As has become apparent with the publicity building up for The Peloton, this book has been your life for some five years now. Can you take us through the initial thought process behind the book, and how that resulted in what we see today?
Yeah, it’s certainly been a journey for me. The interesting thing to note here is that it all started in 2004, at the Giro d’Italia. I was in the Dolomites on a riding holiday, and the Giro happened to be on at the same time. I didn’t go and see the race and was only following it casually. However, within that ‘close distance’, I had the feeling I belonged to it, that I should be there doing something. This evolved over time, and after some thought I decided about the approach of the portrait shoots: capture the riders just after crossing the finishing line, in an attempt to get as close as possible to their mind-set when still on the bike.
There wasn’t any great preparation in terms of accreditation when I headed to the Giro in 2005. I just went there with the idea to do this photo series employing a white background and of course, black and white films. So first of all, I wanted to make sure that the shooting itself was feasible. And I had to experiment with the technical process, too: find the right equipment I needed, the right film and the proper way of processing the negatives. After looking at what I had done at the Giro, it was clear that this was going to work. The results were very pleasing, so I decided that the concept was sound and I should expand the project.
By then I was thinking of a photo series that would show the physical changes of a cyclist over a five-year period. However, over time I got more involved with the riders and cycling in general, and my interest developed in much more than just the imagery. The whole project started to change into something whereby we could understand more about the riders from a character and personality perspective. Among others, I began to carefully plan when and where I would shoot a rider as an attempt of getting as close as possible to their most personal, ‘existential’ moments.
Could The Peloton be viewed as a vessel for the emotion that cycling has brought to your life these last few years? Your journey with this project has seen some turbulent times in pro cycling: did that ever colour your thoughts on the riders you shot or your interviews with them?
Of course this has been a difficult journey at times, and there have been times when I was simply not enjoying it. Like at the 2007 Tour, when Rasmussen was arrested in the Pyrenees. I actually left the race that day. For sure I didn’t ever doubt that I would complete the project, but I knew that day it was time to leave it alone for a while.
I always tried to be objective and this is how I approached both the riders and the shoots. I wouldn’t really ask them to do anything or to perform for the camera. Why should I? Some people want to show something by themselves, others don’t and some others do so without realising it. There were many memorable moments, especially when the encounter turned into a moment of mutual respect for what everyone was doing. If this happens, you don’t really have to ask for anything specifically or search for an expression or anything you might have had in mind about someone.
I don’t see myself as a journalist. My relationship with the riders was as a photographer, and I think this is how they perceived me, too.
When it came to the interviews, they had to be measured. I wanted to make sure they would reflect my experiences within cycling and I had long discussions with the journalists who conducted most of the interviews with the riders – to ensure that they understood my relationship and experiences with them too – which was based on trust. I made sure I was present at most of the meetings and I’m convinced it was absolutely worth the efforts.
The challenge in editing the book was finding the right balance. This is a photographic book, first and foremost. But the interviews are important, too, and the book needs to have rhythm, of course. I hope we found a way to offer different possibilities of looking at it: you can only look at the pictures; combine the pictures with the catchwords we choose of any statement; or you really read the entire texts which also communicate with each other, forming thematic blocks within the book.
Interestingly the images are all shot in analogue. Tell us a little more about the reasoning for this and your photographic references when shooting the subjects?
I use 90 per cent analogue cameras. For me it is still the most natural way of working and thinking. I just love the process! You don’t see the results immediately, you have no immediate control, you have to use and trust your imagination, just as well as your subject – especially in case of a portrait. It’s important to keep moments and photographs in your own memory and then look at them with a bit of distance, with thoughts or things you may have experienced in the meantime. And once the films have been developed it reignites the imagination again. The lack of control is exciting. But of course my assistants had to endure my excitement, especially after the shoot. I didn’t stop questioning myself after the events!
My influences and inspirations are almost purely from the important black and white photographers, both reportage and portrait: photographers such as August Sander, Richard Avedon and Anton Corbijn are real influences on my style and approach. However, it is more of a tradition than a certain person – black and white photography specifically. And the technical, manufacturing result is something that I really focus on too.
You were also key (amongst others) in the interview processes with each rider. What challenges did that bring?
This was a tough process to manage. Once Herbie (Sykes) and I did four interviews and 700km in one day, so there were times when it was certainly tough. But you have to remember that if you want to realise a volume like this, you just have to do it, without compromise.
I like the comparison of this to doing a race. The whole process of getting a rider, photos wise, was about getting to the finish and the prize of the shots. But sometimes it didn’t happen, but as with the bike, there is always another day.
You also state that there were riders that didn’t make the book, how was the final ‘selection’ of 96 reached?
It isn’t fair to talk about the riders not in the book. Every process like this needs practice, and at first I sometimes wasn’t happy with the results. Additionally, it is a stressful process, but ultimately it is about results, as with bike racing. The best images and the best interviews made it to the book, and that’s it.
We only ever really know a certain amount of riders in pro cycling, and sometimes the selection of images are a reflection of how cycling is. The peloton has anonymous riders, domestiques, or, like 116, riders that never win a race. But their involvement and contribution are what make both the racing and the metier beautiful.
What do you hope to achieve with the book? Is its philosophy to inspire others or is it merely a portrayal of what life is like in the world of pro-cycling?
It’s funny, as if I said something to support a philosophy or inspiration, it would come across as pretentious. All I can say is that I couldn’t do it better. And I am hugely grateful for the access and enthusiasm that the riders gave me. I hope this is reflected in the book, and I really want the reader to judge the book and tell me if this approach works.
From a photographic sense we have seen everything. It is very hard to do something original, but if people recognise that I have followed a tradition and an unpretentious approach, and enjoy the book, then it is a success.
And what next for Timm Kölln?
There may be a bit less cycling for a while. I need a break. Right now, I feel I have said everything that I wanted to with this book. But certainly there are too many good relationships in cycling that I would want to continue, and I have some more ideas, but I will keep these under wraps for now.
The Peloton – available here