Dennis Welsh: Motocross and the Leica S-System

Dennis Welsh has been a nationally recognized commercial photographer and director for over two decades, creating award-winning campaigns for a wide variety of clients, ranging from the travel and tourism industry to healthcare to the outdoor industry. Traveling the world, Welsh has skillfully employed his unique viewpoint and incisive eye to enhance the brands of many national companies and continues to help define the identities of clients through his signature style. Here is the story of how he used the Leica S-System to create a compelling documentary of guys still happily engaged in the rough and tumble world of motocross competition.

Q: You last appeared on the Leica Blog in July 2014. Can you give us an update on what you have been doing professionally since then?

A: It’s been a really great eight months since my last Leica post. In that time, I’ve signed a great new rep, Doug Truppe, been traveling all over the place shooting (Chicago, Virginia, Bahamas, Maryland, and up soon California and Florida), working with wonderful folks and trying to stay on top of my personal projects as well.

Q: Can you provide us some background information on your motocross images? Where were they taken? What were you trying to accomplish with this project?

A: The idea of shooting this motocross story honestly came to me in the middle of the night. I had been thinking a lot about shooting a new personal project and I knew I wanted this one to be full of testosterone. However, I wanted it to be different. Every outdoor photographer gets around to shooting cowboys at some point in their career and every photographer takes a stab at fly-fishing as well. Heck, I’ve even done it. But I wanted to try something that was a little offbeat, and old guys doing motocross came into my head in the middle of the night. The next morning, I was on the phone doing my research, and the following weekend, I was on a flight to Louisiana to find these guys. It happened that quickly.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: I would characterize them as aspirational, life affirming, and a little nuts. Life doesn’t stop when you get older. The question is… as you get older, what are you going to do with your life? These guys choose to keep living to the fullest and hang it all out there. We all could take a page out of their books.

Q: You said that you found what these guys are doing to be inspiring and life affirming. In talking to them and gaining their confidence did you get an idea of what motivates them, and if so, how did that shape your coverage of their activities?

A: I think that when you reach a certain age, you begin to take stock of what you’ve accomplished in your life and how there may be fewer days ahead than behind. What I took away from these guys is that, although they are fully aware of being older, they know that they’re still on the ride and they’re going to enjoy it for as long as they possibly can. One of the guys was 82 years old and still riding! It’s a great way to approach life. Our chronological age is simply a number that signifies how many times this earth has revolved around the sun while we’ve been here.

Getting my plans together before flying to Louisiana, none of the riders knew I was coming. I spoke briefly with the race director, who really didn’t mind that I’d be coming to shoot. However, if I hadn’t shown up, I don’t think he would have noticed my absence at all. Once I arrived and introduced myself to a number of the riders, they were truly in awe that I would travel all the way from New England to photograph them. They humbly had no idea how unique I thought they were and that’s the attitude I went in with to tell their story. It was their zest for life, their humility, and their camaraderie that moved me and I hope I did it justice through my images.

Q: What did you hope to achieve with these images and do you think you accomplished your goal?

A: As a photographer and a storyteller, my goal is to embed myself into a situation enough where I become a silent observer. I only had two days with these guys and culturally we are so different; I knew it was going to be a challenge to earn their trust and allow me to see their unvarnished selves. I take pride in being able to do that wherever I land, and this experience worked particularly well.

Q: What equipment did you use for this and what made it especially suitable for covering this assignment?

A: I used my Leica S-System and I’m really glad I did. What I really like about the S-System and what gives me the confidence to take this camera into the field is that it’s been designed to handle rugged assignment work. It’s a medium-format system, but it wasn’t built to sit in the comfort of a photo studio. It is not a precious object. We had rain on this shoot, dust, mud, pressure washers, and a lot of exhaust, and I didn’t think twice about whether this camera would go the distance. It did, and then some.

Q: There is great warmth and affirmation expressed in this image of a guy suited up and standing next to a trailer with his wife looking on affectionately. Can you tell us something about how you captured this image and how you think it functions in this portfolio?

A: I kept running into this guy, and the more I spent time with him, the more interested I became in who he was. His name is Loyd and he was one of the best riders there. After interviewing him at his trailer, I had the chance to talk with his wife about his riding, and she spoke of him with such reverence, as if he was still the young man she fell in love with when they were teenagers. It really was a wonderful sentiment, so I tried to capture that in this photo.

Q: This image showing a guy with a Maico logo tattoo and wearing a Maico T-shirt certainly expresses loyalty to that traditional brand of motocross machine, but ironically he is leaning against a Husqvarna motorcycle, a competitive brand. It’s certainly a nice detail image to round out this portfolio, but what exactly were you trying to say by including this image?

A: One aspect of my storytelling that I feel very strongly about is that I want the viewer to have to move in and out and around the story, like I do. If I shoot everything with the same lens, from the same perspective, it would end up being a two-dimensional experience and the story would have no texture. In this particular piece, I wanted to show the whole story, from soup to nuts … not only do these guys ride, but they travel to get there, they work on their own bikes, they eat and drink together. It’s a communal experience that is so much more than just the riding. I wanted to show the grit of that as well.

As far as the competing logos are concerned, by the time the bikes and the parts and the riders are this old, these guys are just happy it’s all working. Brand loyalty takes a back seat to parts that fit together and run.

Q: I really like this image because it breaks many conventional rules of composition. The prominent out of focus elements give it a nice random being there quality and it certainly captures the action. What are your feelings about this image and can you please provide the tech data, including lens, exposure, and ISO?

A: Often times, when I’m shooting, I work hard to find that point of view that may seem a little different, but will give the viewer a better sense of what the action was really like. The landscape in this image plays as important a role as the rider himself in defining what the day was like, and to me, that helps tell a fuller story – all in one image. You can see it’s a nasty day, the landscape is pretty scrubby; it’s not a place for everyone’s taste, then here comes a rider, bounding into the shot. I think it’s pretty telling.

Tech data: I shot this with the Summarit-S 35 mm lens, 1/750 sec; f/4.0; ISO 100. Manual metering.

Q: What do you think you achieved in creating this portfolio, are you happy with the end result, and do you intend to shoot additional images on this fascinating group or to look for another group of senior citizens engaged in physically demanding sports?

A: I would call this project a huge success, both personally and professionally. I love telling the story of people and their passions, particularly if those passions are foreign to us, and this story certainly was. Professionally, it’s always great to keep new work in the pipeline and show prospective clients what inspires you. This project was just that.

Q: Do you have any other upcoming projects, exhibitions, etc. that you’d like to share with our readers?

A: I’ve been shooting a number of ongoing portrait projects lately, one recently on the Pine Ridge Reservation out in South Dakota. It was a feature that is going to come out later this spring for the ACLU and it was one of the most eye-opening projects I’ve shot in a long time.

Thank you for your time, Dennis!

– Leica Internet Team

To connect with Dennis or view more of his work, visit his website.

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One comment

  • Congratulations!

    As an amatuer photographer I really enjoyed the mood and confidentiality of his pictures and his technique.

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