In 2005, photographer Timm Kölln began an ambitious five-year project to document professional cycling through the voices, faces, and bodies of the athletes who define it, traveling to major races around Europe and shooting riders alone against a white backdrop moments after they stepped off the bike. The result, The Peloton: Portrait of a Generation, collects ninety-six photographs and interviews with professional cyclists—some superstars, some journeymen, others now-forgotten names of the sport. Kölln’s photographs capture the utter limits of physical experience in an athlete. His interviews (conducted by journalists from the magazine Rouleur) skip the familiar clichés of sports journalism to offer unvarnished and nuanced perspectives on what it means to spend a life on two wheels. Looking ahead to the start of the 2011 Tour de France tomorrow, I recently spoke to Timm from his home in Berlin.
For you, was it the cycling or the photography that came first?
Photography. I grew up in Spain, and when I was a kid my parents wouldn’t let me have a bike. They thought it was too dangerous to ride in Barcelona. But I always had this dream of having a racing bike. And when we moved back to Germany, the first thing I did—I think we’d been in Berlin for two days—was buy a bike, not a racing bike, but a bike.
I was always inspired by older sports photography, and that also influenced me in my approach to cycling. When thinking about how to do the portraits for The Peloton, I thought the only way to get as close as possible to the riders’ states of mind and efforts on their bikes was to shoot them without helmets and without glasses, an image we rarely get in sports media.
Given the complexity of the doping issue, it’s striking how candid many of the riders are about it. Did you ever feel that trust was an issue, or were riders just looking for someone to hear their side of the story?
On some occasions, I noticed, Okay, this guy is telling me a story! But you realize he’s just trying to explain it in his way. Of course, his way can be very wrong, but it’s still sincere. One advantage of approaching the book from a photographer’s point of view was that they never saw me as a journalist. And I’m not. Maybe I ultimately made a journalistic work, but I’m not an investigative journalist.
I shot them as they were, and I didn’t really try to tell them what to do in the pictures. The same with the interviews. I didn’t say, Oh, please tell me yours secrets. I never wanted to judge. I’m not saying that the book is entirely objective—that’s impossible—but my approach was to let them talk, both through the pictures and the text.
A lot of your work has involved shooting riders within a specific race environment, but by photographing all the riders in The Peloton against a white background, you cut out context altogether. Why?
The white background underlines the fact that I didn’t want to shoot places or environments—it was all about the person as well as those short moments of communication, trust, or insecurity (to name a few) between the photographer and his subject. I’m also a great admirer of Richard Avedon, so when I decided to do it this way, I was ambitious about reaching a level of perfection in terms of the film, working with daylight, and all these things. It was a very technical, photographic approach from the beginning.
Looking back, are there any riders you wish you had included? Americans will notice that the book doesn’t include either Lance Armstrong or Floyd Landis.
Well, there are a couple of riders I wouldn’t mind having in the book, but if one of the big guys is not in there, then it’s because of his own decision. That’s something I had to deal with, of course. The more important the rider, the more he tries to control his image. Though I can count these encounters on five fingers—which makes it a bit funny, too. Are they really that different from all the others?
And it’s still a photographic book, so when selecting I simply looked for the best pictures.
With the Tour de France tomorrow and knowing so many of the riders so well, what are you most excited to see?
Above all, I hope we get to see some spectacle. Cycling is incredible to watch when a couple of equally strong riders battle each other, and tactical decisions can make the difference. No one wants to see a race controlled so completely it’s effectively over by the second day in the mountains.