Emily Maye has always been interested in photography and had made a name for herself photographing ballet dancers. It was only last year that she turned her lens on to professional cycling and already she is building a reputation for her unique eye. Her photographs have a stillness in the midst of action that is really quite extraordinary and gets the viewer under the skin of races and riders. Kitty caught up with her just before she went off to photograph a season of cyclocross (for the first time) and Emily shared some of her favourite pictures with us. (All photographs in this feature are © Emily Maye.)
Kitty: First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Emily: I am from Santa Barbara, California originally and I now live in Los Angeles. I picked up a camera in high school and I immediately took to it. I remember taking slide film in to be developed and it felt like it took so long to come back and that was really exciting. I studied cinema in high school and then at the USC School of Cinema Television and also Columbia University. I watched a lot of movies and that really affected how my photography style developed. As I got more serious about photography, I experimented a lot and learned as much about other photographers as I could. That is important for developing a sense of what you like and don’t like.
Kitty: You started off photographing ballet, where you were capturing very lean athletes doing extraordinary things with their bodies. I expect there are similarities in shooting cycling.
Emily: Their bodies are one of the similarities that come through very clearly in photographs. There is also a sense of rank that I find very interesting and a lot of waiting around to ‘perform’. As with any sport, the way that athletes work through injury is very similar, always overdoing it and very rarely allowing themselves the time to heal completely. So I think there is a similar understanding there and an interest in the physicality of their bodies. In terms of technical considerations, shooting indoor versus outdoor is quite different.
Kitty: Tell us how you got interested in cycling? Do you follow the races even if you aren’t photographing them?
Emily: My family watched the Tour de France when I was growing up although I was not in love with it at that point. How I came to fall in love with cycling is quite silly. My dad was doing one of the fantasy leagues for the 2009 Tour and he asked if I wanted to do it. Even though I didn’t know anyone, I picked a team but I didn’t realise that there were different types of riders, that stages had different technical elements, or actually who these guys were! Apparently I had picked a great team, but I was losing all the points on the bench so I started learning about it. In the end I finished something like 11th out of 40,000 people. If I hadn’t lost those points early on, I would’ve won!
What I learned during that time is why I fell in love with it. I remember stage 13, Heinrich Haussler’s win in the rain on the solo breakaway, I was completely into it at that point. I understood that it was a great victory for him even though he wasn’t a GC guy, and that breakaway wins were rare. It seemed to mean everything to him and I really responded to that. After that Tour, I watched everything – and live, at 5am West Coast Time! I learned about the history, the early, early history and that put everything in context. I still follow every race possible, waking up in the middle of the night if necessary.
In 2011, I decided I wanted to photograph what I saw in it and hopefully capture a tone that I was seeing and translate that into photographs.
Kitty: Do you have a favourite rider?
Emily: I have riders I root for and riders that I am interested in photographing because of what a camera picks up and those aren’t necessarily the same people. I love really decisive victories, riders who ride with panache.
Kitty: Yes that seems to be the type of rider all of us at VeloVoices love as well! One of the things I love most about cycling is the variety of races – from the hard-edged Spring Classics to the more flamboyant Grand Tours. Do you prepare differently for different types of races?
Emily: Travel becomes the biggest issue in preparing for stage races. Because of checking out of the hotel in one city, going through the stage and then on to somewhere else day after day you prepare differently. Within the stage, it gives you more opportunity to experiment to fill in gaps with the story you told the previous day. It’s a little less pressure.
The Spring Classics are totally different. That’s it that day! One shot. I really don’t try to over-control the situations, it’s very hard to tell what is going to come of each day. I prepare for the day’s route and charge the camera batteries and all that but the rest is about seeing what you see. I don’t look to make a specific photograph.
Kitty: I love the way your work has a fly-on-the-wall quality to it – the picture of Robbie McEwen all by himself waiting for his last press conference is quite poignant. There are a lot of photographs with riders by themselves, seemingly in another world. How do you make yourself invisible so that you can get shots like that?
Emily: Invisibility and just being there are the keys. You have to get lucky with those moments and see them immediately or they are gone before you’ve had a chance to frame the photo. And then try not to be too intrusive about it. Riders are hardly ever alone and I knew when I wanted to photograph cycling that that was part of what I wanted to draw out – quieter moments that happen outside of or in the middle of the action.
I love that photo of Robbie and one I took of Guesdon getting dressed after the Roubaix showers as he’s finished his last race. You can’t be in their face about taking the photograph if you want it to have that fly-on-the-wall feel. I prefer that when you look at my photos, that I don’t seem present in them, that they feel like they happened without a photographer there.
Kitty: I love love love your Cycle Book III set on the website. Tell me about how you go about taking those types of shots and how they differ from race days shots.
Emily: Cycling is about more than just the riders, so I think those give an added tone, a sense of history and excitement for a race to come. I love the mythology that lives even when a race isn’t happening in those places.
Kitty: I also love your Polaroid collection – tell me about that project, the difference between shooting like that as opposed to digital.
Emily: I have no idea where that project is going to go. It was fun though. It’s not really much of a different way of seeing but I did make myself not take any of the same pictures with my digital camera. I only wanted one record of those moments. I will be doing more. It’s fun to experiment.
Kitty: There’s a whole debate going on about using iPhones as cameras and if that is ‘real photography’. Personally, I think it’s the eye behind the lens, not how the lens is housed, and I see on your website that you have a section of iPhone pictures. How do you use your iPhone / Instagram for photographs?
Emily: You can make the same debate about digital vs film too. I think the idea of ‘real photography’ misses the point. There is so much more photography in our lives now. Or ‘documenting’, I should say. The eye is, of course, the thing and having some technical knowledge to be able to execute what you want is important for producing photographs. I use my iPhone all the time. The Belgian Doubles gallery was done on the iPhone. I’ve never been great about always having a camera with me so it’s nice to have some camera. And it can be a fun challenge to see how you can use your eye under those constraints.
Kitty: What’s next for Emily Maye? Are we going to see you over in Europe next season – any Grand Tour action?
Emily: I will be shooting cyclocross for the first time this winter. I just started getting into cyclocross and I am hooked. It feels like a completely different sport and it’s just all out, it’s brutal. The bike handling skills are marvellous and I enjoy the weather much more than the sunny road races. Then I have plans to do all of the Spring Classics and I would like to stay on for the Giro. That’s my dream race. And I’d like to do a book at some point. And photograph professional basketball, I’d love that.
Kitty: I always ask photographers to take us through their own favourite shots – I’d love you to pick out a few of your own and tell us about them.
Emily: It’s hard to choose but here are six that I like for certain reasons. A timeless quality is really important to me and these have that for me.
1. Tejay van Garderen at the Top of Mt. Baldy in Tour of California, 2011
Tejay, of course, has gone on to be a big star, but he was much more under the radar at this time. He had just climbed Mt. Baldy and was waiting in this tent at the top. I love his expression and the tan lines and a sense of being drained that isn’t an over-the-top exhaustion shot. It has all of those aspects you were talking about, the isolation and fly-on-the-wall feeling. As the photographer, I don’t exist in this picture. It is still one of my favourites.
2. Belgian kids at Flanders, 2012
This is at the start of the Tour of Flanders in Bruges in the large square. It’s hard to take a photo with that many people around that feels intimate. These kids discussing the riders as they go to sign in – this is a moment that captures the spirit of the thing. They’re brilliant– their caps, their body language. You can see them as old men doing the exact same thing.
3. Rider at Tour of Utah Time Trial, 2011
Framing is important to me and I like this shot for that reason. I saw the rider coming and so I took it so fast. I am happy it worked out. Again it doesn’t feel like I’m really there, it’s just a moment that is happening. The lines are nice.
4. Spectators, Paris-Roubaix, 2012
This is the case of a photo that I really like that I’ve never heard of anyone liking specifically. I wish I could have photographed cycling in the decades between the 1930s and 1960s – I think this photo has some of that quality to it. I don’t want to over-explain why I like it though. I just do.
5. Andy Schleck, Tour of California, 2011
This is from my first day of photographing cycling and it’s at the team bus which is why you get the reflection. There were so many people and having a photo vest doesn’t help you in that situation in any way. It has that quietness amongst chaos that I like. This photo is really beautiful printed too.
6. Tejay van Garderen after Time Trial, Tour of Utah, 2011
The time trial at Tour of Utah is at the motorsports park and it makes for some strange imagery. This is well past the finish line and it was just me and Tejay. It was the first win of his professional career and his 23rd birthday. The photo has a weird apocalyptic feel to it.
Kitty: Thank you so much for talking to us, Emily, and sharing your wonderful photographs. We’ll be on the lookout for your work during the Spring Classics – and fingers crossed that you can get to the Giro as well!
Follow Emily Maye on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Visit her website to see more of her portfolio. Also find her work in the following print publications (out now or very soon): issue two of Soigneur, issue seven of The Ride Journal, Peloton Photo Annual, It’s Nice That Annual, Fall Issue of Paved Magazine.