Gary Perkin – a mountain biking photographer
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: This is an edition of our Old Mutual Mountain Bike Live podcast, thanks for downloading and as usual we talk all things mountain biking. We talk to anyone who is remotely involved in this wonderful sport and we talk to a lot of athletes, people who organize and run races and plan them and plot those wonderful courses.
Those who are involved in a slightly peripheral manner, but deeply entrenched in the sport like Gary Perkin. If you’ve seen a photograph of a mountain biker anywhere, if you’ve seen a photograph of Greg Minnaar, you would have seen a photograph taken by this man. Gary, thanks for chatting to us, what came first, cameras or bicycles?
Gary Perkin: Cameras in the early days when I was in the navy, one of my jobs was ships photographer. But then I kind of left photography and when I was sailing in the Caribbean and Mediterranean I borrowed my boss’s mountain bike one day. It was like 1993, he had a mountain bike on board and he said, just help yourself and go ride above Cannes. I got on this thing and I met two guys from another boat and we just rode through the hills of France. I was just instantly hooked on mountain biking. I thought this is outdoors, it’s bikes, I really love bikes, I used to race road a little bit. But the mountain bike just spoke to me in a big way.
A marriage made in heaven
GDK: How have you married the two, how did you first marry the two?
GP: Photography came into mountain biking through Greg as you mentioned. It was 1996 or 1997, in Maritzburg and he was wanting to get sponsors. He was this young kid and he’d already won a good few races and all the pros were super concerned about this 13-year-old kid who was beating them at that point. He said: I need some photos taken and I had a camera and we just got together and went and took some photos at the BMX track in Maritzburg.
From there it just sort of developed, it just rolled and rolled and rolled and I went to the first World Cup in Stellenbosch in 1997/98, somewhere around there and I met all the teams. I hung out with Greg and we just met people and talked and I just fell in love with it and thought, this is what I want to do. It took me another three years to get there.
GDK: Not only the riders, but I suppose in your field as well, it’s not something you can just apply for a job and walk in. There’s all the security of a regular salary and all the things that go with it. There’s a lot of perseverance, doors get shut and opened. How did those three years’ work for you?
Finding your place on the map
GP: 2000 I went to a couple of races with Greg, we were living in London and Greg was in Europe travelling with a UK based team. We went to support him and help him out at a couple of races and I took a few pictures, but nothing special.
In 2001 he got Global Racing and I went and did all their web stuff, cause that’s what I was doing in London. I met the photographers who were working on the circuit and they were amazing guys. Malcolm Ferrin and Mark Dawson. They said, no, come along and you can learn from us and if you want to get involved, get involved.
They just helped me through those first two years on the circuit and then they kind of both retired round about ’05 or ’04. I was kind of, it was me, you know, and I had to take up the baton and go for. ’05 and ’06 were super hard and learning and learning and learning, but from there it just steamrolled.
GDK: Greg is a very strong seam in your career isn’t he? You’ve hitched your wagon to a fairly good start.
GP: It was a good start, but I’ve known him since he was six. We grew up together in Maritzburg, family friends. I knew him when he was racing motocross and from the early days. You never really think about it, you know.
GDK: In terms of a subject, he’s a damn good subject.
GP: Like you said, hitched my wagon to the right star basically and it just skyrocketed.
Change the face of MTB photography
GDK: So you became this globetrotting photographer on the World Cup circuit, what makes the sport so good for the photographer and what are you looking for?
GP: In the early days when I first started, the people at the time were kind of taking very stock standard pictures of bicycles racing and you couldn’t tell the context. You could have been in Slovenia, you could have been in Italy, you could have been in the US and there was not much of a distinction between them.
They were technically correct and whatever, but I felt they weren’t telling a story. It was actually the Epic in 2004 where I really hit on this theme and found where I was supposed to be. It was this adventure in these huge open spaces of the Karoo between like Calitzdorp.
Kevin had phoned me up before it and said, do you want to come and shoot the race cause my address at that point was co.uk, from living in London. He thought, oh, we’ll never be able to afford this guy, he’s from London and I’m like no, I’m in Woodstock.
GDK: Round the corner.
GP: Just around the corner and he was like, oh, okay and off we went and it was this big, great adventure. It kind of, the spaces and the openness just like opened my ideas to the idea of what photography could do. Since then I’ve always tried to take a nice, almost like a landscape photography picture and then have bikes in it.
I think if you’re doing that kind of thing, the people will just look at them differently as opposed to pure racing photography. You’ll have guys, action always makes photos work, big elbows up and attacking position and all that kind of stuff. That’s fine for the pros and they do that, but other people, you want the context of where you are.
You want to show the beauty, you want to show the morning light, you want to show the dust trails. Everybody says aspiration or inspirational, you want people to think, wow, that’s an amazing place, I want to go there. You want other people to think, that’s an amazing place, I want to ride there. I think you need to get that balance right and explain it like that.
Getting great shots from up on top
GDK: The area of photography and shooting from the air has become a genuine skill and you’re particularly good at that. When did that first really become a big thing?
GP: On the Epic again. I’ve flown all around the world and stuff, but Epic has something that lends itself visually to aerial photography. You can’t really show the scale from the ground. The height of the mountains, the size of the bunches, the dust clouds they generate, that sort of Serengeti migration almost look.
2009 we had, I think I had like half an hour in a helicopter, that was the first time I got to go in a jet ranger with Andrew Ingram. It was a cloudy, overcast day and we had, we were having no luck, we were just looking for stuff and nothing stood out.
When you do the aerial stuff you need contrast, you need shadows, you need depth, you need all that kind of stuff. On a grey, flat, low cloudy day you have none of that. It was tricky and we found this big, wide road and we thought, maybe that’ll work.
We went back there and as we got there the clouds parted and we got these beams of sunlight and there were two riders and they had the longest shadows you’ve ever seen. All across the full road because there was a gap between the clouds and the sun was exaggerated in its shadows.
It was my turn to shoot, I was on that side of the helicopter. We did two or three like really tight spirals and then we went to swap over for Andrew’s side and the sun just disappeared. Literally from my first shot in the sun to the last shot was two minutes and I got that double, the two shadows, the sort of iconic book cover shot which haunts me to this day.
I kind of just fell into it from there and since then I’ve always tried to push that photography. The shadow shot, it’s a nice, safe shot, but you need to do better, you need to do more every time. You need to be, I feel, judged on your last work and if you’re just replicating, then it doesn’t work.
GDK: Is that tough, I mean you’ve got to keep finding and looking and producing?
GP: It is, it gets you up in the morning, for sure, and it challenges you, but everybody wants to go in a helicopter, everybody wants to take a shadow shot, everybody wants to do this and that pressure and the expectation, clients pay me and book me to deliver.
Moving away from the World Cup circuit
GDK: You then opted to go back to your time on the World Cup circuit, you then moved away from that, tried to minimise the travel and have family life and so on. But I sense it might not have quite produced the results, what have you been doing since then?
GP: Since World Cup, I retired from World Cups in 2011. I’d had basically 11 years on the circuit and I would be away from home from roughly April all the way through to September. I’d be home on average for two weeks in those six months.
In 2007 my daughter was born, Molly, she was born three days before the Epic that year and so three days after her birth I was away. Eventually after a few years of this kind of lifestyle where I was away, I worked out that I’d been away from over half her life and it just wasn’t fair.
We pushed some things aside and I talked to Rob Roskopp, the boss of Santa Cruz and he’s also a good family guy. He said, no, that’s not right, come work for me. I was already doing the World Cup stuff and he said, come work for me and we’ll make this work. We started doing month on month off and all that kind of stuff.
Mountain biking, as it is, it’s not a schedule driven industry and sometimes, like last year I was away for 10 weeks but then at the same time, sometimes I’m home for two months. We make it work and it’s one of those things. I’m 45, almost 46, being an outdoor extreme adventure kind of photographer is not something I’m going to be doing for 20-30 more years, so I need to make hay while the sun shines.
GDK: You’re still riding?
Still have a passion for riding as well
GP: Yeah, I love riding. It’s weird, cause I watch people ride all the time and when I want to relax, I go riding it’s quite strange. I find riding, one, it’s super important for my fitness, I need to be fit to do what we’re doing at the moment. Like going to Patagonia and riding for five days and riding around California and British Columbia and stuff like that, you have to be fit.
I have to be, almost as fit as some of the pros that are riders because I’m riding with a camera bag compared to just a camelback of those guys. Riding, it’s been a big part of my life for 30 years, I think, and it’s good. It’s distracting and focusing at the same time.
GDK: Downhill, cross country, enduro, what really grabs you, both from a photographer perspective and from a passion perspective?
GP: In the beginning, like I said, I raced road, then I found cross country, which was great. Then I found downhill, which I wasn’t very good at, but I enjoyed it and loved it. That’s why I went into the World Cup side of things, then now enduro is really good because enduro sort of captures all of it.
It captures what we originally did when we rode mountain bikes in 1993/94 and you just went for these adventures. The climb was more of a social thing, it was something to be endured and get over so you could ride your bike faster down the other side.
It’s a bunch of mates and wherever I travel; France, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, wherever, you get a bunch of enduro riders together and it’s like mates. Irrespective of where you’re from or who you are, what you’re riding, anything, instantly there’s just this sort of, this cool bond and I like that.
Some of the ones I’ve done like Trans Provence and Andes Pacifico, they’re phenomenal adventures. 60-70 entrants, that’s it and it has the same idea as the Epic; where you go stage to stage and day to day, point to point. You sleep in tents, do all that kind of stuff and it’s what the mountain bike is invented for, really.
GDK: Combining work and passion, there are not many of us who are able to do that, so quite lucky, aren’t we?
GP: Big time, I think about it every day.
GDK: Gary, thanks very much for talking to us. Gary Perkin, he is, as I said, a lot earlier, you would have seen photographs and you will continue to see his photographs of mountain bikers and biking all over the world. Gary Perkin, our guest on Old Mutual Mountain Bike Live podcast, thanks for downloading, until next time, cheers.