The One Moto Show 2013

Custom Bikes and my $900 Hipster Lens

Learning love through work

It’s been 10 years since I used my large format camera. Using a 4×5 film camera is a process. In religious terms it’s like Catholic High Mass versus the latte drinking worship of today’s laid-back, pentocostal brethren. There’s liturgy, routine, devotion. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family so I know a thing or two about this.

By day I’m a photographer for an advertising agency in Eugene, Oregon. I love my job. So much so, at times when I’m peering through the viewfinder I am stopped with the realization that someone pays me to look through this box of metal, glass and silicon. I have a dream job.

Everyone knows the silver lining still contains a cloud though. And for me that cloud is the rushing river of technology. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to shoot tethered to the computer and deliver images to the client by the end of the day (with a fat invoice…).

Shooting tethered in the studio
Even plastic handles need to have their photo taken…

The whitewater speed of digital photography can be freeing. I looked at the odometer on my camera the other day and I’ve registered about 20,000 clicks in the past year. If I were shooting film I would be in bankruptcy proceedings with that many frames on the ticker. The freedom to recklessly shoot allows for some adjustments on the fly you just can’t get with film.

Every once in a while though I want some holy water, insence and a little stand-up-sit-down-kneel-recite-some-hail-Marys in my photographic life. You know what I mean. There’s that occasional desire for a little nose-to-the-grindstone commitment to something. A little photographic prayer and petition to the gods of Scheimpflug and shutter speed, if you will.

When I heard about The 1 Moto show coming to Portland Oregon, I knew I wanted to go and make some photos. Photographing custom motorcycles combines my two great passions of custom bikes and photography. The fact that the show was 70 miles from my front door was like the burning bush in the desert for Moses – I couldn’t just ignore the calling – I had to go and take it in.

Packing my camera up in the studio before heading home a few days before the show I walked past my old Speed Graphic 4×5 camera sitting all alone and unused for the past decade. It was pathetic. Some of my favorite photo adventures have been with that camera. My all-time favorite image was made with that camera. Though I deeply miss the character and quality of my 4×5 lenses I just don’t have the time to shoot sheet film these days.

Then it hit me, I could adapt my lenses to my DSLR. It would be a marriage of new-testament technology and old-testament glass. I grabbed my old rig and headed for the parking garage, determined to work out some kind of match between the new and old. After a few minutes of navigating my way out to I-5 I settled into my 70 mile commute home from the studio.

After years of commuting my body sort of goes into auto pilot while I invent, cogitate and dream my way north. Every click of the odometer got me closer to joining my old-school lens with the new-age camera body. Ideas were springing up faster than the dotted yellow lines racing toward my windshield. Excitement began to grow as neared home. By the time I pulled in the driveway I was itching to get into my shop clothes, twist on the oxygen and acetylene and put some flame to metal. I had an idea of how to build a lens bracket and I had to get it out.

Reality slapped me in the face when I walked through the door. I had commitments, plans and responsibilites. Rare is the occasion that inspiration strikes and time is plentiful. Days passed before I could get to work on my idea and The 1 Moto show was fast approaching. Finally, the night before the show my wife pointed me toward the door, slapped my creative horse on the ass and said, “Get out of here and get your idea hammered out!”. My son and I headed into a friend’s shop, turned up the music and set ourselves to work.


Prototype Rail

Trusty shop assistant
First test near midnight

Almost done
Spark of creativity

Late into the night we cut, ground, drilled, welded and invented on the fly until at last my Schneider 90mm Super-Angulon from the 1950’s was happily married to the Cannon 5d. All that remained was to sew up some Nun’s Nickers to go between the lens and the camera body and head to PDX.

Making the Nun’s Nickers

As fortune would have it, my wife had planned a girls-only overnighter in one of her vintage trailers not far from Portland. After dropping the trailer and helping her get all settled I took a few minutes to get used to my new contraption before heading to the show. Taking photos with my old lens was like visiting with an old friend whom you’ve not seen for ages but are able to jump right into a deep conversation. The tactile feel of physically moving the lens back and forth on my makeshift focus rail and seeing the focal plane shift wildly as I pivoted the lens left, right, up and down offered that familliar reward of ‘making’ a photograph. Bliss, nirvanna…

The backbone of my creativity and love of my life

As with any momentary flush of euphoria, it only takes a few words to snap you back into reality and kill the buzz. Most people can relate to this feeling. It’s like seeing someone across the room that gets you firing on all cylinders and you work up the courage to go talk to them only to find out thier voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

In my case it was a harmless comment from my dear sister-in-law. While peering through my viewfinder she aksked me what benifit this new lens afforded me. I proudly went on about the shifting focal plane and other useless photographic lingo crap. At the end of my diatribe she gleefully looked at me and said, “Oh, yeah, I have that app!”.

Crap. Total buzz kill.

Before you get all down on my sis, let me say that outside of my immediate family and a couple of close friends, she appreciates hand-crafted, analog solutions over the digital dumb-down of art better than anyone. Regardless, it still sucked the wind out of my sails moments before heading to the show I had so devotedly worked towards. I perservered though.

Arriving at The 1 Moto show was a breath of fresh air for me. The sound of straight-pipes, revs and the mingling motorcycle culture clubs was a big welcome mat for my creative soul. Hand crafted bikes I had seen on several of my favorite haunts like Iron and Air, BikeEXIF, and Pipeburn were on display for me ogle with my vintage glass. I started shooting within the first 5 minutes. I was in heaven. Even though the place was packed I flipped open my ancient tripod and started the soul-filling process of figuring out how to make my new-fangled camera sing in concert with the old German lens.

Okay, so it wasn’t exactly Handel’s Messiah. And in all honesty I think it may at best be Amazing Grace when I get all the bugs worked out.

Blissful iron

The coarse truth of the matter is that a hipster with an iPhone and a free app can achieve in 10 seconds what takes me 5 to 10 minutes to create with my rig. Yeah, it really sucks, I know. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the show. Bemoaning my plight during dinner the other night I was reminded by my loving family that not all prototypes are ready to ride at first. Even the most experienced bike builders, despite all thier hand-crafting, knuckle busting and long hours in the shop create something that looks similar to the other guy and might not be rideable – yet they still love it.

Turns out all this talk of creating something and falling in love with it is surprisingly based in fact. A recent study at Tulane University researched the IKEA effect. No kidding, it’s a real thing.

The conventional logic over the years has been that we love something and then we work on it. In reality though, things we work on are the things we fall in love with. You know it’s true. If I built you some crappy table that was only good enough for your first apartment after leaving home, you’d thank me kindly and drop it off at Goodwill on your way to work the next day. But, if you went to a store and bought the cheap-ass table as a kit and put it together yourself, well hell, neither love nor money could separate you.

That’s the IKEA business model in one paragraph.

And so it is with my lens, your bike, someone elses great idea. Just because some moron with a dollar can buy an app that’ll achieve the same thing I’ve labored over doesn’t minimize how I feel about it. Despite it’s bad welds and ragged look, I love the damn thing. You might think it stupid and a waste of time but you’ll keep your trap shut becasue you’ve got the same thing sitting in your garage.

I don’t mean to get all hyper-spiritual but it’s kind of like God. He labored over me and frankly, I’ve screwed up the whole thing. To everyone else I’m an unrideable CB125 with a bad seat and a beat up tank, but to Him I’m the best friggin thing on the road and He would kick anyone’s ass who tried to say otherwise. I’m the apple of His eye, dents and all. I’m good with that.

It’s all I got, but it’s okay with me

After much reflection and thought I’ve realized maybe it wasn’t about making great photos or taking the world by storm with this marriage of old and new technology. Maybe it was more about an expression of love through the work of creation. Crafting something out of an idea and letting the process make me love what I had created.

In the long run it’ll probably be more about doing something because I love it and loving something because I’ve done it and letting that be enough.

Photos from The 1 Moto show taken with a 5d MkII and 90mm Schneider Super Angulon


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