Rider’s Lens: Conan Thai’s Photography
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In our latest Rider’s Lens, we check out the work of Brooklyn-based photographer Conan Thai, who shares some thoughts on the confluence of cycling and photography, insights on choosing a photo career, a bit about how riding is helping him through the pandemic, and more. Find it all here…
Words and photos by Conan Thai (@everydaycult_)
My name is Conan Thai and I’m a Southern California transplant currently residing in New York City. I’m a second-generation Chinese/Vietnamese-American, a child of refugees who came to America and met each other in the early 1980s. I grew up in the suburbs of Garden Grove, California, navigating my way through the city on department store bikes as my interest in various cycling disciplines shifted through those formative years. By the time I graduated from UC Irvine as a studio art major, I was well ensconced in mountain biking and road cycling.
Outdoor recreation started in earnest for me after a health scare in 2014 hospitalized me for a week and prompted me to be more mindful of my diet, sleep habits, and work/life balance. If I’m not cycling, I might be found plugged into an audiobook on long hikes or learning how to climb rocks and ice. Growing up where warm days seemed ever-present, I joke nowadays that I need more snow and rain in my life to make up for the surfeit of sun.
Up until my early 20s, photography was always a hobby, not something I’d considered as a potential career. After learning how to swim a few weeks before an open-water, Olympic-distance triathlon, I felt emboldened enough to toss myself into the wringer and dive into the NYC photo industry full-time. Fast forward a decade and I now mostly work in post-production, helping out other photographers with their images. Early on, I’d sometimes spend weeks squinting at a small number of proofs, examining every little corner, figuring out the ideal color treatment to meet each client’s demands. As marketing moves more into the digital realm, however, timelines have shifted and there are higher volumes and quicker turnarounds. Bombarded by a never-ending slew of photos, it sometimes can feel numbing to switch gears at the end of the workday and revisit my own photos. I was quite happy to receive a nudge to dive into old images and scrutinize my old eyes for this post.
The confluence of cycling and photography happened naturally. A photo break serves as a helpful reminder to pause, catch your breath, drink water, have a snack, or check in with a riding partner. It becomes part of the rhythm of longer rides. For solo endeavors, it’s also time to ground myself in my environment and allow moments of contemplation or reexamination. As Ben Hovland mentioned in his recent Rider’s Lens feature, situational awareness is necessary during dynamic situations. We’ve all been increasingly inundated by traumatic events this past year and, in our collective anxiety, we sometimes forget our sense of self and agency. Stop. Breathe. What do I feel? What am I seeing?
There’s a certain intimacy shared in adverse conditions and I enjoy the technical challenge of how to document moments that are difficult to capture. I don’t think I’ve quite figured out the best approach to photographing at night or keeping equipment dry in a deluge of rain, so it’s a delight when something comes out of what is ostensibly a shot in the dark.
Bicycles have always served as one way to break into conversation with a stranger. There’s something expansive about travel by bike and, with the advent of online forums, Instagram, and Slack groups, the ability to connect with others has been made that much easier. I’ve been seeing the community grow substantially while also realizing that there are gaps in voices and representation. Bicycles as objects can serve as tools for escapism and self-care but listening to the people using them has been more beneficial in helping broaden my understanding of conservation, land use, harmful business practices, and the inherent biases in the marketing of outdoor recreation.
If the COVID-19 vaccine rollout proceeds smoothly, I’d love to resume international travel in the future, document ultra-endurance races, or go on an extended bikepacking trip somewhere new. My grandparents on my mom’s side still live in southern Vietnam and it could be an enlightening journey to see the country as it’s changing dramatically. Another attempt on the Tour Divide has been on my to-do list, although the pull of Kyrgyzstan has also been building back up.
Living in New York City without a car, the pandemic has given me the impetus to familiarize myself with local routes and to string together new ones. Being a dense city with a large cycling population, everything has probably been routed already but, if you open yourself up to night riding, adverse weather conditions, longer days in the saddle, or extended hike-a-bike sections, well-worn routes can feel transformed anew.
Conan’s Photography Gear
These days, I mostly use a Canon 5d mk3 with a 24-70mm f/2.8 attached to a Peak Design Everyday 5L sling via their Capture Clip. If I’m not too concerned with weight, I’d also carry an 85mm f/1.8 lens. It’s vital to have my camera immediately accessible and, with the sling, all I have to do is reach back and half-press the shutter to wake it up and be ready. Only recently have I started using the stabilizer strap from my ancient Timbuk2 bag to keep my camera from bouncing around my back and bruising my tailbone on rough terrain. If I’m limited in space, I might rely solely on an Olympus Epic mju:ii point-and-shoot film camera wedged in a pocket somewhere. If I have the luxury of a place to call home base, I might additionally also have a Mamiya 645 Pro TL or an RZ67.
Iceland, 2015. This photo is of my friend Raul standing atop a lateral moraine deposit to take a photo of Drangajökull, the northernmost glacier of Iceland. We were road tripping through the country and thought to pop out for a quick hike. In the absence of atmospheric haze, the glacier looked much closer than it actually was. We spent almost half the day walking there and back with katabatic winds gusting the entire time. Raul had purchased translucent rain layers prior to the trip and, in black and white film, his electric silhouette resonates with the meltwater streams and patches of snow dotting the glacial valley.
I had brought my medium format Mamiya RZ67 as my primary camera in an attempt to shoot landscape photos but was ultimately dissatisfied when compared to this impromptu snap from my point and shoot film camera. Another friend, Wesley, lugged his Hasselblad 500cm on a tripod but ended up mostly pointing at the ground with an EOS650 SLR to take photos of little plants, a granular and briefest of view in the long lifespan of a glacier. This all was a reminder that we don’t always end up taking the photo we set out to capture. If we allow ourselves to be receptive to chance or discovery in the process of photography, we allow ourselves the serendipity of surprise.
About Conan Thai
Conan Thai is a Chinese-American photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. He graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a BFA in studio arts. Growing up with working class roots, he lived in books, played with matches, and dug holes in the backyard garden. He’s fascinated with environmental sustainability, decay, life from entropy, the death drive, film theory, narrative structures, and situationistic ‘aha’ moments when the senses clear and the fog lifts.
Our Bikepacking Collective members can find Conan’s photos accompanying Michael Zhao’s words in “Baldy Bruised” in the fifth issue of The Bikepacking Journal. Also, don’t miss our feature of Conan’s 1989 Bridgestone MB-1 that he rode in the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race. You can see more of his work at ConanThai.com.