If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Dmitry Gudkov’s bike portraits are a multi-volume history of what’s been happening on New York City’s streets lately. Since early 2010, Dmitry has taken hundreds of photographs of regular New Yorkers proudly posing with their bikes, posted them online, plugged them on Twitter, passed them around on Facebook and found a loyal following along the way. What started as a hobby has turned into an instantly recognizable body of work, a book project and a rare sort of undertaking that finds a common theme among the wildly disparate worlds of New York City’s cyclists.
What made you decide to start your #BikeNYC portrait series?
Dmitry Gudkov: A few years ago, I stopped taking the subway and started riding a $40 Huffy I bought on Bedford Avenue to my office job in the city. It sounds cheesy, but it changed my life. Biking changes your relationship with New York: it gives you a freedom you can’t have otherwise. At the time I didn’t know many other people who rode bikes, but I saw them on the bridges and bike lanes by the thousands, so I decided it might be fun to get to know some of them through pictures. I did a shoot with a friend, started this blog and threw it up on Twitter. Eventually, I started stopping cyclists on the street and asking them if I could shoot them. After awhile, people started contacting me to photograph them, and it’s all just snowballed since then.
It sounds organic and high-tech at the same time. Have social networks like Twitter and Facebook really impacted the project?
They haven’t impacted the photographs, but they’ve definitely made the whole thing bigger. I not only took my project’s name from the #BikeNYC hashtag on Twitter, but I also attribute a lot of the attention it has gotten to social networks. There’s a pattern: I post a picture on the website, then I tweet about it, then it ends up on Facebook, and it’s liked and shared and more people come to the site.
What have you learned from all that time with NYC cyclists?
Mostly that there’s no such thing as an “NYC cyclist.” They’re really just people on bikes at that moment, and people are really different. I stopped an elevator repair man the other day and asked him about his bike. He told me he rides because his boss cut the budget and won’t let him drive the company van. His experience is really different than the woman in a spandex racing kit or the guy in a suit or the dad with his kid in a child seat on the back rack. When you ask them to pose with their bike, though, you get an instant sense of pride and strength, so maybe that’s something all NYC cyclists have in common?
What’s the craziest thing you’ve heard after asking someone if you can take his or her picture?
One guy said, “Yes, you can take my picture, but don’t publish it. I just stole this bike.”
And I took his picture and didn’t publish it. I can’t believe he stopped and said yes and even fessed up to it. I guess that’s a weird version of the pride and strength.
What do you focus on when you compose your photos?
There are three main elements in each of the images: the person, their bike and the background. You have to play with the person and the bike to make them work together—to make sure the angles are right—but the big variable is the background. I want New York City to be a character in every picture, but I don’t want it to overwhelm the person or their bike. I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make interesting backgrounds that aren’t too distracting.
Do you have any tips for aspiring bike photographers?
Focus on the person first: Do they look good? Are they interesting? And then think about the bike: Does it look like it’s doing what it’s supposed to do? It sounds dumb, but fast bikes look better when they seem fast in a picture, and cargo bikes look better when they seem strong, so you have to really consider the bike. And lastly, and I’ll say this again, it’s all about the background. Don’t forget about the background. It takes up more of the picture than your subject, so see the whole frame. Take a step back and look.
How do you see your pictures fitting into the change that’s been happening on New York City’s streets?
Well, it’s an art project, but it’s also a documentation project, and it’s also an activism project. But mostly people love bikes. And it’s a reflection of that and what’s happening in the city. How quickly things have changed. How many different types of people ride. You know, it’s not the most creative idea ever, but there wasn’t anything else like it, and it seems to have struck a chord. There is a project in rural South Africa that’s sort of the same, and there’s another in Spain and another in Hamburg, so I think we’ve all found something that people respond to.
What’s next for #BikeNYC portraits?
I was approached about doing a book—I’m looking for a publisher—and I’d like to do a gallery show because some of the pictures would look great really big. I’d also like to track down some important people: the Transportation Commissioner, Senator Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld. I know some of those will be easier than others.
Is there a white whale out there?
Bill Cunningham. In Midtown, I’m always scanning for that blue coat.
Images Courtesy Dmitry Gudkov