A year ago, as a travel photographer anchored in the pandemic, I started bringing a camera and tripod with me on my morning bike rides, photographing them as if they were on missions. magazine.
It started out as something to do – a challenge trying to see the familiar with fresh eyes. Soon it turned into a celebration of the trip home.
I live in a faded seaside town called St. Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex on the south coast of England. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re in good company. It’s not on anyone’s list of famous English beauty spots. In fact, most of my riding is on flat coastal marshes or on boardwalks by the sea.
There is history here, of course. It’s England after all. The lonely swamps I cycle on almost every day are where William the Conqueror landed his men in 1066. Otherwise, other than being a den for smugglers, this part of the coast has dozed off over the centuries until let the Victorians bring down the London railways.
Then, for a few garish decades, St. Leonard and the other nearby seaside towns became popular vacation spots on England’s Costa del Sol – that is, until airfares ran low. budget and real The Costa del Sol, that of Spain, drew the crowds and plunged the region into a long, not-so-distinguished decline.
As for me, I am a transplant. I moved here from Australia. After the initial novelty wore off, that of being in England, it assumed a shrugging sort of familiarity – the usual shops, take-out, a bustling waterfront, rough around the edges but with access. Not too inconvenient to Gatwick and Heathrow and flights to more interesting places.
But a year of exploring Saint-Léonard and its surroundings, camera in hand, in pursuit of the light, has changed all that. It brought home the truth that you don’t have to board a plane and go halfway around the world to feel the sense of travel or the romance of the difference. He’s waiting at your doorstep – if you watch.
You don’t have to go far. Indeed, I could not. With the various lockdowns that have been imposed on us over the past year, it has been discouraged or downright illegal to move away from your residence. All of these images were captured within 10 miles of my home, and most of them much closer than that.
I plan my outings and leave each morning well before dawn so that I can be where I want to be in time to catch the first light. In summer this can mean leaving the house as early as 3 a.m. In winter it’s the cold starlight, the crackle of frost under my wheels, sometimes snowflakes swirling in the glow of my headlamp.
I carry everything I need on my bike and work entirely on my own. I am both the photographer and the cyclist in the photos. This part took a little getting used to. I have never been comfortable in front of the camera. As a journalist, I have always said that I have a big face for radio and the perfect voice for print media. But needs must when the devil drives. With the social distancing requirements and the zero budget, I’m all I’ve got.
These images, however, are not meant to be about me. They are meant to represent a cyclist in the landscape, anyone – you, maybe.
Creating these images required not only a new way of visualizing, but a whole new set of photographic skills. The first question most people have is how do I trigger the shutter when I’m a hundred yards away on my bike. Simple. I use what’s called an intervalometer, a programmable timer that allows me to preset the delay I need and then have the camera trigger a certain number of frames. This is the easiest part. Anyone can take a self-portrait.
To place oneself artistically in the scene is a much more delicate proposition. It requires juggling an exasperating number of details, most of which you only think about when you first start doing it and take a critical look at the results. Everything counts, from the drape of light and shadow, to all of your headlamps, to your body language on the bike. You have to be an actor, director, scout, goof, turnkey, even wardrobe assistant: I always wear a spare or two of different colors to make sure I can work with any setting.
Plus, you have to play all of these roles in real time, in rapidly changing light, in an uncontrolled environment where cars, pedestrians, dog walkers, horses, cyclists and joggers can – and do! – appear out of nowhere. It can be extremely frustrating and at the same time extremely satisfying when it all goes together.
It’s also addicting. Over the past year, I have become an avid student of local geography – not just the layout of towns, architecture, and landscape contours, but when and where the light falls through the seasons. I know the tide tables like old salt and follow the phases of the moon. I developed a peasant’s eye for the weather. I can tell at a glance, when I step out of my door, those mornings when an evocative mist will rise for miles over the swamp. I plan my outings with the same joyful expectation that I used to feel on my way to the airport. And when I push down the street, the world becomes big again, as it was when I was a child: rich in detail, ready to be discovered.
By the time I return home, several hours later, after witnessing the sunrise and putting so many miles of Sussex countryside under my wheels, I feel like I have summer places, seen things, trip in the great old sense of the word.
And, never the travel photographer, I bring back photos from where I have been.
Roff Smith is an England-based writer and photographer. You can follow his daily walks on Instagram: @roffsmith.