a conversation with photographer jeff scher

jeff scher

richard sachs has had a particularly busy and ultimately successful cyclcross season in north america this past few months. successful on a personal note having finished 5th in the masters' rankings, which is no mean feat, and successful in terms of the results achieved by the remaining members of his team. remember, richard has a seven year plus waiting list for his frames, so team sponsorship has little to do with sales. his committment to his sponsors keeps him even busier however; if you're on the right mailing list, richard has been sending out toilet roll length list of links to photography featuring the team after every race, committment which makes writing a daily article for the post seem like a walk in the park.

one of the photographers featured in those lengthy lists is portland, maine (east coast) based jeff scher, whose eye has brought a fresh view to the sport, if only because this is his first full season of taking dirty pictures (if you see what i mean).
"cycling has always been a large part of my life. since the late 1980s I have pointed my lenses towards adventure sports and human powered activity. i've been cycling since i grew up in new york city, and even spent some time as a bike messenger during high school. however, photographing cyclocross╩racing╩is new to me this year but but i think it fits in well with my history as a photographer."

it's unlikely that there are too many photographers managing to make ends meet by focussing entirely (pun intended) on the sport of cycling; i can think of one or two in europe who have made successful careers and reputations out of the classics and tours, but doing so in north america is likely an altogether different proposition.
richard sachs cross team "at this point the cross photos fall into the personal work category. ╩i'm not currently out there on assignment for any commercial client other than myself. ╩as a pro photographer it is important to keep shooting, whether you are on assignment or not and I always find inspiration for my commercial clients through much of my personal work."

in cases such as that of (the other portland), those sitting in the gloaming with lenses trained on the song and dance taking place around and in front of them, there's not only a personal interest, but oft-times personal friendships. the guys at pdxcross are personal friends with the bulk of the local riders snapped weekend in, weekend out. with the recommendations issuing forth from the offices of richard sachs, were he and jeff previously acquainted?

I don't know richard personally, but╩i knew about him for years from his legendary╩ custom built bikes. ╩after the first verge series race this fall at pine land farms in╩new gloucester,╩maine, i had some great images of his team riders and contacted him to╩share╩those images. ╩richard was then kind enough to share those images with his team╩sponsors╩and others in his network (including thewashingmachinepost). ╩through these photos, richard and i made a good connection."

freelance photographers must, by necessity, subjugate any personal preferences they may have when it comes to the subject matter required by a paying client. snapping pics of barn doors for a company that manufactures same, would not be described by many as their ideal gig. but when it comes to personal time, such as jeff's foray into the world of cross, it's a whole different tyre game. however, even within the world of cycle sport, there are distinct subsets, and i would imagine that it's the photographer's affinity, sympathy and experience with each of those on offer, that determines just how successful the lightbox display will be. bearing this in mind, does jeff have any preference for the size and tread pattern of the tyres on his bike?

"currently i find myself mostly on my mountain bike these days. ╩this might be in part to the awesome trail network I get to ride on, right from my driveway, but i do own a road bike, and for years that bike was the dominant mode of cycling for me. ╩I don't own a cross bike yet ,but am starting to slowly amass parts to build one. component donations are always welcome."

cross race start

the advent of digital photography has effectively enabled sites such as thewashingmachinepost to exist in their current format. it would be a slow(er) process if we were all still wed to film; waiting for developing, printing and scanning would often result in any given manufacturer releasing a new product before i'd managed to post a review of the original. however, many of the current crop of astounding images that grace exhibitions, magazines, books and promotional iconography in modern day cycling still bear the luxurious veneer of film grain. does scher subscribe to the modern or the traditional when venturing into the wilderness of cross, or the commercial world that pays the bills?

"digital all the way! ╩i still love the look of film and miss the tactile connection of putting film in the camera, dropping it off at the lab and having those anxious feelings waiting to see the results on the light table. however, these days, having the ability to get pictures anywhere in the world in 30 seconds or less, is hard to beat. digital provides so many advantages for the type of work i do, it would be impossible for me justify shooting film."

homes and boats cover

new technology, however, doesn't come without a penalty clause, in this case, the almost necessitous requirement for post-processing; we're talking photoshop here. while i personally have an extremely narrow gamut of photographic expertise, i do have a wealth of experience in post-processing of this type. and more to the point, i rather enjoy this aspect of pixel-wrangling. however, a professional photographer of my acquaintance insists that getting it right should be done 'in-camera' rather than on the computer at a later date. while i am not referring to illicit manipulation of the end result, does jeff profess to skills in this area?

"this is where I am old school. i still like to get it right in the camera the first time. photoshop is simply a tool with which to process images, tweaking them to look their best. i shoot everything in raw, and╩If i'm doing my job correctly, then time on the mac is hopefully minimal.
"if something comes along outwith my photoshop abilities, i'll sub-contract; usually to somebody who hasn't seen the light of day recently."

that's me put in my place.

but examples i've seen of scher's photography employed on a couple of magazine covers (see above) exhibit qualities verging on the abstract. is this consciously obtained? "yes. there are so many professional pictures taken everyday by an army of talented photographers worldwide, that it is creatively imperative to seek ways of making my pictures stand out, or at least provide some differing points of view."

richard sachs race team

the post is a prime example of technology enabling the amateur to realistically compete with the big boys. setting up a quality cycle publication nowadays would cost considerably more than i have at my disposal, coupled with the fact that i really have no professional credentials on the office wall that might convince you reading would be to your advantage. similarly, the ability to purchase camera technology that was previously the preserve of the professional, at prices attractive to the amateur or enthusiast, has produced a new breed of faux professionals eager to believe they have a peer group that, in reality, is several worlds away. however, the same availability has provided new horizons for the visually gifted. is jeff trained in the art, or one of those prodigies for whom digital has enabled a successful career supported by innate, natural talent?

"i actually went to school for fine art photography and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from purchase college in purchase, ny in 1989. college taught me a ton about the craft aspects of photography and how to look and think about it as art. ╩however, it did very little to teach me about the business end of photography.
"most of my adventure photography skills are self-taught. ╩i later decided that i needed to learn more about the╩business end of things, becoming a pro photo assistant in the metro boston area. that was some of the most valuable time spent in my career. school can't train you for the real world, unlike on-the-job training with some of the best photographers around."


the thought of being able to take successful photographs of pretty much anything, let alone cycle racing, is an ambition many of us aspire to, but very unlikely to be the basis of a future career path. unless you find yourself with the observation and skill displayed by someone like michael robertson over at velodramatic, most of us would be best advised to stick to that compact digital that stuffs in a rear jersey pocket. confining ourselves to the occasional frantic snapshot burst of fellow riders, or stationary bicycles. what makes a guy like scher decide the path lies in the professional arena and just what sort of qualities should the subsequent portfolio demand of him?

"i was born and raised in manhattan on the upper west side. ╩my back yard was new york city, a visual feast for my eyes every time I walked out of the front door of my building. ╩at an early age, my parents handed me a camera and that was it. ╩they seemed happy to pay for film and processing, so i kept taking pictures. i took classes at high school, and started to experiment through unlimited access to a dark room. that's when things really took off. ╩i was hooked. ╩when it came to a career choice, photography seemed a likely direction. the rest is history.
biddeford pool "as to what i look for in an image, hopefully in just about every picture i create, i do my best to blend a number of qualities. ╩of course, some days are more successful than others. but on leaving for an assignment, i have an idea of what a jeff scher picture should look like. the picture has to satisfy me first; i'm my own harshest critic. ╩i want the images to put the viewer right there with me, to feel what it's like to be at the location, to witness a fine moment, and to feel the tension the racer is experiencing.
"technically, photographing bike racing╩is not the easiest of disciplines. lighting is always tricky, the weather can be totally fickle and often╩nasty, people are moving quickly╩and the riders may not ride the same lines each lap. ╩the element╩that drew me to cross was the athletes. they work so hard to stay in shape, stay healthy and perform at the highest level over a╩season. i admire that.╩and i'm constantly inspired by their commitment. i've been a life-long cyclist, so there's a bond with those I focus on at the race course."

cycle racing of any discipline has a marked tendency to shift about a bit, with races frequently taking place quite some distance apart. this is likely a factor magnified within the united states, where the sheer size of the country has a tendency to place venues in the realm of air travel rather than a quick drive down the autobahn. portland, maine is situated on the east coast of the usa; is this the ideal location to get about a bit?

cross racing

"maine is ideal for a lot of outdoor related activities, with portland a small city provding a fantastic blend of people, and culture. however, it's located in the╩most northeasterly corner of our large country. while not exactly centrally located, i do live close to a major highway and a two mile drive from portland jet port. this provides regular services to all the major air hubs in the northeast and mid-west. this past season, i committed to following races as far south as rhode island. i gave myself a 200 mile╩ radius, and given the fact that╩I was funding my own travels, this seemed reasonable. i regularly travel to the new york city area for clients, so maybe next year i'll include╩races down there if the opportunity presents itself."

based on the images the man has achieved in his first season of cross, the future augurs well for jeff scher, because a professional at this level is unlikely to find themselves regressing, particularly when the subject matter is one that excites their visual abilities. still, given this initial success, has scher a vague notion of where this aspect of his photography might lead?

that's a crystal ball question if ever i heard one. ╩as a freelancer it's one hard question to answer directly, but i do have a number of future projects in mind. winter is starting to kick into gear here, with snow already covering most of the fun winter play spots. i'll be out on my skis a lot, with a camera strapped to my chest.
"as far as cross photography╩is concerned, i'm already looking╩forward to next season. i had a blast following the verge new england series and i hope they continue with a similar schedule next year. i'll evaluate the work i created this fall and come up with a plan to push myself visually for next season's races.
richard sachs cross team "one of the first things i realised about photographing╩bike racing, is that it's╩so easy to shoot the same kinds of images week after week. my goal, therefore, is to avoid this kind of mentality at all costs. if there was one element in my pictures i felt I could improve upon, it would be getting psychologically closer ╩to the racers. i want to capture and connect with their emotions as they speed by on their way to a podium finish or personal best."

like many aspects of professional life, those that are good at it make it seem so simple. cycling is a highly visual sport and activity of which many of us would like to create a pictorial record or montage, but find ourselves somewhat lacking. photographers such as jeff scher provide much needed inspiration in this direction, and it can but aid our amateur efforts to understand or appreciate even a small fraction of what makes a professional cycling photographer, aside from lenses that look as if they were removed from an army tank.

feel free to try this at home. | smug mug

all photographs copyright jeff scher. reproduced with permission.


posted saturday 26 december 2009

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