan McLaughlin and Paul d’Orleans
The first two are photographers Susan McLaughlin and Paul d’Orleans, a power couple known for the striking tin-type portraits they create of antique motorcycles and the riders that are drawn to them. With a collection of cameras dating back to the 1880s, the duo is responsible for a series of images that are both moving and thought provoking.
Paul, known in the industry as “the Vintagent” (also the name of his motocentric blog), is a longtime motorcycle enthusiast as well as the Custom & Style editor at Cycle World. He became interested in what’s known as wet plate or collodion photography after seeing an exhibition of the French photographer Nadar’s ambrotype work (definitely worth a google) in France several years ago.
He says the stunning 8×10 glass plates depicting all the celebrities of the day (think Victor Hugo, Renoir, Monet, etc.) left a lasting impression and started him on his journey into alternative process photography.
“I got really curious about doing it. I took a class on daguerrotypes at the Eastman House in Rochester,” d’Orleans says. “And then Susan invited me to sit in for a day at a wet plate class she was taking in San Francisco. Within a few months, I kitted out my sprinter van as a darkroom and we actually hired a wet plate expert to come out and give us a very in-depth tutorial on doing it in the field.
“Only a handful of people in the world actually carry their darkroom with them in the field. There are more now, but in 2012 there was only a handful. We had to learn a lot. It took us a few years to nail down the process.”
Paul and Susan’s process is similar to Nadar’s, though instead of glass they use a metal plate, which is the same chemistry but easier to handle and doesn’t break. This process is usually referred to as tin-type photography, though different types of metal can be used.
In their case, the pair use aluminum, which they say works best for their purposes.
As an artist, initially Susan struggled more with the equipment, having never taken a formal photography class in her life prior to her exposure to the medium.
“I’m very hands on — I liked the idea that this photography is all about chemistry,” says McLaughlin, who has a strong background in science. “Every time I watch a photo [develop] in my hand and the image starts to come in, it’s like magic. In the old days they thought photography was alchemy, voodoo witchcraft. I love that about this kind of photography. All that combination of light, timing, all of that, you have to figure out all of that.
“I had been doing it for longer than Paul and thought he’d like it. He’s a very fast learner. He’s a mechanic. He works on bikes. He was like ‘that’s so cool, I want to do that!’”
The pair first documented the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run back in 2012, as Paul rode his 1933 Velocette Mk4 KTT and Susan drove the chase van/mobile darkroom. During road stops, the two would document the bikes, riders and scenery along the way using a Chamonix 4×5 field camera fitted with a c. 1900 Zeiss lens.
The motorcyclists depicted in the plates sit still for lengthy exposures, etched softly into time much like the Civil War soldiers whose portraits were made with the exact same technology over a hundred years ago. As far removed as possible from the frantic gnaw of selfies and push notifications, the series has a haunting, ethereal feel that seems to fuse the bikes with their original place in time.
The photos are often over or under exposed, out of focus or otherwise flawed, but that’s a big part of the appeal. And it’s little wonder when the exposure process consists of removing the lens cap and counting out “one thousands” before replacing it. The film is a piece of metal covered in emulsion, placed at the rear of a box camera on a stand, and the lens is a piece of ground glass.
Some of Paul’s favorite bikes to shoot during that time were Bill Buckingham’s 1936 Knucklehead chopper, and Shinya Kimura’s 1915 Indian, among others. The photos are indeed striking, and will soon be available for public viewing in the couple’s upcoming documentary-style book chronicling three of the Cannonballs.
“People who have been our subjects have died and our photos have been used as their memorial,” d’Orleans shares. “I just love the look of the images. There is something out of time about the whole process that just seems kind of permanent in a funny way, and people respond to that intuitively. It’s quite an honor, actually. Nothing I intended, but I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time with some very interesting folks.”
Dean “Chooch” Landry
Another well-known lensman recognized for his use of vintage cameras for capturing arresting images of bikes and their riders is street photographer Dean “Chooch” Landry, based out of Harlem. The tool of his trade is a stock 1923 Auto Graflex large format camera complete with original lenses, the only “new” addition being a bit of duct tape.
Manufactured by the Folmer & Schwing department of the Eastman Kodak Company from approximately 1908 to 1923, the Auto Graflex was patented on February 5, 1907. It came in three sizes and sold for between $74, $88 and $114, depending on size, back in 1914 — no small sum of money for the time.
“I’m shooting sheet film, so it gets a bit cumbersome,” Landry explains. “I think I was carrying 27 film holders for black and white, which holds two sheets of film at a time, and a film magazine that holds 12 at a time for color. The color is four times more expensive than black and white, and the processing is a little more delicate, too. The chemicals are a lot more dangerous.
“Midday I would go and change out all the film holders, take out the film I shot, put them in a light-tight box and reload all those film holders, which probably sounds easy but it’s a huge pain in the neck when you’re not in a controlled environment.
“Throughout the whole weekend I’ve probably shot maybe 150 photos. The process is a lot more deliberate. You have to be a lot more careful, but I feel it’s all very worthwhile. It’s a lot of fun. I’m developing the film myself, so that’s cool, too. It’s like magic.”
When asked how he got into the vintage camera aspect of shooting, the answer was simple:
“I saw some photos that were, I think, 4×5 or 8×10 and I really loved the look of it, so I started learning more about these cameras.”
While that’s where he got his start, he admits it’s not as easy to take photos on the fly. You’re focusing through the lens and then you have to load the film in front of what you’re focusing. With the Auto Graflex, there’s actually a mirror that flips up.
“Through Auto Graflex, I’ve probably shot 3000-4000 sheets, which is incredible for something that old.”
In addition to his legendary work in street photography, Landry shoots for a number of other projects.
“I’ve shot the Congregation Show in North Carolina for Dice Magazine, which is an invitational motorcycle show that took place in an old Ford Model T plant, so the space was amazing in itself. Grind MX is an event I’m shooting for, which should be pretty cool. A little outside of what I normally do, but I’m looking forward to it. There are a couple good things coming up. We’re also working on some stuff with The Race of Gentlemen (TROG), probably in 2018, which should be cool.”
Gallery exhibits and a background in fine arts
“I had an art show in Osaka, which was really fun. I would love to get back there. I do illustrations, paintings and some photo exhibits, too.
“I don’t do too much painting anymore, because I wanted to get out more. Photography lends itself to that, but I went to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and ICP (International Center of Photography), both in New York.”
When asked if he rides, the answer was kind of surprising, considering a lot of his subject matter.
“I don’t. I’ve been around motorsports and car racing with my dad my whole life, though. He always had cars and motorcycles, working on them, going to his friends where they were working on them. I just really loved being around it, the smell of everything. It’s something that he and I shared together, lots of great memories. The people are what it’s all about. Meeting great people, craftsmen and craftswomen, is so much fun, capturing what they do and what they’re all about.”
Finally, we had to ask him the inevitable: Where did “Chooch” come from?
“My dad made up that nickname for me. I don’t even know why, (laughter). He’s not Italian. He didn’t know it was bad.”
“Ciuccio” is an Italian word for ass, as in donkey. In Southern Italy, it is common to shorten frequently used words, so ciuccio became ciucc, which is pronounced “chooch” in the Latin-based romance language.
Landry is also working on a book of photos based on night shots set in NYC he hopes to put out soon through the help of an investor. Not one for too much downtime, he also occasionally travels with a band called Tiger Flowers.
“Now that we’re not playing as much, I kind of miss it,” Landry muses, “but hanging out and being around all these people is the best.”
That sentiment is the common thread between all three of these photographers, the interesting people that fall before their lenses — that, and their love for photography and the alternative processes they’ve chosen to pursue.
To view more images from these talented individuals, you can check out their work at MotoTinType.com and DeanChoochLandry.com, along with their respective social media platforms.
Written By: Rebecca West and Ben Thacker
Photos Provided By: Dean Landry, Susan McLaughlin & Paul d’Orleans