There are a handful of people who regularly shoot local bike races, consistently delivering off-the-hook imagery, for money.
We call them professionals.
Danny Munson, Brian Hodes, Kristy Morrow, Phil Beckman … it’s a small club. Yet the work of these photographers in an age when everyone can take a thousand snapshots with a smartphone, one of which will be worth keeping, stands out.
Phil is at almost every race, carrying 4,000 pounds of camera gear, consistently delivering the goods, and what’s more, he always has a word for me as I’m getting dropped, coming off the back, quitting, falling off my bicycle, or wiping away the tears. So I called him up on Monday after checking out his website, PBCreative.
CitSB: How long have you been a photographer?
Phil Beckman: I started dabbling with my Dad’s cameras in high school, and since I raced moto, I took cameras to races and shot occasionally between races. That was in the mid-70’s.
CitSB: Around the time they invented dirt?
CitSB: Then what?
PB: I graduated from high school and went into photographic technology in college, it was a major that prepared you for a darkroom career, and since the last place I wanted to spend my life was in a room, or in the dark, I moved to California in 1981 looking for light, wide open spaces, and for my dream job of being staff editor at a moto mag. I immediately found the position, it was amazingly lucky, and learned a lot about photography and writing. I was a photojournalist for ten years in the 80’s.
CitSB: Oh, so you’re one of those camera guys who, you know, actually had a job in the media and was trained as a journalist.
PB: I guess you could say that.
CitSB: Instead of just buying some shit on eBay and shooting your cousin’s wedding and boom, becoming a pro?
PB: There was no eBay then.
CitSB: Oh. Right. Then what?
PB: The magazine was focused on ATV’s, which weren’t my thing, I was a two-wheeler guy. The the 3-wheeler safety issues came to light and the direction of magazine couldn’t handle it, and it folded.
CitSB: Worst communist liberal plot ever.
PB: What’s that?
CitSB: Taking away the freedom of foreign and domestic corporations to manufacture, sell, and promote vehicles that killed or horribly maimed people. But The Donald’s gonna fix that, you’ll see.
PB: Um, okay.
CitSB: What happened next?
PB: The Mac appeared in 1987 and turned me around with the desktop publishing revolution, I lasted ten years on the forefront of that. I went out on my own in 1989 doing self-publishing, writing, and layout for clients from my moto days. I did dealer communication pieces for twenty years, how-to guides for Suzuki and other major corporate clients.
CitSB: I still want to hear about how you scooped up a bunch of shit on eBay, shot your cousin’s wedding and became a pro photographer. That’s how it’s done, right?
PB: Everything changed with the Great Recession in 2008. Power sports took a dive and Suzuki laid off half their office in Brea, senior management left without work after a whole career with the firm, it was ugly. But it pointed me back to photography. I couldn’t see anything else I wanted to do and my wife was so supportive—we celebrated our 30 year anniversary in October—and I decided to make photography in business.
CitSB: So you shot your own anniversary and turned pro?
PB: If you want to put that in, I can see you’re dying to say that, go ahead.
CitSB: Well if I say it then it’s me making shit up. You have to say it.
PB: (Sighs.) So I shot my own wedding anniversary and turned pro.
CitSB: After buying a bunch of gear on eBay.
PB: … after buying a bunch of gear on eBay.
CitSB: That is so awesome. Shows how anyone can be a pro photographer. My reader is going to love this. Then what?
PB: So much had changed in photography with the switch to digital. The principles are the same and techniques are the same,but it’s a whole different world on the equipment and processing side.
CitSB: I always wondered how you guys dipped these digital cameras in developing fluid without gumming up the works.
PB: Actually, we don’t use darkroom chemicals for digital cameras.
CitSB: Then what?
PB: I had picked up bicycling as training for moto because it was quick and easy training, and it was on two wheels. I got serious about cycling in the 90’s, getting burned out on racing moto. I first did MTB then road, and did a lot of crit racing and have the scars to prove it. I was a solid time trialist, but otherwise pack fodder 20 years.
CitSB: Oh, brother. Not another one of those “I used to race” wankers. Pin on a number, bro.
PB: Well, I got a nerve injury in a ‘cross race 2009 and haven’t been able to ride since then. I can’t sit on a bicycle anymore.
CitSB: Cry me a river. Race on a fuggin’ recumbent. That would be rad. Then what?
PB: I got my BFA at CSU Fullerton, with an emphasis on graphics. Now I primarily shoot bike races. I was doing some moto earlier but now it’s strictly bicycles. I personally love wildlife, nature, and macro photography.
CitSB: I hate to get personal, but how the fugg do you make money off cyclists? They are the cheapest, thievingest, most worthless bunch of deadbeats alive.
PB: That’s not the case with photos. My primary market is the riders at the races, and even though I’m getting more business to the brands selling photos of the heroes if I have the right image, 90% is from the riders, and I profoundly appreciate their support. Without them I’d be doing something else, and the “something else” would be grim. It’s the riders in SoCal that are letting me live my dream, and pay the bills while doing it.
CitSB: Hmmm. Most of the racers I know steal pictures like a klepto in a supermarket run by blind people.
PB: In one sense of course the business end is hard. The business and marketing end is way harder than the shooting. I try to market and earn new business and clients, but the shooting is the fun part. The weather can be a challenge, especially the heat. Still, I love being out in the middle of nowhere just hanging out waiting for riders.
CitSB: A few years ago every bike race had twelve people each with $50,000 in camera gear. Now it’s basically you, and occasionally Danny Munson. What’s up with that?
PB: Some of the bike photo boom was people like me getting laid off looking for something else to do. It seems like easy work. “I like to take pictures,” …
CitSB: “And I shot my cousin’s wedding … ”
PB: Right. So there was a lot of price undercutting for shoddy work taking away business from the veterans. It’s easy to buy a camera and hard to make money off of it. The competition is very difficult. The prevalence of smartphone photography has skyrocketed so now everyone’s a photographer. But ultimately if you’re looking for a really good picture that captures a certain thing at a certain time in a certain way, you’re going to need a professional with the right tools and the right skills to deliver it. There will always be a market for the best, it’s just a bit harder and perhaps more competitive.
CitSB: Anything else?
PB: There’s no way I could have even ventured out without my wife’s support. It’s been three years, and she’s as solidly behind me as she was from day one.
CitSB: Do you have any photos I can post on my blog for people to shamelessly steal?
PB: I’ll send you a few.
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