Emotions Made Still

On art, journalism, and the Tour de France: A renowned photographer discusses his work.

James Startt

All of a sudden, everyone is a photographer. Cell phones have become a central necessity of modern life, and cameras have managed to tag along. We take photos of our food. Our drinks. Our nights on the town. We take photos of our kids, and we take photos of ourselves — so many photos of ourselves — the desire to take photographs and to be in photographs more prevalent, it seems, than ever before.

But there’s a big difference between taking pictures and taking good pictures. Just ask James Startt (M.A. ’92, Art History), a guy who’s dedicated the larger part of his life to the art of photography. Although Startt was born in the United States, he’s been based in Paris since the 1990s, and throughout the past 30 years he’s established himself as one of the preeminent names in street, sports, and documentary photography. He’s especially well-known for his photos of the annual Tour de France, and his work has been displayed in galleries, magazines, and books all over the world.

On the day of our interview, Startt wears a bowler hat and black, plastic-framed glasses. He sports a peppery goatee that he occasionally touches as he speaks, thinking over a question of mine or recalling what type of camera he used for a certain shoot. Startt is soft-spoken, thoughtful, measured. He travels constantly — he arrived in Chicago from France just a few days before — and it’s as if he revels in the few moments of stillness that our interview provides.

And that makes sense. Stillness, after all, is his job. His art form. He’s a master of capturing emotions in time, of trapping singular moments that tell entire stories. He’s a pleasure to talk to, relaxed and affable, and even in answering my questions his talents as a photographer are apparent. His responses are thorough and highly specific — he remembers places and people remarkably well — and as we chat it’s easy for me to imagine entire scenes and settings. He’s got a knack for details.

Raymond Fleischmann:

What’s your earliest memory of photography? Do you remember the first photograph that you ever took?

James Startt:

Yes, I do. Very much so. My father was a professor at Valparaiso, so I was a faculty brat, but the advantage of that was that we had sabbaticals sometimes. We were over in England one year, and I think it was a Kodak Brownie that my mom had, but we were visiting Cambridge or Oxford and I took my first picture there. I remember that because for years, my mom had two photo albums from our two trips overseas — one from England and one from Ireland — and she had that in there. You know, “Jimmy’s first picture.”

Fleischmann:

How old were you?

Startt:

I was in third grade. So, about nine or ten. I always thought cameras were cool, like bikes or guitars, all the objects that still resonate with me. I went to undergraduate at a small school out east, which is now called McDaniel College. It’s a very small liberal arts college, and one January term they offered photography, which was my first chance to really do it. [A few months before that], I had moved to New York City for the summer, and I was a bicycle messenger, and the first thing that happened to me was that my bicycle got stolen. But my parents’ insurance was very reliable, and it gave me $200, which was just enough for a Canon AE-1. [Laughs] For my whole life, it’s always been between bikes, photography, and music. So anyway, then I had that photography class, and for three or four weeks I was just taking pictures all day and going to the darkroom, and that was my first real hands-on approach to learning what picture-taking was all about. I remember just losing track of time in the darkroom. You know, turning on the Talking Heads and just getting lost. So, I knew that there was some real love there.

Startt has photographed 28 Tour de France races.

Fleischmann:

You’re probably best known for your photography of bicycling, particularly the Tour de France. And in looking at your photography of the Tour de France, I found myself thinking a lot about two things: the emotion of the event, and also the history of the event. So, I wanted to ask: When it comes to sports photography, what is the photographer’s primary function? To be an artist, or to be an archivist?

Startt:

That’s a good question, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. In terms of sports photography, I’m in the realm of being a photojournalist. And so our primary objective is to capture the moment, and then the best of those pictures will stand the test of time. And I’m aware of that. I’m aware of, say, a shot of a peloton passing through a village, and I know that perhaps that shot will hold up as an epic or timeless Tour de France shot. When I wrote my master’s thesis, I concentrated on a street photographer by the name of William Klein. I was very influenced by him. So, with my initial cycling photography, I was going for [Klein’s] kind of raw emotion — you know, after the finish line, really in-your-face kind of stuff. The whole picturesque element of the Tour de France didn’t really interest me that much. It’s only been in the last 10 to 15 years that I’ve embraced that. I started working with a photo agency that was pushing me to get more shots. They liked what I was doing, but they wanted more of it. And I think that made me a much better photographer. I can still work in the way that I want to work — that Klein-esque way that’s almost like street photography — but I can also get a killer action shot, if I need to. When I’m on a motorbike, I know how to work my driver and anticipate light and movement, and maybe even anticipate an attack so that we’re in position when it happens.

"Once the [finish] line is crossed ... there's a raw energy there that you don't find very often."

Fleischmann:

Tell me more about those after-the-line shots you mentioned a moment ago. I love so many of them, and I found that a lot of those photographs made me think about the role that photographers themselves may be playing in the composition of their art. After all, you’re the one who’s capturing those moments, and some of them are in really tight spaces. So, are you a part of these moments, too? Does your presence affect the shot?

Startt:

In the heat of the moment, when someone is jumping into someone else’s arms, they’re not thinking about us. They’re in a zone at that point. That’s what really attracts me to those shots: that zone. There’s that old saying that our eyes are the window to the soul. I mean, think about it: These guys are covered up in glasses and helmets all day long and trying to control their energy and focus their energy for a key moment in the race. But then once the line is crossed, that all comes down. For a couple of minutes, there’s a raw energy there that you don’t find very often. And in those moments, we’re all in this sea of movement and energy and lights and actions and exhaustion and emotion, and I don’t think anybody is really aware of the photographers.

Fleischmann:

I read an interview with you in which you remarked that “cycling is not always about winning. In fact, most times it is not.” What is it about, then?

Startt:

Most times it’s about losing, isn’t it? Even the best lose most races that they enter.

Fleischmann:

I guess that’s true, yeah. So, losing really is a central part of the sport?

Startt:

It depends. There’s a lot of guys I’ve known who only care about winning, and when they couldn’t win, they were done. They moved onto other things. They quit cycling. A lot of the teams today are focused only on winning. But some teams aren’t. Some teams understand that being there — being in the thick of it, being in the action — is all that matters. For me, it was never about winning, probably because I was never much of a winner. [Laughs] I was one of those consistent guys. I could be a place setter. That sort of thing. So, with my own cycling experience, I’ve always related more to those kinds of guys: the ones who dig deep for somebody else. The ones who are selfless and really sacrifice a lot physically just for the beauty and the love of the sport. I think that plays a role in the pictures I’ve taken over the years. The finish line’s not always about the joy of victory. It’s often about the agony of defeat.

"In the heat of the moment, when someone is jumping into someone else’s arms, they’re not thinking about us. They’re in a zone at that point."

Fleischmann:

I know what you mean. Every time I watch a major sporting event like the Superbowl or the NCAA tournament, at the end, when they’re showing the winning team jumping around, I always find myself watching the losing team in the background more than the winning team in the foreground.

Startt:

Right, yeah. It’s sort of a sports journalist credo: The great stories are often told by the losers. Everybody wants the winners’ quote, but those are also the easiest to get. What the loser says is often more telling. When you’re at the finish line, you constantly have to be aware of who placed where and what kinds of emotions are present. In the span of 17 seconds, you can go from the guy jumping into the arms of his teammate to the guy who’s collapsed on the ground crying.

Fleischmann:

Is that difficult for you emotionally?

Startt:

No. You know, this is not war photography. Everybody is here because of something they love. The suffering that they experience is completely voluntary. This is something that they signed up for, and are proud of, and in the end, they’ll look back on it and feel very proud of themselves, I think.

Fleischmann:

Do you like being photographed?

Startt:

I think that photographers are infamous for not liking to be photographed, but I don’t mind. I just don’t get photographed that often.

Fleischmann:

Do you think that being a photographer has made you more aware of your physicality? Your movements? Your body?

Startt:

Yeah, I think so. Photography forces you to be aware of the superficial. What’s on the surface. Gestures. Little things like that. Taking a picture is often a two-way street. That’s certainly the case with portraits. When I don’t take a good portrait, I’m frustrated firstly with myself, because I wasn’t able to put that person at ease. I wasn’t able to make that person relax. But then sometimes it does work, like with my Lance Armstrong portraits. They’re all black-and-whites. Close-up headshots. One was the cover of his book, and one was taken the night of his last chemo session. I picked him up in a snowstorm from the Indianapolis airport, and took him to the hotel the night before his last session, and I said, ‘Lance, I really want to document this.’ We were pretty close at the time. I had my old Mamiya 330 medium-format camera, and the next day, I did two rolls of 12 right before his last session. And those turned out to be some of his favorite pictures.

Two of Startt's photographs taken the day of Lance Armstrong's final chemotherapy session.

Fleischmann:

I’d love to talk about your photography outside of sports, too. I was looking through your “Places and Spaces” portfolio on your website, and one thing that struck me about them is the absence of people. It’s really just places and spaces. I thought that was an interesting contrast to your cycling photography, which of course is all about people. Does your sports photography affect your other work and vice versa, or are these photographic worlds of yours totally independent of each other?

Startt:

My sports photography certainly has affected my other photography. For one thing, my sports photography is how I got into color. When I was at Indiana, I was learning the rudiments of photography, and we started with black-and-white, for a number of reasons. It’s just the best way to learn all the formal techniques of photography. And then, the photographers that first influenced me were street photographers, not sports photographers. I didn’t come into sports photography from a photojournalist’s standpoint. I came into it from a street photographer’s standpoint. So, I started out in black-and-white, but then when I got into cycling, suddenly I was working in photojournalism, and it became very clear that I needed to do color. That opened me up to a whole other world of picture-taking decisions. All of a sudden, I realized that the color red can unify a picture. You know, there’s a red cap here and a red umbrella there, and suddenly those become formal elements, just like shadows and light. It was my sports photography that got me thinking that way.

Fleischmann:

What first interested you about this idea of photographing places and spaces that are absent of people?

Startt:

After two or three bodies of street photography, I didn’t quite know where to go after that. Part of it was the constant confrontation of taking pictures with people. All my street photography was done with flash, so there was nothing discreet about the way I was taking pictures. Everybody knew, as soon as that flash went off, that I was taking pictures. Some people would laugh, some people would say, "Hey, why don’t you take a picture of me?" Other people would be like, “Hey, give me that picture. What are you doing?” There’s a constant confrontation in that kind of street photography. You’ve got to be in there. You’ve got to be in people’s faces. So, I think I was looking for other types of photography that were less confrontational, where I could just bask in picture-taking and not have to deal with confrontation.

A sample from Startt's "Places and Spaces" series of photographs.

Fleischmann:

I can see that. A lot of your “Places and Spaces” photographs have a sense of tranquility to them.

Startt:

And I’d say that the human touch is still there. They’re mostly devoid of people, but they’re places that are inhabited. It’s been really liberating not to think about people and gestures and confrontation, and just go out and find these compositions in very mundane places that I think are extraordinary.

Fleischmann:

A few times during our talk today you’ve mentioned just wanting to take good photographs. What is a good photograph to you?

Startt:

It’s such a subjective thing, and yet experienced photographers know it. It’s a mastery of all the formal elements of photography — light, balance, color — that create a story within that frame.

Fleischmann:

So, it’s about storytelling?

Startt:

Yeah, storytelling within four walls, and what you can pack into there, and the ways that you can tell that story through the different means of photography. It could be grain. It could be light. It could be whatever. It’s whatever is intriguing to the eye and brings the viewer in and makes them want to stay in that frame. Some pictures are just good pictures for a day, because they’re telling a story of this bike race or this winning move or whatever. And then there are others that you hope are going to be more timeless. Photography has been considered one of the great democratic artforms, because the camera reduces years of technical expertise and training. People that are just getting into it or don’t have a lot of experience can take a great picture, but being able to reproduce that is a different matter. In one of my very first photo classes here at IU, I think it was [Professor Emeritus] Reg Heron who said, “All of you are capable of taking a good picture. But being able to duplicate that time and time again, in different situations, that’s what we’re trying to help you do.” That journey began here for me 30 years ago.

Raymond Fleischmann

Raymond Fleischmann is Director of Advancement Communications for the College of Arts and Sciences and serves as the primary editor for The College Magazine. He holds a B.A. in English and the Individualized Major Program from Indiana University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Ohio State University. His first novel, How Quickly She Disappears, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House (Berkley Books), and his short fiction has been published in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, The Pinch, River Styx, and Los Angeles Review. Reach him at rfleisch@indiana.edu or through his website raymondfleischmann.com.