Santa Barbara, CA

Stealing Moments with Emily Maye

We can’t get enough of Emily Maye, so it was a real pleasure to meet over beer and falafel in the Lower East Side and chat about following professional cyclists across the globe. Why do we like her so much? It’s her new perspective on the sport that gets our attention. Documentation of cycling can lack for artistic expression, often stuck in the domain of the literal and journalistic. Each generation has its share of artists that strive to bring a new perspective to the sport, Emily Maye is one of them.

Emily, let’s start at the beginning, where did you grow up?

I was born in Ukiah, north of San Francisco, but we moved to Santa Barbara shortly after, so that’s where I grew up.

How did you get started in photography?

Visuals and storytelling have been part of my dance and film background and so I think the spark was always there. I took a photography class freshman year of high school and I loved that. I would come back to the camera as a way of getting outside and making something. After college I got a digital camera and that made things easier and I found I would go out and walk around cities and take photos. I took a lot of pictures. I had started to develop a strong tone to the photos and got a lot of good response but there were never any people in the photos. People totally scared me.

Then I started photographing ballet, and photographing people changed everything. That’s where I found what I had been looking for and what I got back from that was so much more immediate than writing and trying to create people in my head.

Why cycling?

I was a fan of the sport of cycling and I wanted to write a film that was located around early cycling history. I wanted to get a tone for the film and I decided to go photograph it. I was really happy with how that turned out and those photos got noticed. From there I built contacts and jobs came in and ultimately enough things came together than have kept me involved in cycling for four years and photography has become my primary focus.

Who was the first cyclist you photographed?

I shot the 2011 Tour of California with credentials and I think the first person I took a photo of was Andy Schleck. It was at least the first picture of a cyclist I took and liked. I shot 4 days of ToC and it was different then, there were a lot less people shooting cycling. I knew that what I was getting wasn't what other people were getting and to a degree I thought I was failing because of that and then I looked at the images all together and there was such a strong tone because they had come from what was interesting to me. That's one of the only times since then that I've shot completely how I want and whatever I want and I still like those pictures for that.

"The ultimate goal is for the photo to feel like a cinema film still from a movie you haven’t seen but are now intrigued by."

What's a typical day on the job?

Each night, we’re given a schedule for the next day so that we know what’s up. In the morning I tend to get up as late as possible, pack my suitcase and bring it out to the truck, gather the equipment for the day and head to breakfast. I keep a camera with me all day, even at meals.

After breakfast, we head out to the race start. Once we’re at the race, I move around between the crowds and on the bus and at sign-in. Usually I have to leave in a car with either the race director or soigneurs about 10 minutes before the start.

Races last around five hours and I’ll get to the finish before the riders unless I’m in the race car. We’ll then transfer to the next hotel, and I will photograph the massage or mechanics working on the bikes. Then we have dinner and after dinner I will load in photos to the compute to edit then upload. It’s hard working after dinner and can be really late so if I get a chance earlier, I go for it. Bed is usually after midnight and up before 7:00am the next day. And do it all again.

Sounds grueling. What keeps you focused on cycling?

I have been fortunate to have opportunities to see it from an inside perspective. I also think it’s the most beautiful sport in the world and that helps. I love how it moves through so many different environments, weather conditions and crowd atmospheres. Day after day! There is an unpredictability to it and it’s special to have a sport where so many teams participate at once. I like opponent-based sports but cycling is really something special in the way it’s set up.

"All of my favorite photographers have always been street and war photographers and are based solely in documentary photography. I draw a lot of inspiration from that."

What's your angle?

I try to look for something that illuminates the experience of the race or of the cyclist that you wouldn’t find in the TV coverage. If the photos looks like a still of the TV coverage then there isn’t much point to it. I also try to look for something different from what the other photographers are taking. There can be a lot of photographers around and I don’t want to end up with the same photos as everyone else. The ultimate goal is for the photo to feel like a cinema film still from a movie you haven’t seen but are now intrigued by.

So is there a defined 'Emily Maye' look?

I don't think about it too much because I think that could kill it or make it too finely focused. It's such an instinctual thing and I have to protect that to a certain degree. When I'm taking certain photos or looking through an edit I know immediately if it has the "Emily Maye" style. I do think the subjects tend to appear reflective in the pictures, there's some mental tone to them that I'm drawn to, even when that's reflected in their physicality. I think ballet gave me a strong ability to read physical tone. In ballet it's a conscious choice how you reflect tone in your body for an audience, the subjects in my photos are not conscious of the tone they are portraying and that's what I want. A stolen moment.

When it's working I think it's best not to ask too many questions.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I try to draw inspiration from non-cycling mediums. All of my favorite photographers have always been street and war photographers and are based solely in documentary photography. Also, color is a huge inspiration.

Can you describe a happy moment in your work?

I love when I completely disappear from the photo. If you can look at a photo and forget for a second that a photographer was there to take it, and the moment feels stolen somehow, that is my happiest moment.

Do you have a favorite photo so far?

It’s hard to pick an image, but I really rate the photo of Fabian on the bus with his headphones on. It was the morning he won Flanders and there’s something really quiet and introspective about that picture and it feels like a stolen moment.

Nice. What year was that?

That was in 2014, the year after he had won both Flanders and Roubaix. So there's a bit of anticipation on the morning, could he win? I think it's interesting what makes a "favorite to win." There are a lot of factors that go into that, beyond physical strength. I asked Jasper Stuyven about this idea and he said it's also the guy that knows he can win because he's won. His body has literally taken him across the finish line first and you can't underestimate what that does for your body. It gives you something more than just believing in yourself and dreaming big. That's why a first pro win is so important to a rider mentally. But with Fabian, he's who everyone thinks will win and that's something to be around. He went on to win that day but not in any predictable way at all. That's maybe the most beautiful thing about watching him. It's not like a solo ride all the time out front where you see how he does it. He's won under so many different tactical circumstances. He has real follow through to victory. That photo illustrates that introspection I mentioned. His body is calm and he's listening to music but there's something going on in his head without a doubt.

You mentioned you were a ballet dancer. Are there parallels that draw you to both pursuits?

I think the aesthetic elements and the ideas of line and spacial relationship from ballet inform how I make photographic choices. As a dancer you are visually responsible for telling a story and so I feel that the goals can be similar. The activities are very very different though. Being a photographer is much more about trying to blend in and go unnoticed. Ballet is the opposite.

Do you think ballet dancers could be good cyclists?

I think they would be. They certainly know how to suffer! Pointe shoes can be awful all day! I do think that they would get bored of the repetition of movement though. And no music. That is 50% of the relationship to being a dancer.

But cyclists wouldn't make good dancers though…?

Well, some of them are quite flexible and that would help. They can have a gracefulness that I think could translate. Both Bob Jungles and Jasper Stuyven I think would make good professional dancers [laughs]. I think self-discipline could get them far in ballet.

Who is the most difficult rider to capture accurately?

Some of the more shy guys can be hard. Stijn Devolder was one that was difficult to accurately capture and now he’s much more comfortable with the camera around and I find he’s really great to photograph. Sometimes it just takes time.

What would you say is the craziest experience you've had to date?

My first day with Radioshack Leopard Trek was when Fabian won Flanders and then Roubaix the next week. That was surreal to be around during a win that big. It’s one of my favorite memories.

Also, descending in a team car trying to bridge the gap up to Jens Voigt in the breakaway at my first Tour de France. It was such a small road,and we were passing cars on the inside of the descent and it was just one of those moments where you think, “I don’t hear of cars going over the edge in a race, but today could be the day.” There are some moments in the car that are very intense. And every time I end up on a motorcycle I wonder how I got there.

Finally, can you describe your ideal place to live... your ideal “chalet”

A tranquil space inside of a big city or very close by. I love big cities and always have. I am more inspired by interior spaces than exterior. Have you seen those architectural features on Nowness of Spanish architects? (ed. check them out here). That’s everything.

"I love when I completely disappear from the photo. If you can look at a photo and forget for a second that a photographer was there to take it, and the moment feels stolen somehow, that is my happiest moment."