Tom Oldham: Portraits of Herne Hill

We speak to the powerhouse photographer about his upcoming exhibition.

Cycling photographers (or your constant, race reportage set) can be territorial.  We get it.  It’s a saturated market, and with growing popularity, there are a lot of new faces behind the camera at every race.  So unsurprisingly, the herald and kudos often goes to a select few, of course well deserving, but within a closed circle. So when we saw the first mention of renowned portrait photographer Tom Oldham’s exhibition in Rouleur, we thought we better talk to him too.  There’s something incredibly special, and unique when an tremendously skilled photographer from another genre steps into the world of cycling. They see the magic we tend to see everyday (and perhaps are a bit numb to) in a new light, and their images reflect that back to us, reminding us of why and what we love about cycling.

We were lucky enough to get a chance to speak with Tom before the opening this week, and learn a bit more about his work.

What is it about the sport of cycling that draws you to it’s aesthetic?

“For me, it’s freshness. It’s completely new subject matter so when I’m surveying the whole velodrome and seeing loads of stuff I’ve never seen before, stuff that’s unique to this sport, in this location, at this time – that’s really exciting to a photographer. The kids, the elite and the old boys side by side, the lady who used to serve tea and homemade cakes to a cheeky Wiggo, the marshals and Derek the starter in action is about as good as it gets in my job. And the Derny drivers – man, I could just shoot them for the rest of my career, very happily.”

Did you find that your shooting at Herne Hill changed significantly over time? Are you favourite images from the beginning? End? A range?

“Nice question. You tend to shoot the big bold portraits at the beginning to get them in the can before you get chucked out, so hero shots of key members of the team, special Derny drivers, that kind of thing were prioritised. You then start going in, more macro, shooting details and textures to paint the broader portrait of the place, so the other characters and the less immediate images that take a bit more time but are invaluable to the depth of the piece you want to create. I didn’t want straight up sports shots as that’s not what I do – which is lucky as it transpires I’m hopeless at it.”

Tom Oldham's Velo: Portrait of Herne Hill Velodrome. Exhibition at Mother London on March 3rd 2016.
Tom Oldham’s Velo: Portrait of Herne Hill Velodrome. Exhibition at Mother London on March 3rd 2016.

You’ve shot a lot of massive stars in sport, music, etc, how was shooting a more grassroots cycling community in comparison?

“Well, I was working to my own brief here so there were no financial, time, stylistic or creative restraints. These pictures are exactly how I wanted them to be, rather than a manager, agent or client signing them off afterwards – which is such a delight. My temperament isn’t actually that well suited to the environment around famous people so this was, very happily, just me with a Hasselblad and a chap holding a light. This magical thing happens when you’ve been hanging around long enough, that you become part of the furniture and no one at all notices you any more. Then you can move around and shoot what you want, without any mistrust or anyone really even actually caring, which is perfect. You can document people just focussing on their race, which is where the nice shots live.”

Tell us about yourself as an artist: when did you begin your work? What have been some of your greatest influences? 

“Waaaaaaaaaaay back in 1991, when I was given my first camera by my parents. I did a night class, then a diploma, then I practiced for years and years until going freelance 16 years ago. Photography can crush your soul then make your heart soar in the same day. In terms of influences, I’ve always loved the work of Annie Leibovitz, she’s ruled the whole business for decades if you ask me but all of us look at all pictures, all the time, judging with a technical and critical eye.”

If you could own any three photographs (or works of art) in the world what would they be?

“You gonna hook these up? YOU’RE AMAZING. In that case, I’ll have a massive print by David Doubilet please, you can choose which – they’re all staggering. A Tracey Emin neon would be nice in the kids’ room, so long as it wasn’t too saucy of course, I’m not an idiot. And an a cappella performance for just my family from Stevie Wonder, which I couldn’t own but could keep in my memory forever.”

Do you ride a bike?  

“I did, until someone reimagined the definition of its ownership. It was a Cannondale Badboy 8 with drum gears and I really loved it. Hackney, what you gonna do. I’m shopping.”

Tom Oldham’s Velo: Portrait of Herne Hill Velodrome. Exhibition at Mother London on March 3rd 2016.

The images in the show are being offered to help Herne Hill: tell us about this: to me it shows a real emotional connection between you and the subject, is this a common practice or more or a rarity?

“The images have been given quid pro quo for the access. HHV has used them for some posters, ground coffee packaging and a bottled beer label and it’s the least I could do. I really hope they’ll use them for the new pavilion walls too. That would be something for me. Photographers charge for usage of images, and that’s why they have nice cars, but HHV has been so welcoming and up for this – it could never involve money.

There’s a public opening to the show on March 3rd – please come. G. F Smith have given me this beautiful paper stock and I’ve had 50 of each image printed for giveaways. Arrive early and they’re yours, if you RSVP of course.”

Tom Oldham’s photography  from the Herne Hill Velodrome will be on exhibit on Thursday March 3: The Biscuit Building, 10 Redchurch Street, London, E2 7DD, from 6.30pm to 9pm. Free, poster-sized prints will be given to the first 50 visitors. Rollapaluza Racing will be held too. RSVP to info@tomoldham.com