Three years ago, Dmitry Gudkov began taking photographs of New Yorkers with their bicycles. What began as a personal photography project has since evolved into #BikeNYC, an expansive showcase of hundreds of bicycles, the people that ride them, and the city that they are transforming.
The spare, simple composition of each portrait expresses each rider’s personality in a way that’s as moving as it is subtle.
We met Dmitry earlier this year outside of Bicycle Habitat on a Saturday morning as he took pictures of New Yorkers exploring Manhattan on two wheels, with streets normally clogged with cars closed to everything but bike and foot traffic. He’s been traveling almost constantly since then, but was kind enough to talk with us about his work.
How long have you been behind the lens?
I became serious about photography in 2004, my senior year in college. It started with buying my first digital point-and-shoot for travel snaps and quickly escalated to my first SLRs and endless self-education online. Shortly after moving to New York I started picking up assisting and second shooting gigs here and there. I quit my job and went freelance full-time at the end of 2010.
How long have you been biking?
I’ve been biking in NYC for about three years. I first discovered urban cycling when my wife and I lived in Amsterdam for a few months in 2008. Obviously, we biked everywhere. When we came back to New York, I really wasn’t keen on going back to riding the subway everyday. So one morning, instead of taking the train, I rode my beat-up 10-speed that had been gathering dust on my building’s staircase to my day job. I realized it was easy, and actually faster than the subway in my case. I was saving money, getting fresh air, and had a nice bike ride to look forward to after a crappy day at work. I was hooked!
What’s it like to ride in NYC?
First and foremost, I would call it a liberating experience. It changes your relationship with the city. Getting around New York, you’re often held up waiting for a train or a bus. With a bike, you just hop on and go. It’s like discovering a cheat code to the city. I’d rather ride my bike 45 minutes to get somewhere than wait for a 20-minute subway ride. It makes you feel independent and self-reliant. Also, it’s fun!
What motivated you to start the #BikeNYC project?
Quite simply, I wanted to start a personal photography project and create a cohesive body of work. I thought about the things in my life I was passionate about that would make a good theme, and quickly settled on biking in New York. At the time I knew almost no one else who rode regularly, so I decided to do a part portrait, part storytelling project, combining the photos with a brief profile of the subject.
Are all the portraits of random cyclists?
Probably more than half are. I started out by putting calls out on Twitter and people volunteered to be a subject. Later on I started approaching random cyclists to broaden the scope of the project.
What do you say when you approach someone for a portrait?
Whatever it is, I usually keep it very short. This is especially crucial as I often ride up to people as they are pedaling down the street. Friendly and brief is the key. When I first started, I would ask for a minute of their time and then launch into a long introductory spiel and try to explain the whole project. Now I usually just offer a quick “nice bike.” They’ll usually say “thanks,” at which point I ask if I can take a quick portrait for my bike blog. If they ask for more info, I tell them more about the project. I always hand them a business card with a photo on it — it helps the person feel that they’re going to be part of something legitimate.
Do you always have your camera with you when you’re biking?
Almost always. When I don’t bring it I’m almost guaranteed to see some ridiculously photogenic cyclist and kick myself.
What have been your favorite parts of the project?
For starters, meeting and talking with all these different New Yorkers I never would have otherwise. It has definitely forced me out of my comfort zone to work up the courage to ask strangers in the street to take their portrait. To work with NYC organizations like Streetsblog, Transportation Alternatives, Bike New York, and the Department of Transportation has been a treat, too. This project has plugged me into a great community of New Yorkers who are passionate about making the city more livable for everyone.
Is there one portrait that sticks out to you as especially memorable?
One that I always think of is Isaac, whom I saw riding on the then-very controversial Prospect Park West bike lane. I asked him for a portrait, and he agreed. This was during the period when the bike haters were suing the city and decrying the lane for taking away a lane of car traffic to cater to “hipsters” who would just ride for fun in the park. And here is this working class guy, an office cleaner, riding home from work in the PPW bike lane on a rusty little girl’s bike with his broom tied to the frame. And he has such a dignified bearing. I feel like everything about him refutes the caricatures of the NIMBY anti-bike people and reminds us that we have a real interest in expanding good bike infrastructure in New York.
You’ve been doing #BikeNYC for almost three years. How have things changed with the project?
Initially, my goal was to just create a series of interesting, beautiful themed portraits. As I went along, I started to focus more on the diversity of cyclists in NYC — that’s when I started doing portraits of strangers I saw riding in the city. One goal is pretty obvious — to show that cycling in the city is and should be for everyone. People have written me to say that seeing my portraits of regular people with not-so-fancy bikes made them think that maybe they could do it, too. A bike doesn’t have to be shiny or fast to greatly enrich your life. Cycling in NYC is exploding, and I think that bikes and programs like bike share are essential to the future of the city. Hopefully, the #BikeNYC project is doing a tiny part to help that process.
Where do you see the #BikeNYC project going in the future?
A big goal now is to publish a book with the best portraits and profiles I’ve done thus far. I would love to work with an interested publisher, but if that doesn’t pan out, I will likely try the Kickstarter route.