“Lots of those pictures are inside the moment. They’re doing what they enjoy. When you’re shooting professional sportsmen, some of that is lost.”
Tom Oldham is discussing his frankly beautiful portraits from the Herne Hill Velodrome and how its group of amateurs and enthusiasts differs from his more typical sporting subjects: Premier League footballers and the stars of track and field.
And then there are his musicians, “unlikely characters for stardom” some of them, with fragile egos, security guards and “everything that comes with people worth a lot of money”. No wonder Oldham describes the velodrome in South London as a place “filled with love”.
Not that Herne Hill is without its rock stars. Oldham’s inspiration was the peacocking of the Derny riders, though he chanced upon them in more muted form in footage from the Olympic Games in London.
Phoning his cousin, Caspar Hughes, the Rollapaluza roller racing impresario, Oldham asked, “Who are the chubby cats who seem to parade what they’re doing?”
Hughes directed him to Herne Hill, “an earthier scene” than the Olympic velodrome. In the amateur races and a successful fight to replace its crumbling pavilion, Oldham discovered something richer than the pursuit of medals.
“I went down and said, ‘Do you mind if I take some shots?’ and they said, ‘Err, if you want to, mate…’
“It’s a beautiful place down there. It’s full of ambience and love. I’m a big fan of the underdog and they’ve fought for their new facility.”
Oldham has donated his portraits to the cause, and will exhibit them at Downstairs With Mother in East London on Thursday March 3, 2016.
“They were generously giving me their time and I wanted them to have some pictures. I’m really hoping that when they put up their new pavilion I get to put some photos up.”
All of which is a far cry from shooting Usain Bolt and Cesc Fabregas.
“The contrast couldn’t be wider, I would say. There are structures in place with professional sportsmen – usually team considerations. And money, obviously, is the greatest difference.
"The greatest thing about shooting at Herne Hill was the freedom of setting my own brief. All the pictures you see were exactly how I wanted them to look, and I don’t always have that.”
The reward for Herne Hill’s enthusiasts is obvious: portraits of almost preternatural clarity, imbued with an honesty that perhaps says still more about Oldham’s art than his beguiling aesthetic. Each of his images captures something of the rider’s soul. The Derny-riding showmen have never had it so good.
“When you shoot at Herne Hill Velodrome, you keep shooting until they don’t notice you’re there,” Oldham explains. “That’s where the honesty lies.
“I hope we’ve really captured something of what it’s really like down there. They deserve lighting and shooting as much as heroes and icons.”
An exhibition of Tom Oldham’s photography from the Herne Hill Velodrome will be held on Thursday March 3, 2016 at The Biscuit Building, 10 Redchurch Street, London, E2 7DD, from 6.30pm to 9pm. Free, poster-sized prints will be given to the first 50 visitors. Rollapaluza Racing will be held too. RSVP to email@example.com