Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Interview with Ricky Adam

After featuring Ricky Adam back in July we wanted to explore further into this chaps creative mind. Luckily he agreed to answering some Q's.

Name Ricky Adam
Age old punks never die, they just stand at the back.
Job Co. Editor/Photographer DIG BMX MAG
Location Leeds U.K./Everywhere
Website www.rickyadamphoto.com
Twitter N/A

I'm gonna dive right in with a simple, yet complex question. I tend to believe that most serious photographers of all kinds have to have a certain connection with their work and strong beliefs on how
things should be. In your eyes, what does photography mean to you?

Taking pictures is something that I need to do, I love it. For me it's like breathing. If I stopped breathing I'd be dead, if I stopped taking pictures I'd feel dead inside. I have always been passionate about photographing things that I have a burning interest in. It must come from within, otherwise what's the point?

BMX & punk rock are two things that I have been interested & involved in for many years, long before I even picked up a camera. Some people call these activities a subculture or counterculture. To me it was and still is a way of life. They both mean a lot, they were staring me in the face and I eventually felt compelled to photograph these subjects. It was like second nature. I'd go to shows or be out riding with friends and take photos here & there. When I first started using a camera the streets & things I was seeing would take on real meaning.

I feel that it's important to photograph certain points in time because once they're gone, that's it. Looking back there are certain shows and people that I wish I had photographed. I missed the opportunity simply because I didn't have a camera.
Photography gave me another way to express myself creatively. It's also a great way to meet new people which is amazing. I've made a lot of great friendships through the medium.
Also, I have a terrible memory so when I look at old photos I shot it helps to jump start my feeble brain.

It's a very gratifying feeling when you know you have a good picture in the can, a picture that resonates. I want other people to see what I see, I want to share the optimism, the energy and the enthusiasm of the subjects I photograph and give something back.

Ultimately I want to motivate & inspire people to go out and do positive stuff like pick up a bike and blast off a jump, lift a drumstick, sing in a band or even pick up a camera.

Tell us a little about where you're from and what sparked your interest in photography? Was there a photo or a photographer that you discovered early on that set everything off?

I was born & raised in Northern Ireland and first discovered photography at the age of 16 after I took a few photos with my friends dads camera. I grew up with photography in my blood but frustratingly never had the money to buy a camera of my own until I turned 19, as soon as this happened that was that, I was terminally hooked.
I was attracted to the immediacy of photography, I was always good at art and painted a bit at school but personally I found the painting process too slow. I've always been a collector of things: records, books, magazines (of which I have a huge collection in boxes in my loft) & whatnot so taking photos is sort of an extension of this.

There was a time when I was reluctant to show my photos to people as I felt they weren't good enough. I have always been my own harshest critic and had a huge pile of photos that I kept in a box under my bed.
After a while I learnt how to edit photos down, and to weed out what I saw as average. Eventually, once I had a body of work that I felt was good enough for public display, I started submitting photos to a few magazines that I respected. I can't even start to imagine the hundreds of hours I've spent looking through the lens and I don't want to begin to think about the amount of time I've spent in the darkroom.

Often it takes time to cultivate a collection of good photographs. A good photograph transcends & bad photography totally devalues good photography.
I didn't publicly show any of my photos until I had a decent set of pictures, only then did I make that transition from taking pictures to actually showing them in the public domain.

... but what do I know? I don't even like to call myself a photographer, I'm just a guy who happens to take pictures.

What effect, if any, have your early surroundings had on your picture
taking and style? Did you shoot certain things since they were readily available? (surrounding made you shoot in black and white, portraits, people etc….)

Northern Ireland is a very strange place to grow up. The terrorist threat that has been present in N.I. for many years does have an effect on you after time and I've tried to stay away from photographing the more obvious negative aspects of N.I.
This is the reason why BMX & the punk scene were & still are so appealing to me. It was a break from the norm & was something positive that I could channel my energy into.
I was never interested in getting drunk and spending weekends at the bar. I'm not criticizing people who do, it just isn't for me.
For some time now I have been working on a series of photographs titled 'Urbanite', the images are quite dark, bleak, brooding somewhat apocalyptic even. I'm not sure why I'm drawn to photograph this sort of thing? It seems I can't help myself.
If I see something that fits the above description I feel compelled to photograph it. Maybe I'm just a product of my environment without even realizing it?

At what point did BMX become a main focus for you?

I wouldn't say that BMX photography is or ever has been my main focus. It's just one aspect of things that I'm interested in and enjoy photographing. I guess I pretty much answered this in the first question.

I often get strange reactions/blank stares from people when I tell them that I take photos/Co. edit a BMX magazine.
Getting off the subject, I don't ride that much these days due to my knees being destroyed but it always amazes me that some people who have been into something for a long time can simply walk away from it and retain zero interest in it. I'd like to think that I'll always be interested enough to pick up a BMX mag (or whatever format it may be) now and again.

Most people know you shoot and work for DIG magazine, but fill us in on how you got to where you are and ultimately what your title is there.

My official title is Co. Editor. Basically I shoot photos. I also edit, adjust & color correct all the photos in the mag, bits & pieces of editorial, the odd bit of design, bug people for words, send out magazines, clean the office, do the odd coffee run, etc, etc. It's very much a co-operative type of affair where everyone chips in, although I have to say Will (Smyth) bears the brunt of the mayhem. I grew up riding & going to shows with Will years before the magazine came about and have met lots of great folk as a direct result of the mag.

Around issue three I started submitting photos, some of them were used and I continued to submit photos. This went on for about 10+ years until one day I eventually got paid some money. I must say however that money has never been a driving force for making DIG, pretty much everyone who works or has worked at DIG has to make their pay packet up by doing other work. I worked for 10 years as an electrician then took a civil service job as a file clerk, a cleaner in a hospital, a mailroom employee in a call centre, etc. all the while doing bits & pieces for DIG. Part time jobs enabled me more flexibility to take photos which is all I wanted to do.

I look forward to every issue of DIG that comes out, I think it's a great magazine.
In your opinion, what do you think sets DIG apart from other BMX magazines?

Thanks! I'd like to think that DIG has a certain integrity about it.

Most of us who work or have worked at DIG have had some involvement in the punk scene at one point or another so there's always been a strong D.I.Y. ethic in the way we approach things. What sets DIG apart is that it's always blazed its own path and has never followed what other magazines were doing.
We've always had very strong opinions, convictions & ideals about how BMX should be portrayed, with an empahsis on creativity and positivity. Also, unlike a lot of other media within bmx we don’t (or at least try our best not to) glamorize drug use or tolerate homophobia or sexism on our pages. I'm certain these are key points in DIG's longevity and the willingness of people wanting to be a part of it.

A lot of people probably don't know this but DIG was born out of an attic bedroom in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has been going for over 18 years with the same editor (Will Smyth) who, by the way still stays up until the early hours putting the thing together in his house, whilst listening to Drive Like Jehu. The only other BMX magazine that has been going this long with the same editor is the German BMX mag Freedom with Kay Clauberg at the helm.

There's really no other way to describe the way the magazine comes together other than a group of like minded people from all over the world creating something that they are passionate about. Like I mentioned, it was never a money making venture more of a community. Will & Co. started DIG to represent the sort of riding & attitude that other magazines at the time weren't able to deliver.
Its never been a 9-5 operation. Some people say they preferred the way DIG 'used to be'. Thinking about it, if you did like it then, but don't like it now, then you never really liked it. It's had its fair share of ups and downs but the heartbeat remains true, which is something that hasn't changed over the course of it's 18 years existence.

It's apparent that over the years, some other BMX publications have copied or imitated certain aspects of DIG. It's not like DIG reinvented the wheel or anything, and I don't want to talk shit about other magazines (most of which are now really good) but I'd like to at least think DIG has made some sort of positive impact in the BMX world.

Speaking of, what do you normally carry in your equipment bag? You can
be specific.

I'm not that much of a 'gear' person and have always viewed a camera as just a tool. You don't need expensive equipment to shoot decent photos. It's all in the technique leading up to the final execution. I have had a lot of shitty cameras over the years and have got good photos out of all of them. The majority of my photos are shot with just a basic camera and no flash.
Unfortunately BMX photography requires me to carry a lot of extra equipment, flashes, light stands, etc. It's a necessary evil. I normally carry 2 camera bodies film/digital, 4 flashes, 2 stands and a few different lenses.

I try to keep my equipment to a minimum as it helps to travel as light as possible especially, when like me you're a vegetarian with a high metabolism. So, apart from a camera, the second most important item in my bag is probably vegan snacks.
Like I said I'm a vegetarian, pretty much vegan, in fact I'm probably more vegan than most vegans who say they're vegan. I'm also Irish, pale & skinny which in turn makes me a bad advertisement for vegetarianism, but my whole family are Irish, pale & skinny, so being veggie has nothing to do with the that.
So, getting back to the question. This is my bike complete with panniers for carrying camera equipment. Probably the most uncool bike in BMX:

Do you carry some sort of camera on a daily basis? If so, which?

I nearly always carry a camera with me along with a couple of lenses. I don't feel right when I don't have a camera with me, like I'm missing a body part or something.

Speaking of which, I have this recurring dream every few months or so. I'm somewhere, I'm not sure exactly where? I'm walking along a street and suddenly I'm gripped with crushing anxiety when I realize that I don't have my camera!

A sense of panic ensues, thoughts flash through my brain a million miles an hour as I try to figure out where I left it - There's no way it's still going to be there, where is it?! did I leave it on the train? Then I wake up in a cold sweat and a tidal wave of relief washes over me when I realize that this is in-fact a dream/nightmare.

I read somewhere that recurring dreams are caused by unacknowledged stress and trauma. Once you've dealt with the underlying stress that causes the dreams, they're supposed to go away. I guess I should figure this out....

Most people are familiar with your BMX work, but your non-BMX
stuff is equally as interesting and powerful. Tell us a little about the stuff you enjoy shooting outside of BMX.

It's really good for me to have a few different projects going on so that if I get burnt out doing one thing I can focus on another. If I just shot one particular thing I'd get burnt out for sure. I have a few long term 'book' projects on the boil that when I get the time I like to work on.
One being '...from the streets of Leeds' which is basically a social documentary series of pictures focusing on the surrounding LS6 postal code area that's on my doorstep.

I moved from Ireland to Leeds about seven years ago and was immediately taken by the rows of red brick terraced houses which I later found out were mill worker dwellings built over 100 years ago. Students & families have since replaced the mill workers and as I've always been interested in both urban/social change & photography it makes sense to combine the two and make some sort of record of the area during this time.

Another project as I mentioned before is 'Urbanite' which is a series of photographs taken in cities all over the world and is based around people going from one place to another. That space in between coming & going - people walking, exit signs, elevators, etc. I like the idea of freezing those transitory moments.

Tell us about some of the random publications that have featured your stuff over the years. Any specific one you are most proud of?
I've had work in a bunch of magazines and a few books all of which I can't remember? Backyard Shakedown photography book, Document 'a story of hope' book, record covers, etc.

Recently, I've had photos in Juxtapoz, Maximum Rock N' Roll, Hamburger Eyes and of course DIG.
I'm not referring to any of the above publications when I say that in the past I have worked with editors & designers who either don't give a damn or don't know how to use photos or edit them which can be the most frustrating thing in the world. There's nothing worse than picking up a magazine or whatever and seeing your work destroyed through bad design or laziness.

Seeing as a lot of people admire your work (wether they know it or not), whose work do you admire in and out of bike riding?
I like almost every photographer in the Magnum agency, their work has always been an inspiration to me.
The name alone is something that over time has become a seal of approval. Generally, Magnum photographers are both compassionate & humanistic in the way they approach their subjects and carry it off with great flair and consistency.
I love looking at photos and there are so many photographers that I admire I really don't want to start naming names in case I leave anyone out.

On your site, you say "Please note that none of these photographs are
cropped or altered in any way". Are you a purist in that regard? Do you
not like messing with photos on the computer too much?

As far as photography goes, I've always been a purist in that I never crop photos or manipulate them in photoshop. I learnt early on that if you need to alter or crop a photograph it obviously wasn't taken correctly in the first place. Shooting photos this way has taught me a lot about composition.

The film vs. digital thing is a tired comparison as far as I'm concerned, so we won't go there.... however, I am going to go out on a limb and say that you prefer film over all else. Do you have a trusted
camera/film combination that you find yourself using frequently?

I have an old Nikon FM 2 that I've had for years and I nearly always use it with Kodak TRI-X 400 film.
Yes, the film V's digital is a tired comparison. I do find myself using more and more digital these days - No harsh chemicals & less waste so it's better for the environment, a lot of running tap water is needed to wash chemicals off the film & prints, film has become increasingly expensive and once you scan a print or negative it becomes digitized anyway.
Blah, blah....
but like I mentioned above so long as the image hasn't been manipulated in any way a good photo is a good photo regardless of what sort of camera it was taken with.

Whenever I think of Ricky Adam photos, I think of black and white. Why is that?
For the most part it's what I have used over the years and as I do most of my own developing & printing B&W film was the cheapest option up until I got a digital camera. I have always liked the look and style of a B&W print. It has a timeless quality about it and the documentary feel it possesses seems to fit well with the few projects I have been working on over the past while.

Another reason why I shoot a lot of B&W is because I started out shooting these projects in B&W so it doesn't feel right to change half way through. I have been working on some of these projects for the past lot of years well before I even had a digital camera.
I do shoot a lot of color as well, but old habits die hard.

Is it true that Shepard Fairey has made an 'Obey' print using one of your photos? If so, How did that come about?
I shot a few photos in Minneapolis about 6 years ago of an aging Andre the Giant poster that was still clinging to a billboard. I sent Shepard the photo and he asked if he could make it into a limited edition print to raise money for the anti war campaign at the time.
There were a few different color variations on it and as far as I know a few were screened onto metal.

Incidentally, Shepard designed an old DIG sticker for us.

Thanks for your time Ricky, I know you're a busy man. Anything to add before we wrap this up?

Follow your heart & believe in what you do.
It's 2010, let's keep the energy going. It's all about what's happening today, now.

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