Rider’s Lens: George Marshall’s Photography
In our latest Rider’s Lens, we look at the work of photographer George Marshall, who shares a selection of film photos and his story of transitioning from shooting for BMX magazines to documenting unsupported bikepacking trips in places like South Africa and the Andes…
Words and photos by George Marshall (@georgemarshallphoto)
I cut my teeth shooting BMX, a passion that has dominated my life since I was 12 years old. BMX gave me identity, friendship, music, travel, and a career in photography. After finishing my masters, I thought the standard of BMX photography coming out of the UK was behind that of the US. I realised I was perfectly placed to give it a crack. Armed with a tonne of determination and a tonne of debt, I pushed myself to attain the standards of photography I saw in US skate magazines.
To put it bluntly, I worked fucking hard, researching and experimenting to develop my technical skills. It all paid off, and I almost immediately got a cover shot published by a leading BMX magazine. Shoot offers started coming in to the point that I could leave my full-time job as a talentless illustrator and go full time as a BMX photographer.
For five years I traveled the world scraping a living from shooting BMX. I lived and breathed it. I organised events, I produced a magazine out of my living room in Stockwell that printed 20,000 copies every two months, and became friends with my idols. It was a childhood dream come true.
BMX is an unorthodox but an excellent apprenticeship for professional photography. Shooting BMX isn’t easy. You get a single instant to get it right. Missing a shot of a top rider could end your career. Word spreads and other pros won’t shoot with you. I shot mostly on medium format film. In BMX, the rider is most likely doing something very dangerous and there’s a good chance you’re trespassing. After a shoot, you either end up sat on the curb drinking beers all happy, in the hospital, or trying to defuse an argument with a security guard.
Professional BMX photography wasn’t something I saw a lifelong career. It’s a world of broken bones, blood, debt, alcohol, fist fights, soft drugs, hard drugs, and sharing a single bed three other guys – a young man’s game.
With zero interest in road bikes, I started shooting for Rapha in 2010 after a friend of mine, James Fairbank, joined the brand while in its formative years. James was keen to move away from the typical road cycling photography of the era and asked me if I could shoot big bikes. Working for Rapha introduced me to a new passion to lose myself in. With BMX magazines folding and my interest in BMX fading, road cycling filled a large void and I have become equally immersed in road cycling. In a short time, I went from riding BMX in baggy jeans to racing 24hr time trials in skin suits.
I’m at my most content on an unsupported ride, with my bike loaded up, a camera bag on my back, and an uncertain road ahead. I love not knowing where I’m going to sleep and seeing it all unfold. I’ve been shooting the Rapha Brevet / Explore campaigns from the bike for the last few years, spending every minute of the day with the riders, experiencing the high and the lows first hand, and documenting it all. Nothing is faked or staged. The stories are genuine and the challenge is authentic – no bullshit. I enjoy these unsupported trips as they make the most of my skills and strengths as a cyclist, photographer, and filmmaker. I don’t enjoy carrying a heavy bag, but I enjoy shooting good photographs. This approach gets the best shots. To refer to the featured image below, you don’t hit rock bottom with a support van behind you.
I like to think authenticity is a theme that runs through out my work. I don’t shoot fashion or work with models. I photograph people I admire with genuine stories. In recent years, I’ve become interested to stories outside of cycling. Last year, I spent a few days with a crew of scallop divers in the North Atlantic. In the depths, 30 miles off shore, they collect scallops by hand on the sea bed in the pitch black whilst fighting currents and the cold. The rewards are high and the risks are higher. The strength and resilience of these guys were astounding. Floating on the boat above, I vomited the entire time, yet the experience was a needed reminder of the world beyond bicycles.
I shoot a fair bit of my work on medium format film, which makes me much more considered. At £1.50ish (~$2) per frame, you can’t spray and pray. I love to see a contact sheet come back with 10 different shots correctly exposed, the way I envisioned them at the time of taking. I don’t bracket and rarely take multiple shots for a single image. I was always taught to not push the button the unless it was perfect. On a ride where I’m shooting, I’ll expose an average 3-4 films a day, and come home with 20 rolls of film. You mark up your selects with the client, scan them in, clean off the cat hairs in photoshop, and they’re done. I work differently when shooting digital. I can shoot up 3,000+ photos a day and return from a shoot with thousands of images to wade through – a working process I am less proud of.
Next up, I’m excited about taking on the Atlas Mountains Race coming up in February, although my photography isn’t bringing me there, my cycling is. I’m doing that ride for myself with just an iPhone for snaps.
George’s Photography Kit
My equipment list changes changes every shoot. However, my go-to set up is the Fuji GF670 medium format rangefinder with a fixed 80mm lens, a sekonic light meter, and a box of Kodak Portra film.
The above image is the face of dehydration and heat exhaustion. This was the scene after riding more than 14 hours across the Karoo Desert of South Africa, with zero shade, zero food, and zero water for the final four hours in relentless heat, with temperatures around 38°C (100°F), on dirt roads. This X-Pan photograph is a reminder to me that rock bottom is often the best time to reach for a camera.
About George Marshall
George Marshall is a professional photographer based in Hastings, UK. He’s also the co-founder of The Albion, a BMX magazine that was published from 2010-2014. He’s worked with Rapha as a contracted photographer/filmmaker for several years, as well as with clients like Team Sky, Red Bull, Strava, and National Geographic. You can find more from George via his online portfolio at GeorgeMarshallPhoto.com or on Instagram @georgemarshallphoto.