South African Sven Martin is a colorful character. The 40-year-old mountain bike photographer is known for being everywhere, all the time. He knows everyone -- and he’s liked by everyone.
The affable, multi-talented Martin (seen riding the trecherous Garbanzo DH course with a 50-pound camera bag in the photo above) got his start as a professional skateboarder and found his own strange path to the top of the mountain bike heap.
We spoke with the Nelson, New Zealand-based shooter to find out how he got his start on the long climb to becoming mountain biking’s most-liked photographer.
Red Bull Bike: You’ve been on a long, strange trip to becoming a MTB photographer. Can you tell us how it happened?
Sven Martin: I moved up to the U.S. in 1998 with my wife -- girlfriend at that time -- to pursue skateboarding. I ended up doing photography by default just because of Visa limitations -- the easiest work I could do in terms of legality. When hurt from skateboarding, I would shoot the top skaters and it became a little bit of a job. And that just evolved into mountain biking.
Was being a photographer also a goal of yours, or did it evolve purely because of the Visa issue?
My brother and dad were both photographers, so I was always around photography. I would skate and they would shoot or I would shoot -- because I knew how to use a camera and enjoyed it.
So the skateboarding eventually faded out as you got better at shooting?
I was skating at the high end, but saw my limitations -- I couldn’t go any further. It made more sense at some point for me to photograph it.
It was the same thing with mountain biking. I was 28 when I picked up a mountain bike. I started racing downhill around 2000 and achieved some personal goals, but eventually it made more sense to start shooting the top talent in the world -- the people I was hanging around.
The first World Cup I shot photos of and didn’t race was in 2007. In 2008, I raced one or two more, but then that was it.
How old were you when you finally fully committed to shooting mountain biking professionally?
Thirty-something… I would do my race [and] have a flat or crash in my qualifying run but still qualify, which meant that I was one of the first guys going off [for finals]. As soon as I finished my race run, I would run down and grab my camera from the car. I’d be in my full race kit with kneepads, running up the course as far as I could get to shoot the top 50 guys.
So you came in pretty late for a photographer. Was it really difficult to break into it?
There was an established bunch of photographers, but [since I came] from a different background, different kinds of composition were the norm for me. At that time, a lot of [mountain bike photography] was long lens action shots. I couldn’t afford a 300mm [lens], so I shot it like I shot skateboarding -- tight action. So my stuff was maybe a little bit different. I also had a close relationship with a lot of the riders, so the lifestyle side of things was the complement to the action photos. Relationships go a long way, really.
Back when skate photographers like Atiba Jefferson were doing really different things, mountain bike shooters were still pretty journalistic. What are the differences now between mountain biking photography and everything else?
The videos and the photos of mountain biking have almost eclipsed skateboarding. Because skateboarding is about the trick or the style, it’s heavily based on that. In mountain biking, it’s more about a beautiful landscape shot with that action and style -- it seems like the filmers and photographers coming out of mountain biking have used that to push past the other sports.
the videos and photos of mountain biking have almost eclipsed skateboarding...
Well, maybe not past, but it’s level. It stands on its own. In Red Bull Illume-type contests there is a heavy presence of mountain bike photography that stands up against the ski and surf and snowboard stuff.
Do you still participate in the skate industry?
No. I wish I did. I have this massive guilt that I should be skating more myself, because it’s been a huge part of my life. But to be involved as an industry photographer, you have to be part of a posse or crew. You have to live the life. You can’t just show up and shoot. You have to live that life 24/7 and, to some extent, you have to do that in mountain biking, too.
...you need that one image that will reach out to you with a detail that makes a personal connection with the photo.
I know you travel quite a bit; you’re really entrenched in the sport...
You have to enjoy the actual act of riding a bike and appreciate the little nuances that people can identify with. You can get tons of shots of a good corner, but you need that one image that will reach out to you with a detail -- whether it’s the wheel position or the rider’s posture or where his eyes are focused -- that makes a personal connection with the photo.
You can have the best technically-shot photo, but if those nuances aren’t there it won’t stand out, not to a proper mountain biker. So that’s what I strive to do; whether it’s good light or bad light, I try to capture the moments critically.