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In the Frame: Il Dolore
Words by Simon Lamb
"The photograph is a guillotine blade that seizes one dazzling instant in eternity.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
On my desk at home I have a box of photographs labelled Cycling Photographs to Frame. There are 87 prints, scans, magazine cuttings and photographs in the box, and each one I have decided at some point was my favourite cycling image, good enough at least to want framed. I don't have one favourite cycling photograph; I have 87. But for the sake of this article, I've whittled it down to four to choose from.
Is it a photograph of my favourite rider, Felice Gimondi? Either a portrait during a quiet moment of the Giro, or a photograph of Gimondi's family and friends awaiting his return from the Tour de France. Should it be a classic La Gazzetta dello Sport press photograph, by an anonymous photographer? Or a new photograph, in which case I would choose something by Camille McMillan, for me the best artist working and photographing cycling today. His photograph from the 2006 Ghent six day of Iljo Keisse perfectly shows a direct link back to the great photojournalists of the last century.
So I started a process of elimination. Keeping Camille's work, I removed most of the other contemporary prints. There are many great photographers working today. However, it does occur (far too often for my liking) that many professional and amateur photographers are presently fixated with capturing only the facts of the race, the winner, the star rider, the decisive break. This approach to photography disappoints me and it often misses the crucial journalistic essence of race photography.
© Camille J McMillan
I can appreciate how this approach to cycling photography has taken root, a natural and often demanded constraint of working commercially in the medium and satisfying the requests of editors and publishers alike. But I am consistently left cold by the majority of contemporary cycling photographs, feeling they lack the unique elements of cycling that illustrate the unparalleled beauty of the sport. Take away the “big stars” or grand but predictable alpine landscapes and I believe the majority of what I see in the established cycling media is repetitive, dull and lacking any real sense of soul.
This is symptomatic of the new social media exhaustion which accompanies digital lifestyles. I no longer feel I see the photographer's best work, the final edit, but now I feel bombarded with leaked out-takes from team and race PR departments, instagrams from the finish line or team training camps and quickly rushed edits online to satisfy an impatient, media-hungry audience.
But I had come to the conclusion that cycling, like photojournalism, can be defined as a struggle or duality between art and technology. I don't log the miles I ride on a computer and rarely even calculate them. I tend to ride in hours instead of miles because my heart knows time, it doesn't recognise distance. The obsession with GPS, data and power output recording that I see so much within professional and amateur cycling puzzles me as I find I want to experience a moment during cycling that cannot be quantified and compared to anyone or anything else. I want to escape into cycling, not measure it. With this in mind, choosing a favourite photograph became a much easier exercise.
But, after all the thought, it had to be that photograph of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali riding in the Alps during the 1949 Tour de France. This one image, more than any other, says everything I want to say about my relationship to the sport of cycling, its history, its photographic documentation and its myth. I escape into cycling when I look at this photograph.
To my knowledge there is no photographer's credit and no indication of what original publication it was taken for. To be honest I stopped searching for the answer to this question as this anonymity is fine with me, it only adds to its beauty. I often imagine that I could have been the photographer standing on the side of the mountain that day.
The more I look deeper into this photograph the more I hope that it was not staged, it may have been, many were at that time, but if it wasn't then they are no longer Coppi and Bartali but instead just two men struggling through the extremely painful job of riding a bicycle up a mountain day after day. They are doing so because it is their job, and not the privileged lifestyle choice I chose for myself to follow and emulate. Thinking in this way helps me remember that these two heroes of mine should only ever be judged as decent working men, men that have flaws and moments within their lives that I'm sure they would have preferred not to have picked over by public and press. Thinking this way keeps me level headed about my heroes of modern cycling and that they too are also, underneath the wealth and stardom, just decent working men and women who should not be seen as any different from myself and others.
I have seen many versions of this image, but this version with the riders slightly off centre is my favourite. Many editors succumb to cropping the image so that Coppi and Bartali are the main focus, maybe thinking that this makes the image more harmonious or perfect, they crop out the mountains behind and draw the focus solely onto the two riders. The fact that in this version they are slightly off centre, slightly imperfect, speaks volumes to me. I see the whole frame and the greater expansive landscape they are riding in; and this brings the photograph back to life and with it deeper meanings.
I love the silence of this photograph, if I stare long enough at it, which I often do, I can hear Coppi and Bartali breathing and the crumble of dirt underneath their wheels. Within this frame there is no victory, no crowds and no adulation. Bartali simply follows Coppi. All we see is one 125th of a second, the click of the shutter, but a beautiful slice of the journey of two of Italy's greatest ever cyclists.
Simon Lamb is the author of ildolore.cc
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