I think that emotional content is an image’s most important element, regardless of the photographic technique.
Moto life, eternal bonds and friendships, the grit, the love of movement, the freedom of two wheels -- all are captured through the distinct eye of Baltimore, MD's Debbie Fitch, whose photos have graced the pages of an enviable list of biker magazines over the years.
But it's Fitch's time with her New York-based riding friends where her work truly hits home, affording her a personal look into local biker life and many of the living icons that have forged chopper culture for decades in the Five Boroughs.
She shoots what she loves and is passionate about. And that passion shows through.
“New York City, Brooklyn, and surrounding areas such as Jersey hold some of my dearest friends, friends that would do anything for you.” Fitch says. “I always have a couch/bed and warm meals. Between Shovelhead Austin, Telly The Greek, and their amazing families, I’m never left homeless on my trips up there.”
Many of Fitch’s subjects, like Austin -- aka Brown Sugar Johnson from the American chopper documentary Sugar and Spade -- hail from a different generation than Fitch, “folks with a great history on badass choppers.”
“I love that,” she says. “They are history. They are the photo stories I want to tell. I want these young guns to see living legends and that they have been building, riding, and living the choppers lifestyle longer than those youth have been alive.”
Fitch’s weapons of choice? A Canon 5D Mark III and EF 24-105mm f/4L lens. Her preferred vantage point? In motion, on the seat of her Harley Street Bob.
"There is no setup other than my eye, camera, and hand," says Fitch, who takes a very photojournalistic approach to her discipline. "I feel like I can capture movement better when I’m moving as well. My eye sees what I want to capture; I point my camera and shoot.
“I find that the less equipment I carry the more I can simply shoot without worrying about changing lenses or cameras. My belief it that less is more,” she says, adding that simplicity also allows her to concentrate on the details of her images.
“In a portrait, I look for the eyes and posture. Are they content, uncomfortable, focused upon something, or are they not even looking at the camera? My absolute favorite images are when the subject doesn’t even know that their picture is being taken. Emotionally, they’re the best photographs in my eyes.”
Kevin Fingers McHenry and the chopper life in its full glory — Debbie Fitch
My absolute favorite images are when the subject doesn’t even know that their picture is being taken. Emotionally, they’re the best photographs in my eyes.
For bike images, Fitch also has a very conscious shooting technique.
“If the image is of a motorcycle motor then I want my eyes to move around the image; I want to see it all. Details, even the smallest, are so crucial. My style, I would say, is just that … details. I want the viewer to see what I see in my head. I want to leave them satisfied with what is in front of them. I want to tell a story no matter what the subject.”
That need to tell photo stories hit Fitch at a very young age.
“I’ve been shooting since my early teens, back when all we had was film. I transformed my bedroom closet into a darkroom and loved it with a passion. I spent countless hours developing photographs and swearing that I was feeling high from the chemicals. It was my church … my safe haven.”
Her fondness for photography in general came about even earlier.
“Back then most kids my age were looking at cartoon characters or enjoying a coloring book. I, on the other hand, chose to go through my father’s National Geographics and stare at every image like it was my first time I witnessed a photograph. The photos told a story that needed no words. They were that powerful even to a child. As for shooting motorcycles and the lifestyle, I was always taught to photograph what I was passionate about. As long as I can remember I’ve loved motorcycles and the biker life. It was in me and I learned to ride in my teens. So as far as passion … I found it quite easily.”
Developing her own skills and ‘eye’ for composing images was down to her high school years, where the interest become an obsession of sorts.
“We shot in black and white film only, which was fine by me since all the photographers I was enamored with shot black and white as well. Our teacher, Ms. Anderson, was not only an educator of shooting, developing, and printing photographs … she taught me to see. She was my mentor. So as far as schooling goes, it was just two of the best years of high school. I was a simple teenager with a simple camera.”
Capturing the details — Debbie Fitch
Natural outdoor light is the best, and limited available light at night is amazing to me. Finding that right shadow or glow from a streetlamp makes images more intense in my opinion.
Now in her very early 40s, Fitch points to two photographers that continue to inspire her work: Annie Leibovitz and Danny Lyon.
“The early years of Annie’s work takes on great meaning in how I shoot now. Her days at Rolling Stone blow me away, from documenting The Rolling Stones as they lived life on the road to her classic portraiture. Danny Lyon has been most instrumental in the way I shoot motorcycle culture. He taught me to get to know my subjects personally, catch movement and deepen the way I shoot portraits. His book The Bikeriders showed me there’s more to biker photography than just shooting people on motorcycles. It’s a lifestyle and story that needs to be told.”
Fitch’s work has seen the pages of a host of moto-related publications, including Chopcult, In The Wind Magazine, Easyriders Magazine, Wrench Magazine, Hot Bike Magazine, The Horse Back Street Choppers Magazine, Cycle Source Magazine, Lowside, Iron Horse Magazine, Basket Case chopper magazine, and L.A.C.E. Magazine.
Her marketing clients have included Indian Larry Motorcycles, Genuine Motorworks, Vanson Leathers and Loaded Gun Customs.
But whether the job is editorial or corporate, Fitch has the same outlook and goals.
“They aren’t really different at all. I take all my work very seriously and tend to find that all the details I shoot for in magazines and clients are related. I take the first thing that catches my eye on everything I shoot and run with it until I can, hopefully, tell a story with my images. Whether it be a motorcycle, leather jacket, panhead motor, portrait of an unknown person or professional model … one can make anything interesting with the right concept.
“I’ve always considered myself a photojournalist. I truly hate studio work unless it’s in a great motorcycle shop or garage. Lighting equipment is cumbersome and tends to be something I choose not to carry. Natural outdoor light is the best, and limited available light at night is amazing to me. Finding that right shadow or glow from a streetlamp makes images more intense in my opinion.”
Many of Fitch’s favorite images have been immortalized in a photo book, What I See. .. On the Road, which she self-produced … 100 pages of biker life.
“It was one of my top goals in life and one of the hardest things I’ve done. I relate quotes to my photographs a lot. Finding the right photographs was exhausting, but finding the quotes that moved me and matching them with the photographs was more relaxing. When I sold out of my books it blew me away. I was so hesitant about putting out a book, thinking no one would buy it. Well they did, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
A re-print of the book is in the works, possibly available in Spring 2018, Fitch says, adding she is also bouncing around ideas for a second book.
Shovelhead Austin shoot through NYC — Debbie Fitch
I hopped into the bed of my truck and for hours surfed around the city capturing the main man and his crew. We blew over the bridge to Manhattan, turned around to go back and the skyline of the city was just in the right place at the right time on the bridge. Austin and his brothers were doing what they do in the city they love, and I had the honor of capturing it.
With her longstanding pedigree in the industry, Fitch still has affection for both film and black and white photography but has definitely adapted to modern digital bodies and the possibilities in color images.
“I loved film … to the point that I swore to myself I’d never switch over. I loved the feeling of nervousness when you have only two rolls of film in your pocket and you have no idea if you even got something good until you get back to the darkroom. But hell, times change. I’ve grown to love digital because the power of editing can be done in the blink of an eye instead of hours in a darkroom and I can check the photo immediately on the ‘cheaters’ screen. However, my saying is to always know how to shoot, know your camera and settings well, and try to remember how difficult it was way back in the day when you feared that light would sneak into your film holder on your camera.”
Fitch’s editing routine includes Photoshop and Aperture for proof sheets and filing her photographs. The rest -- the details -- are a secret, she says.
Two shoots in the past are particularly memorable for her, one from a bike and one from the back of a flatbed truck though NYC.
“When I shot Kevin Fingers McHenry up in Buffalo, we rode backroads through cornfields for hours. No traffic, no potholes, warm air and no people other than us. It was one of the best shoots I’ve been on. Just riding next to a living legend, camera in hand, amazing blue sky and memories being made with a dear friend.”
More recently Fitch drove her truck up to New York from Baltimore to shoot Shovelhead Austin for a day.
“I said to invite some friends. Little did I know how many would show … it was great! I hopped into the bed of my truck and for hours surfed around the city capturing the main man and his crew. We blew over the bridge to Manhattan, turned around to go back and the skyline of the city was just in the right place at the right time on the bridge. Austin and his brothers were doing what they do in the city they love, and I had the honor of capturing it. That was absolutely my favorite NYC shoot.”
Ultimately, Fitch’s photographic work always comes back to the friendships she’s developed over the years.
“It is very personal and very emotional; there are so many great guys and gals up there and so many photo stories to tell. My camera is always out catching the moments of my life through my lens with these old school biker friends. Often, I wonder if they even know that I’m shooting; I think they’re oblivious after all this time. (And) sometimes I think to myself, ‘How in the hell did I end up in Shovelhead Austin’s house?’”
You can see more of Fitch’s photography in her gallery here on NYC Motorcyclist, or visit her website and social media at the links below. Prints are also available for purchase on the website store. |