If you tuned in to watch a mountain stage of the Tour de France in the last three years, you have probably seen photographer Michael Blann at work without realising it.
Compiling photographs for his new book ‘Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs’ has been a 36 month process for the Rouleur contributor, taking him across Europe to the most famous climbs and passes in cycling, from the Col du Tourmalet to the shadow of the 3798m Grossglockner in Austria.
“If you ever see those helicopter shots where they pan away to show everything, I’m the lone person who is miles from the action and everyone’s wondering ‘why doesn’t he get closer to the road’” Blann says.
Most photographers concern themselves with lots of heavy, expensive equipment; shooting with a large format digital camera and tripod made Blann no different in that regard.
But photographers generally don’t worry about hiking boots, the necessity of satellite phones, or dropping £5,000 lenses down mountain sides and having to scramble down to collect the scratched and smashed remains for the purposes of insurance.
“We had a tent blow away when we were camping on the Ventoux this year around the time of the Tour de France,” Blann says. “We were all camped above Chalet Reynard. I elected to go and sleep in the car. In the morning I looked out and the tent was gone”
Blann rode most of the 44 climbs that feature in the book; the bike was the perfect vehicle to reconnoitre viewpoints and assess the light conditions. Capturing the morning and evening light in a variety of seasons meant camping outdoors in all weathers.
Like an intrepid Victorian naturalist, collecting images and delivering them beautifully bound to the enthusiast’s coffee table is not without its risks.
“There was a time on Grossglockner when I stepped off a massive boulder and onto the next one, and the one I had been standing on just suddenly gave way and started rolling off down the mountain,” he recalls.
“Mountains are notorious at letting you down; suddenly the cloud rolls in and you can’t see 10ft in front of your face.
“I revisited a lot of mountains as well, there were some I wanted to shoot in winter as well as summer. You have this contrast, and we even shot some of the Dolomites from a helicopter during a Rouleur shoot.”
Drawing inspiration from artists Edward Burtynsky, Stephen Shore and Nada Kander, Blann says his aesthetic approach to the mountains reflects his other work, which he sums up neatly as “little people, big spaces.”
“The idea was to have these big landscapes with negative space and small areas of intense detail. I wanted to concentrate on these big scenes rather than the action.
“The racing is just a travelling circus that comes to the mountain for a day; you have all this crazy activity and then it disappears again.
“It was about showing these mountains as the constant. Everything else comes and goes.”
Michael Blann will be exhibiting photographs from ‘Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs’ at the Rouleur Classic, 3-5 November 2016.
The book is available to purchase at the Rouleur shop.