News Feature

Humanizing Motorcyclists : Behind the Lens of John Saponara

self-portrait | sandy relief | shelly | play | amparo x2 || john saponara

January 24, 2019 | Rahoul Ghose

Whether it’s shooting the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, immortalizing the characters he met on a cross-country road tour, or more recently making a statement with portraits on the state of motorcycling in the city, local photographer John Saponara approaches his art with a common ethos: tell a story, keep it accurate and real, respect the subjects you are shooting, and always be mindful of photography’s history and importance.

The 42-year-old Yonkers-native’s latest ongoing project, titled ‘Beyond the Bike’, itself embraces Saponara’s relatively recent involvement with the NYC motorcycling community, and in particular the Motofellas collective, in effect "humanizing motorcyclists".

“I had a loose idea and I began making photographs to see where it went,” he says. “The idea is still in its early stages, but it came from the fact that motorcyclists in NYC are under attack from the cops and political higher-ups, and shitty drivers on the road. We’re an easy target for tickets, towing, arrest. Meanwhile, when there’s an epidemic of stolen bikes, nothing happens, so much so that we have to take (matters) into our own hands.”

Saponara is working on a concurrent project, shooting portraits and headshots for a reality program currently in production which features women riders.

“I started making these portraits and I realized that they’re strong and can work in conjunction with the ‘humanizing’ project,” he said, adding the concept puts a face to motorcyclists in the city.

“I think I follow the same ethos in moto/photos as I do with any photography I do; What story am I trying to tell with this picture? I see a lot of moto photographs out there which are beautiful, but what is beyond that initial reaction? So, for me, the most interesting thing about motorcycles isn’t necessarily the bikes … it’s the people that ride them. I want to know that story.”

michelle || john saponara

  For me, the most interesting thing about motorcycles isn’t necessarily the bikes … it’s the people that ride them. I want to know that story.  

-- John Saponara

Shooting portraits, whether the subject is familiar or a stranger initially, behooves the photographer to create a connection with that subject, a feeling which is captured in the final image.

“Many of these (recent) portraits, I didn’t know the subjects, or I met them only once or twice in passing,” Saponara said. “I almost prefer that. Because then I’m not coming to it with any pre-disposition. The one advantage I see in shooting your friends is that they are used to you photographing, so they can relax and let their guard down. But I have a few tricks I use when shooting strangers to get them to relax.”

His body of work – a very varied portfolio – includes wedding photography, street photography, commercial/editorial work for the likes of Sony, Intel, HP, Instyle, Oprah and New York Magazine, and book covers.

“It’s often about connection for me. If I’m shooting a wedding, I try to make the couple relax and think of me as a friend, (that) we’re collaborating on this project, which is the same approach I take when working with an art director for a brand or magazine. I think if you take a collaborative approach to shooting, make someone a part of the process, not just a subject, then it’ll be successful.”

Saponara, who studied at both the School of Visual Arts in New York City and the Institute of European Design in Italy, started riding more than two decades ago.

“My first bike was a (Honda) CM 450 that I bought for $800. I didn’t even know how to ride it and had a friend I worked with help me. It wasn’t until recently – with the Motofellas in 2016 – that I started riding with others.”

His current ride, a Triumph Street Twin, also caught the attention of cameras, being featured on the British Customs company site, which sells aftermarket parts for Triumph motorcycles.

“I bought the ST in 2016 – the first year it was released – and it’s the first new ‘thing’ I’ve ever bought myself. I thought it was the most beautifully designed (bike) I’d seen in a while and it was asking to be photographed. Using Instagram, I would tag BC in posts and eventually they reached out to me.”

Saponara collaborated with a number of creatives in his Motofellas ‘family’ to produce images and a video for the project.

british customs street twin || john saponara

  I think if you take a collaborative approach to shooting, make someone a part of the process, not just a subject, then it’ll be successful.  

-- John Saponara

Looking back, Saponara says art school gave him an appreciation for what a skilled photographer can achieve with images.

“In addition to giving me the contacts to move forward in the industry, (art school) taught me to go beyond (the surface), to go deeper (and) bring something more forward with my images. I remember taking these really bad B&W still life photos in mid-90s while I was taking classes at my local community college, and I’ll never forget my instructor at the time, Karen Marshall, said: ‘Photograph what you know, what you care about’. And that to me meant my family."

As to equipment, Saponara doesn’t necessarily favor one format over another for photographers in general.

“I don’t place too much importance on the tool you use as long as you get the result you want: Point-and-shoot, large format, cell phone, pin hole … whatever. That being said, my favorite lens is a 35mm, or whatever the equivalent for different formats is – it’s the lens that gives you the most accurate field of view to what the human eye sees.”

Saponara does lean towards a favorite ‘frame’ format as well: 35mm/2x3/6x9.

“I think it’s the most cinematic … it allows an image to breath and things to happen throughout the frame. The thing that inspires me has remained pretty constant throughout the years. I consider myself a storyteller, and I consider a successful photograph, be it a portrait or a landscape, (to be) one that can tell a story, whether fact or fiction.”

Saponara keeps a foot firmly planted in the fundamentals of photography and the nature of the skill as an artform. To him that means having images being seen in a tangible, tactile format ... something that’s become increasingly more difficult in an industry where digital images are more often shown on screens or at reduced size in social media formats.

cuba, chinatown | andrea || john saponara

  Never stop seeing and shoot all the time – don’t worry about how many likes or what audience the photograph is for. The most important critic is you.   

-- John Saponara

“I feel that is more important now than ever before. Real prints and books are becoming scarcer … so seeing them, feeling them, and getting to look at the detail in a print is important,” he said. “If we as photographers want the consuming public to appreciate what we do – help them to understand why skill matters and the importance of quality … that it’s not just about snapping it on your phone and sticking a filter on it – a tangible, printed object is the way to show that.”

For Saponara, it also means limiting his post production on images, any edits which radically alter the ‘reality’ of his photos.

“For the most part I do very little. I try to make the photographs as true to what life looked like as possible. When I was just getting out of college, I worked with a photographer who used 8x10” for most of his life. When he photographed on the street, he made extremely detailed notes of what the light looked like … whether the bottom of the clouds was medium grey or dark grey. His assistants – I was one of them – had to color correct after scanning to match those notes. So, over the years I’ve tried to follow the same rule.”

Speaking to those who may just be starting out as photographers in a world taken over by digital technology, Saponara does have some advice in terms of maintaining the purity of photography as both an artform, and, from a photojournalistic sense, an accurate portrayal of life.

“Never stop seeing and shoot all the time – don’t worry about how many likes or what audience the photograph is for. The most important critic is you.”

emilie | elise || john saponara

You can see more of Saponara’s work at or on his Instagrams: @jsapfoto and @streettwinnyc.

Saponara was one of three featured speakers appearing at Motos and Photos Night : NYC, Jan. 24 at Filipacchi.

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