One of the great things about VeloVoices is the people I get to meet through our mutual passion for cycling. One such chance encounter was with Belgian, nay Flemish, photographer Rhode Van Elsen who’s kindly agreed to share with us some of his evocative work which, unsurprisingly, has a very patriotic feel to it. As a consequence, we’re having my homemade speculoos (crisp cinnamon flavoured Belgian biscuits) with our espresso.
Sheree: We ask all of our photographers how they got started. So how did you?
Rhode: The interest in photography was already there since my childhood. I think I inherited it from my father who was also – and still is, as he accompanies me to races – a hobby photographer. But 13 years ago, at 19, I started a four-year evening course at the Photography Academy in my hometown of Mol. Most of my skills, I have learnt there. The first three years of this course were traditional, focussing on photographic techniques and developing pictures. Due to work (I owned a skateboard shop) I didn’t have much time for my hobby, so photography ended up in the background. In early 2011, I decided to hand over my business and quit the shop. After that I was able to spend more time on photography.
Sheree: Our follow-up question is then “why cycling?” but Rhode’s Belgian, so there’s no need to ask him. I have yet to meet a Belgian that a) doesn’t like cycling and b) isn’t thoroughly knowledgeable about the sport and its personalities. It’s in your DNA, isn’t it? So, what was your inspiration?
Rhode: Indeed. I think most Belgian people, especially in Flanders, are into cycling. From the moment I started with photography I knew some day I would do something with cycling. At that time I was a fan of the work of Belgian photographer Stephan Vanfleteren. He published a black-and-white documentary book Flandrien dedicated to cycling in Belgium. He has his own evocative and unique way of photographing … a real inspiration! But I also got inspiration from other sources such as William Wegmann, Marie-Jo Lafontaine and Anton Corbijn.
What attracts me the most in cycling photography is the versatility. You have to be an all-round photographer. Landscapes, portraits, action, reportage, strobist … As a cycling photographer, you need to have a bit of knowledge of all of these. Also the heroism, the timeless drama in cycling inspires me. The unpredictable invites you to be creative in all circumstances. So, what’s my inspiration? I believe it’s the spirit of being Flemish!
Sheree: Well that Flemish feel certainly comes through in your photos and albums on Flickr and on your website. Of course, they examine the many disciplines, their surroundings and their fans. In fact, they were so evocative of Belgium, I was tempted to nip off for a portion chips and mayo but – mindful of my regime – settled for moules sans frites! Is this deliberate or unconscious on your part?
Rhode: Funny, I never really looked at it that way. It’s like I said before: it’s the spirit of being Flemish and what most inspires me in cycling is its versatility. I don’t want to shoot only the action and isolate every single racer in a close-up photo! No, I want to frame everything special I see, the surrounding, the fans, details, things that hit me at THE moment. Things that give me that special feeling. During a race day I am fully concentrated and take notice of every little detail.
Although I have a preference for road cycling, as a Belgian I cannot ignore there’s Cyclo-cross too. It’s like another variant in cycling, but it also has great photographic challenges! It’s not my intention to shoot the typical cycling or CX image, but I aspire to put my own view and my own feeling in my cycling photos.
Sheree: I would say that you’ve succeeded. Now VeloVoices custom and practice dictate that this is the part where I ask you to select some of your all-time favourite photographs. Explain how and where you took them and what makes them special to you.
Rhode: Definitely the hardest part of this interview! I’ve choosen ten photos all for certain reasons.
1. Tom Boonen: Studio portraits, 2003
I took these with a Mamiya mid-format camera using analogue 120 films during my fourth year in the Photography Academy for a project on people whose lifestyles were defined by their hobby/work. I managed to get Tom Boonen in his debut year with Quick Step to the studios of my school. I only used the upper two photos for my project. These photos were an inspiration for me to do something in cycling!
Sheree: Tom looks so young and fresh-faced here. His whole career ahead of him. Who knew? Well, presumably, loads of Flandriens.
2. Sebastien Rosseler: Time trial, 3 Daagse De Panne, 2011
This was my first time photographing a time trial. After taking various shots I decided to use my flashes and try out the panning technique (moving your camera with the subject and flashing to freeze them). To my surprise, on my second attempt I had this as a result. This image satisfied me because of the framing, the background, the sharpness, colours – everything fitted. Rosseler also won the time trial and the overall!
3. Tom Boonen: Paris Roubaix, 2012
One of my favourite moments so far: Tom Boonen with an impressive solo breakaway on the cobbles of sector ten, Mons-en-Pévèle. A real goosebump moment. This picture says it all, the atmosphere at that moment, people yelling him on, the helicopter, the camera, the race director’s car, the cobbles, the dust in the background. It’s like I relive the moment when I look at the picture. Imposing moment!
Sheree: I’m glad you chose as this it’s one of my favourites too. I could feel myself drinking in the atmosphere.
4. Koksijde: Time trial, 3 Daagse de Panne 2011
My first time photographing that time trial was a very productive day. Sometimes you have days where everything works out and maybe other days are less productive. I was framing my next shot in the few seconds before the next rider was arriving, and those two spectators were there. Sometimes people pass by in front of your lens and your possible shot is gone. But I like to be creative with those kinds of moments. In this case these two people certainly make the photograph!
5. Red background: GP Jef Scheerens, 2012
Francis De Greef, Juodvalkis Egidijus, Sven Vanthourenhout. I just love the framing, the lines, the colours, the peloton passing a big red garage. It’s all about pushing the button at the right moment!
Sheree: Who’d have thought that a red garage would make the shot, but it really does!
6. Mark Cavendish: World Championships, 2012
Minutes after the peloton, outgoing world champion Cavendish passes by, after doing a great job for the British team. Spectators looking with astonishment at Cav. The two spectators on the left drew my attention, I’m wondering what they are thinking at that moment? I like photographs which I can review time over time and draw in question!
Sheree: Lots of people were surprised to see Cavendish working flat out for the team. But that’s the reality on a course that didn’t suit him. We must’ve been standing just a couple of hundred metres from one another that day!
7. Peloton: Paris-Roubaix, 2012
The peloton on the pavé of sector 23, chasing the breakaway. Not much special about this photo but I like the framing. The lines are perfect for me. It’s a typical Roubaix landscape.
8. Koksijde: 3 Daagse de Panne, 2012
Right time, right place! Sometimes you have these accidental moments which you can take advantage of. Using a short shutter speed freezes the subject and makes this a surrealistic image.
Sheree: I love the juxtaposition of these two!
9. David Millar: Tour de France prologue in Liège, 2012
I have much respect for this rider, he’s one of the personalities in the peloton. I love this picture because of its simple lines. Also the number 66 gives a sort of balance to this photograph.
10. Roof Rack in Corn Field: Belgian Championships Hooglede, 2011
The timelessness and its composition. I also used this one as the header for my blog and as an image on my business cards …
Sheree: I love that the bikes look as if they’re just floating along. Now, I think I know the answer to this question but I still have to ask. Which are your favourite races and racers to photograph and why?
Rhode: So far, Paris-Roubaix is definitely my favourite race to photograph. Last year I experienced the race live for the first time. I must say, attending it live is much more captivating. The cobbles, the landscapes, the drama on the riders’ faces, the fans, the atmosphere, the heroic feeling … this all makes it very interesting to photograph! [Here’s a link to Rhode’s Roubaix album on Flickr – Ed.]
Therefore, the ‘classic’ riders, riders like you guys call them ‘with panache’: guys like [Tom] Boonen, [Fabian] Cancellara, [Sylvain] Chavanel … they’ve got my soft spot!
But on the other hand I also like the Tour de France a lot and the great climbers and barouders of the peloton. And riders with a great personality: guys like Bradley Wiggins, Philippe Gilbert, Mark Cavendish and, fondly remembered, Frank Vandenbroucke. What a great rider he was. VDB passed away the week that my daughter was born. I regret that I will never have the chance to photograph him!
Sheree: You won’t find us arguing with you on that score!
Rhode: Actually, it’s not a specific race or the racers in particular, but it’s about cycling overall that I’m interested to photograph. Especially the mysticism and heroism that surrounds it!
Sheree: Do you have some words of wisdom to pass on to enthusiastic amateurs like me as to how we might improve the quality of our picture-taking?
Rhode: I want to say this to all of you out there trying try to improve your picture-taking: keep on practicing and do your own thing. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have (even a smartphone), as long as you like what you’re doing, that’s the most important motivation. And enjoy the experience of the sport and its entourage!
Sheree: Good advice! Apart from your blog Cycling through a lens and Flickr where else might we see your work?
Rhode: In all the great, global and innovative cycling magazines, massive billboards … No, just kidding! It’s still a hobby but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any ambition to go further. I already did some photographing for Go4cycling which specialises in organising sportives during the spring Classics and Grand Tours, and will probably do more with them in the near future.
I’ve only been into cycling photography for 1½ years now. I will go with the flow and will see where it brings me. Currently, I have some assignments to photograph amateur teams, to help them out with their website pics, team pics, et cetera. And I also have plans to work on a portfolio website which I hope to finalise very soon.
Sheree: Oooh, keep us posted!
Rhode: I would also like to publish a book with my photographs. Last year I made a concept for such a book, an assignment for the Academy, but I want to develop this further and make this accessible for everyone.
Sheree: What’s up next on your cycling agenda?
Rhode: With a full-time job next to my photography hobby, it ‘s not always easy to attend every race. I really look forward to the spring Classics. Ronde van Vlaanderen is one of my challenges this year, but as we are expecting our second child in April, the birth might rearrange my programme. Of course this moment will be more important than any race in the world!
What I also want to do is follow a team or rider during a race day or during a tour, making a reportage of this. Following them through their preparations, the race and afterwards. Or portraying some of the great personalities in the peloton, also a challenge for me.
Sheree: Well, good luck with all your potential projects and to you and your wife on the forthcoming birth. It’s been great chatting to you and thank you so much for sharing some of your photographs with VeloVoices.
All photographs are © Rhode Vam Elsen. You can visit Rhode’s blog at rhodevanelsen.wordpress.com, which includes links to his Flickr albums.