A year ago, as a travel photographer based on the epidemic, I began to bring a camera and tripod with me on my morning bicycle ride, as if they were magazine assignments.
It started as just something to do – a challenge that is to try to see the familiar through fresh eyes. Soon it blossomed in celebration of traveling at home.
I live in Sussex on the southern coast of England in a faded seaside town called St Leonards-on-Sea. If you have not heard of it, then you are in good company. It is not on the list of English beauty spots celebrated by anyone. In fact, most of my rides are located on flat coastal marshes or high seas.
There is history here, of course. After all, it is England. Most days I live alone, where William the Conqueror landed his men in 1066. Otherwise, apart from being a hangout for smugglers, this stretch of coastline remained away for centuries until the Victorians brought the rail from London.
Then, for some flamboyant decades, St. Leonards and other nearby seaside cities became popular bucket-and-spade holiday spots, England’s own Costa del Sol – all the way up to budget airfares and Real The Costa del Sol, who lives in Spain, drove the crowds away and did not let the region collapse for long.
For me, I am a transplant. I moved to Australia from here. After its initial innovation, being in England, it assumed a kind of shrinking familiarity – general shops, takeaways, a downbeat seafront, bumpy around the edges, but with very inconvenient access to Gatwick and Heathrow and flights. More interesting places for.
But the discovery of St. Leonards and all around him, the camera chasing the light, has all changed in a year. It has brought home the truth that you do not have to board a plane and jet to the far reaches of the world to experience the feeling of travel or the romance of difference. It is waiting at your door – if you see.
You do not have to go far. In fact, I could not. With various lockdowns imposed on us in the past year, it is either discouraged or outlawed far away from your residence. All of these images were captured within a 10-mile radius of where I live, and most of them were much closer than that.
I plan my walk and set every morning well before dawn so I want to catch the first light. In summer it may mean to leave the house at 3 o’clock in the morning. In winter, it is cold light, there is a crisis of frost under my wheels, sometimes snowflakes soak in the glow of my headlamp.
I have everything I need on my bicycle and work completely alone. I am both photographer and cyclist in photographs. That part is getting used a little bit. I have never been comfortable in front of the camera. As a journalist, I have always said that I had a great face for radio and the perfect voice for print. But the devil drives when needed. With social-away requirements and zero budget, I have got everything.
However, these pictures are not about me. They are meant to represent a cyclist on the landscape, anyone – you, perhaps.
Creating these images requires not only a new way of visualizing, but also a new photographic skill set. The first question most people ask is how do I operate the shutter when I am on a hundred yards on my bicycle. easy. I use an intervalometer called a programmable timer, which allows me to determine any delay required and then fire the camera from a chosen frame. It is easy. Any person can take a self-portrait.
Putting yourself as an artist in the scene is a far-reaching proposition. This requires juggling a variety of details, most of which you never think about until you start doing it and look critically at the results. Everything matters, from the glare of light and shadow, to the set of your headlamps, to your body language on a bicycle. You have to be an actor, director, location scout, gaffer, key-grip, even a wardrobe assistant: I always carry a jersey or two in different colors to make sure I can use any background. Can work
What’s more, you have to play all of these roles in real-time, in fast-twinkling lights, in an uncontrolled environment where cars, pedestrians, dog-pedestrians, horses, cyclists and joggers – can! – Pop out of anywhere. It can be extremely frustrating, and intensely satisfying at the same time when it all comes together.
It is also addictive. Over the past year I have become a keen student of local geography – not only the layout of the towns and the shape of the architecture and landscape, but also when and where the light falls as the season progresses. I know an old salt-like tide table and follow the phases of the moon. I have developed a farmer’s eye for the season. I can tell at a glance, when I step outside my door, those mornings will be sweeping away from the swamp in a misty haze. I plan my outing with the same expectation I felt on my way to the airport. And when I push down the road, the world gets bigger again, the way I used to be when I was a kid: rich in detail, ripe for discovery.
By the time I return home, several hours later, seen the sunrise and felt many miles under my wheels in Sussex, I feel as if I am Gone Location, seen Things, Traveled In the grand old sense of the word.
And, ever the traveling photographer, I bring back photos of where I have been.
Roff Smith is a writer and photographer based in England. You can follow her daily ride on Instagram: @roffsmith.