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Circus, by Camille J McMillan

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The world of cycling as seen through the lens of Camille McMillan.

Circus - Inside the World of Professional Bike Racing, by Camille J McMillan
Circus - Inside the World of Professional Bike Racing, by Camille J McMillan
Camille McMillan

Circus, by Camille McMillanTitle: Circus - Inside the World of Professional Bike Racing
Author: Camille J McMillan (with a foreword by David Millar)
Publisher: Velodrome Publishing
Pages: 240
Year: 2016
Order: Casemate Publishing
What it is: The world of cycling as seen through the lens of Camille McMillan
Strengths: McMillan looks at the wider world of cycling, the totality of the sport - the fans, the entourage - and not just the sport on the road or on the track
Weaknesses: Seriously, asterisking coarse language?

Camille McMillan's Circus being a book of cycling photographs, let's begin with an image from the book, a photograph of the Tour of Britain, as seen from the inside of a public house:

Circus, by Camille McMillan Camille McMillan

A framing device

Ideally, you might think, you would not use such a big frame within the photograph's frame, the window looking out would be larger in the photograph, the inner border smaller: McMillan should have taken a step forward (I think he's the sort of photographer whose idea of a zoom lens is taking a step forward, or back). But that would be to miss something important within the inner 'frame': in the bottom left of the picture you can just see the head of a man looking out the window at the race. Is he seeing Pippo Pozzatto in the jersey of Italy's national champion, with Tom Southam on his wheel? That's certainly what the photo caption says he's seeing. Or is he just enjoying the spectacle of it all?

I can only recall a small handful of images that are of a kind with McMillan's pub shot - a couple of recent-ish images shot inside cafés as the peloton passes and an old black and white one, shot from inside a house - but the idea of a frame within a frame crops up regularly within images from bike races. Think how many times you've seen shots through a car window, the dashboard still in the shot. The 'classic' image, of course, is the cyclist framed in a car's wing mirror. Those shots, though, come from privileged access. And, unlike the shot above, there's no risk with them: the photographer has not had to gamble a safe shot from outside for a risky one within.

The device of a frame within the frame is something I love. It recalls, for me, the opening and closing of John Ford's The Searchers and, I would argue, here carries with it a similar message about the outsider. In The Searchers it was John Wayne framed in the doorway who was the outsider, the man who didn't belong. Here, in Circus, it is the photographer himself, McMillan, who is cast as the outsider. So many cycling photographs come from a position of privileged access, show cycling in ways ordinary spectators cannot see it (most notably, shots from within the peloton, photographers on motorbikes or in team cars): here, McMillan offers a picture that shows a bike race the way a bike race is experienced. Shows you what you might see.

McMillan's perspective is not solely that of the spectator (let's be honest here, the man himself does have privileged access, does don the lanyard and the vest). Here's a different view:

Circus, by Camille McMillan Camille McMillan

What the photographer saw

That's Mark Cavendish taking the win on the Champs-Élysées in 2012. Only it's not actually a shot of Cavendish taking the win on the Champs-Élysées in 2012. The real subject of the picture is the camera on the right and the man wielding it. Cameras are, of course, everywhere today, and you could perhaps argue that it is difficult to photograph a bike race without having another camera in the shot somewhere. "It's a bun fight," McMillan told me when I asked him about this. "Most press photographers are looking at the action within the race, the head of the field or a wounded star. I want to look at the race as a whole, and the press photographers are part of the show." The way in which McMillan incorporates cameras into his shots across several pictures in Circus, though, does suggest he is asking you not to see what is in front of you, but to imagine what the other camera is seeing.

Circus, by Camille McMillan Camille McMillan

The gaze

Consider this fairly conventional Paris-Roubaix shot, the riders in the Arenberg forest. But what captures your attention is the photographer in the right of the image. First, he's telling you what you already suspect: that this isn't a shot of the front of the race: he's looking behind you to where the real action is. The other thing is this: he's not really looking behind you, he's looking at you. And that can be a scary notion. There's a concept in psychoanalysis called the gaze, popularised by Jacques Lacan, a state of anxiousness that comes when you realise that the thing you're looking at is looking back at you. The Slovenian pop-psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek used it to talk about the films of Alfred Hitchcock:

"Let us recall the archetypal scene from Hitchcock: a heroine (Lilah in Psycho, Melanie in The Birds) is approaching a mysterious, allegedly empty house; she is looking at it, yet what makes a scene so disturbing is that we, the spectators, cannot get rid of the impression that the object she is looking at is somehow returning the gaze."

That same feeling crops up in another of McMillan's shots in Circus:

Circus, by Camille McMillan Camille McMillan

Behind the curtain

That's Erik Zabel, shot at one of the winter track races that throwback to the old days, the riders given trackside cabins, with little curtains to offer them a tiny degree of privacy. Being able to take that photograph, that of itself is privileged access but the composition of the picture - the podium girl blocking the foreground, McMillan almost shielding himself behind her, Zabel returning the gaze - something about that suggests that McMillan is an interloper here, his surreptitious glance caught out.

I asked McMillan about that shot, comparing it to Toto pulling back the curtain at the end of The Wizard of Oz and he suggested that Yellow Brick Road might have been a good title, because what he is trying to do throughout Circus is to peek behind the curtain. Not to reveal dark truths - McMillan supplied the photographs for Michael Barry's Le Métier and and I think he's enough of a realist not to have dropped his jaw when Barry finally admitted doping had been part of his trade - but to wipe off some of cycling's greasepaint: "I am always looking for the everyday in my pictures... the everyday in the epic. So if I can get a picture of Cav that brings him down to a mortal realm like us, I will get it. I have no heroes and no one is a star." That picture of Cavendish reduced to the mortal realm sees the Manx star relieving himself, back to the photographer.

* * * * *

Circus began life on Kickstarter - where it had a definite article in its title: The Circus - and was then picked up by Velodrome Publishing, one of a couple of new cycling imprints to emerge in the UK over the last year or so, people who appreciate McMillan's photography having demonstrated that there was an audience for a book such as this.

McMillan knows cycling from both sides of the lens. He was seven, he tells us in Circus, when he got his first bike and was racing road and 'cross by the time he was 14: "Happiness for me as a kid was riding behind [my father] on his motorbike, him pacing me. I was into speed. He was a big influence on my life, cycling was the place where we met." At the end of his teens, though, he simply stopped: "I was 19 and won a race - and realised with a shock that I just didn't care. There was no feeling to it, no passion behind it." Instead, London called, as did drink, women and drugs. Then came photography, art and Central St Martins. The camera enabled him to still meet his father at cycling: "Every year I went to the Good Friday meeting in London with the old man, and this time it was to take pictures of the madness there." Jump forward a few years and McMillan had mastered his métier - or, at least, honed his skills in one, fine art photography - and, through those strange things fate can do, got a gig with Rouleur where he was able to explore photojournalism. Commissions from the Times, from teams (Rapha Condor), from riders (Michael Barry), from others allowed him to explore more. Circus is a distillation of all the exploring: "I want to explore all aspects of it," McMillan told me. "I think when one explores a 'world' like cycling there are parallels with the rest of our lives. That's why there is only one 'winner' picture, that is a small part of the whole thing."

Circus is structured as tales from cycling's seasons: "I set each chapter up as a narrative, the frame is it's a day at the races." The seasons of a cycling year, along with a couple of bonus essays. One, turning up jet lagged for the Tour of Missouri, another a return to the Six Day circuit he first explored with his father as a child, back in the days of London's Skol Six. Then we're into the seasons of the cyclist. If it's spring it must be classics, if it's summer it must be the Tour. Autumn is preparing for something else, the peloton's new favourite World's warm-up, the Tour of Britain. Winter sees McMillan exploring that other world of cycling, the world on the edge, the Continental Circuit.

Circus, by Camille McMillan Camille McMillan

The old world alive in the new

Summer is where the book's cover image comes from, a couple of clowns in costume, mugging it up for the massed media. But they're not the source of the title. For that you have to look to McMillan's influences.

Graham Watson is in there, McMillan met him as a kid, back in the days of quid-a-gallon petrol: "In a way Graham Watson must have had an influence on my photographic journey," he writes in Circus, "perhaps not in the same way as Alexander Rodchenko, Josef Koudelka or Leni Riefenstahl. But there it is, Graham Watson's influence on my life, my career path." Other influences came up when I was talking to him: "my influences are wide, very wide... nameless Mirroir Sport photographers from the 50's, Helmut Newton... blah you know..."

Literature is part of the "blah you know": "Alain Robbe-Grillet, Joris-Karl Huysmans... I'm into descriptions, descriptions that are allegorical. I see bicycle racing as one big metaphor for life. I don't care much for it, I love it and I hate it. It's all in equal measures. I love the details and try not to know the names."

And then there's cinema: "It's probably a bigger influence than photography. Sergio Leone is huge, so too Werner Herzog and most obviously Federico Fellini (the book's name came from )." Any Fellini fan can tell you how much of an influence the circus was on the Italian auteur's life: understand that and, I think, you may well understand something of what McMillan has really done within Circus, see a part of the big picture on display here.

The small picture, though, does deserve some comment before closing, the narrative being told by each of the book's photo essays. Let's return to spring, which is where the earlier Paris-Roubaix photograph comes from and is, for the most part, the story of a season in the life of Sky. What that story is, well you have to read that for yourself, but one photograph is key in my reading:

Circus, by Camille McMillan Camille McMillan

Merchants at work

That's Steven de Jongh (seated) along with Servais Knaven (left) and Carsten Jeppesen, Sky's brains trust, in discussion ahead of Dwars door Vlaanderen. "The dark room and lighting," the picture's caption tells us, "gives this portrait a dramatic feel." For me, it gives it the feel of Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century and the way the world of business is portrayed in them. At heart, that is what cycling is, a business. And that's the way it should be seen.

* * * * *

To close, a comment from McMillan in Circus on the state of photography within cycling, a comment that echoes something Guy Andrews said when he was interviewed for this site recently, a comment that echoes my own dislike for much of what passes for cycling photography today:

"I have no problem with traditional sports photographers, not at all. They are doing their thing, I'm doing mine: that's fine. But I've no truck with opportunist photographers, coming along just because it's cool. A lot come along with no vision, no point of view, and don't know what they are doing. Or they're just trying to make money. There's more to cycling than the 'epic shot' - I get irritated when the same old sh*t1 is trotted out - solo riders going over the mountain pass, yada, yada... There are some great photographers out there still. But I have a feeling their kind of story telling is being muscled out by the winning-line promo shot."

Writers, photographers, they need a vision, they need a point of view. They need their own vision, their own point of view. So much of cycling reporting - words, images - is little better than a Big Mac and fries to go: it all tastes the same, is easily consumed and soon forgotten. I think McMillan brings his own vision to the sport, something that is better than fast food eye candy. He certainly offers photographs that stick in the mind. He certainly offers photographs that grant you the opportunity to think about them.

* * * * *

All photos © Camille McMillan

1 The asterisking of vowels in certain words that might be considered coarse language was the idea of the publishers, Velodrome Publishing. Who seem to feel the need to insult the intelligence of readers they've already asked to spend 30 quid on a book. If they were unhappy with the language they should have changed it. Or passed on the book.