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Track League 2020: Alex McArthur interview

The story of our favourite photobook of the year

Joy has been in short supply in 2020. But I had a smile a mile wide when Alex McArthur’s Track League 2020 photobook arrived through the letterbox this week. From the personalised handwritten note on the envelope, to the stunning artwork and the effervescent images inside, it gave us a real rush of endorphins.

When Alex went down to watch the first round of track league at the Herne Hill Velodrome this year, just as lockdown restrictions were easing, his aim was simply to reunite with old friends, enjoy a beer and watch a bit of bike racing on the side. But, camera in hand, the images he took caught the imagination. The atmosphere, racing and photographic results kept him coming back each week.

Track league took on a unique significance this year. With road racing curtailed it provided a rare opportunity for riders including Alec Briggs, Oscar Nilsson-Julien, Isaac Mundy and Rhys Howells to get their competitive kicks. It was also a haven for friends looking for a place to meet and enjoy a spectacle at a time when so many every day social activities weren’t possible.

I’m trying to tell the story of the dark velodrome, lit dimly by these spotlights all around the track as seventy riders whizz by you at 30mph spurred on by the screams of spectators

Alex’s photobook documents this one-off concoction. And it’s an absolute joy to peruse. I was one of the lucky ones who bagged one of 60 copies Alex printed in the first run. The grainy images, all shot with traditional film, beautifully capture the movement, vibrancy and excitement of eight evenings of racing down at the historic velodrome. It has a nostalgia feel. What comes across is the kind of do-it-yourself passion I used to from a fanzine. A real collectable.

I got in touch with Alex to find out more about the making of the photobook. A lovely, ebullient character, here is what he told me.

So, what’s your background. Are you a photographer by trade?

Sadly not. I once was, and I’m looking to get back into that world slowly. But for the time being, I have a full-time position as a picture editor for a national newspaper. For the past eight years, most of my job has been looking at about 30,000 pictures a day, studying other people’s images. You’re constantly thinking about what something says and how best to illustrate it. Then you have to find the images that say that. 

Eventually, one can get tired of looking at other people’s images. I felt like I’d learned so much doing that, that I wanted to go back to doing it myself. I studied photography at college and only really did darkroom processing, which I loved. So, a couple of years ago I decided to sell a lot of my digital equipment and tried to rekindle a bit about what really interested me in the art of photography. This year has been the first I’ve decided to really start taking it seriously again and look for something to delve into. 

What connections do you have with Herne Hill velodrome?

Very few, really, I think that’s the beauty of the place. I’m a VC Londres member, and they train at Herne Hill Velodrome, but I haven’t actually got to any sessions this year. I know some of the racers, some through social media, some I’ve raced with. Most people I know there are just through friends of friends, going on rides.

What led you to documenting the Herne Hill track league this summer with your camera?

I suppose I was inspired by the spirit of friendship and around eight cans of IPA! It was summer. The days were long and the evenings were hot. It was something like 30 degrees. Lockdown had eased and the first night of track league was on. I got invited down by a friend, who has raced at the velodrome most of his life. And nowadays, me and him are partners in not training whilst still trying to remain in cycling. So it was more of an opportunity to see friends that I hadn’t seen, because I hadn’t been training, and that was the only way you could legally get out and see someone at that point in the year, by going outside and doing sports. 

I always carry a camera with me. A little point and shoot 35mm is always in my pocket; yes I’m one of those people. I had about 20 frames left on it and I wasn’t even thinking too much about what I was doing at the time, I was mainly just shouting expletives at friends as they zoomed past, but having developed the results about a week later, I really saw something and I thought, “I’m onto something here. This is quite cool. This is different”.

What drew you back every week, taking photographs?

Track league became a bit of a social hub as the weeks went by. There’d been enough people in the first weeks saying to their mates, “This is awesome. Come down.” that it started to get a real crowd. It became the busiest year on record. It’s one of those environments where no-one’s a stranger. Week after week, more and more people were coming, and it’s the crowd feeling that I think really empowers the racers and other spectators to join in and feel like a community.

In the images, I kept seeing results and I noticed that what I was posting on social media was actually touching some people. It was inspiring some people. People were messaging me, saying, “These are awesome, when was this, where is this.” I mean, I don’t want to sound too poncy, but I was feeding a bit off the likes and people showing interest in what was going on. So, that definitely kept me coming back, even when it was absolutely pissing down with rain. 

It was me, in the pissing wet, taking pictures, shouting at riders, banging the fence, beer in one hand, camera in the other

I think in week four, it was just me on the front row, because everyone was underneath the beautiful shelter they have. It was me, in the pissing wet, taking pictures, shouting at riders, banging the fence, beer in one hand, camera in the other, swearing and fumbling and I know everyone was thinking, “What on earth is he doing?” But I’d run a lot as well, trying to get a different point of view and I’d try to run to a different place before they came back for the next lap. That must’ve looked absolutely mental. 

I suppose I never thought of an end goal. I just wanted to come back, because I was enjoying, I suppose, being around people so much and people appreciating me being there.

It was a unique time I guess, with things just opening up again after lockdown?

Yeah. So, with everything getting called off around March or April, I shelved every plan I had in cycling. There were so many talented athletes that must have felt a lot worse than I did because they’d had a lot more plans, professional plans, emotional and financial investment. But it was that that made the racing so special. Someone fact check me here please, but I think it was the only ‘spectatable’ race series you could attend in the UK in 2020. I think every rider feels the same, every one that’s come to my door and picked up the photobook, has commented on that. It’s just so nice to have something tangible I think from a time where so much has been so difficult and impersonal. 

It’s just so nice to have something tangible I think from a time where so much has been so difficult and impersonal 

What inspired you to put together a photobook on your series

I actually never intended to make a series, let alone a book, but, when the eight weeks were over and I’d been there every week, I was thinking about how I’d created a fairly solid body of work and how I could sum up what felt like something different. Then at around the same time as track league was ending, I think it’s become quite cliché now, but the Rapha + Palace collaboration happened and it was actually a massive inspiration. The content they released for that was like nothing I’d ever seen in cycling. Just the energy that brought and what it was saying was a direct inspiration for making anything in the first place and making something a bit modern and cool. I hope that people look at the book and see that it’s respecting a lot of things about cycling, but trying to do something a bit different at the same time.

The front cover’s got all the colours of the Herne Hill Velodrome, but it’s not a stripe. Its a smattering of colour; unruly, It’s trying to bring something a little more exciting. 

I wanted to somehow reach 15-year-old me in Luton, who loves sport and loves cycling but also loves popping wheelies and jumping up curbs. I loved photobooks about graffiti but wouldn’t blink at a book about pro cycling. I didn’t think pro cycling was very cool at all. 

If it gives a kid like me somewhere the stones to be like, “This is cool. I want to do this. I want to be a part of this”, I figure I’ve done my job

I always want to try and reach people like me, who had all the energy, but didn’t have access to a multitude of opportunities in sport. I lived nowhere near a velodrome. I didn’t know a velodrome bloody existed. The closest I had to a velodrome was a roundabout in Milton Keynes. I think professional and competitive cycling is still pretty privileged and if I knew somewhere like this existed, where I could aspire to be like some of these riders, I think that would have really affected me and that’s the type of thing I wanted to make. If it gives a kid like me somewhere the stones to be like, “This is cool. I want to do this. I want to be a part of this”, I figure I’ve done my job. 

You used traditional film rather than a digital camera. What were the advantages of using film?

Hmm, very few! To start, there’s something in photography called dynamic range and that is essentially the amount of colours and tones that your eyes can see. It’s important in making something sort of real looking and nice to look at. If I take a pretty entry-level digital camera and I go and try and do what I did, I’m gonna get some pretty piss-poor results, because it’s so dark. You’re going to have to bump all sorts of ISO and do some hard editing to get a clean result and it’s just going to look awful. 

But on film, that is the closest level of dynamic range to what your eyes see. Even the best digital cameras today still haven’t got as close as film. 

My digital camera is the same camera that I was shooting weddings on nine or ten years ago. It’s a piece of shit; it takes longer to focus than when I forget to take my contacts out at night and wake up with them glued to my eyes. So that made the decision a lot easier. Pair that with my experience shooting film, it was a lot easier for me to do that rather than borrow someone’s camera. 

I am interested in making something that makes you feel something

I suppose it totally comes down to an artistic choice, because I can turn up and flash this lot in the dark (not like that), and you know what, I’ll get a nice image out of that, some grinning teeth and a sweaty face. But I’m not trying to change what people see there. I’m trying to pay homage to it, I’m trying to capture it. 90% of track league is in the dark. Instead of trying to make it light, I’m trying to tell the story of the dark velodrome, lit dimly by these spotlights all around the track as seventy riders whizz by you at 30mph spurred on by the screams of spectators. I don’t care that I don’t see the images until a few days later, I don’t care that it costs an arm and a leg. I am interested in making something that makes you feel something. Makes you feel like you’re there or you want to be there. I find film, and its many nuances, indescribably lifelike and so it’s the best choice for translating what spectators and riders feel like when they’re there. 

What was the process involved in putting it together? 

Well, the process was rather long. The post-processing was different to start with. If you pick up the book and you have followed me on Instagram throughout this whole period, you can see that the edit is entirely different to Insta and that is a conscious decision. What looks good on Instagram, won’t necessarily look good in print. So I started from scratch. I shot 472 pictures in total. It took forever; choosing my favourite images and making sure the edit was coherent, going back time after time after time with different ideas of what the feel was, it took a good month.

At this point, I was doing it alone. I hadn’t enlisted any help or asked anyone for help. I was just like, “I want to make a book. I’m going to start whittling these down to images I might want to include in a book.” It felt very simple.

I eventually got down to 128 images, stuck them on a USB, took them into work, got them printed and guillotined them into tiny A6 prints. I was feeling like Billy Big Spuds, I knew exactly what I was doing! I took them home, taped them to my wall, and set about reducing them and pairing them up. 

I felt so cool, there’s a picture of me somewhere staring at the wall like Einstein in front of a wall of equations. A real master at work! No. Long story short, that was entirely fucking pointless, entirely. I edited it like a picture editor and just picked the best and it wasn’t a series. This is when I realised I might need help. 

I enlisted the help of Art Director and Designer, Lauren Coutts, who gave the book a direction and a coherence that I just could not have envisioned. She’s the driving force behind the design, the layout and most importantly, the cover. 

Now, if it was up to me, I’d slap one of my pictures on the front, write ‘Track League’ in Comic Sans and be like “Boom, done”. Get this to Waterstones, stat. 

Thankfully that is not how it went. It’s Lauren’s cover really. I told her how I wanted it to feel, what I was inspired by, how I wanted it to be exciting, cool, new, something different and barked orders incessantly, but it’s her vision to put it all together and actually make it. It turned out better than either of us could have imagined across its almost 100 different iterations. We were giddy. The Herne Hill colours in the background, the negative space of the velodrome that you can only see because it’s cutting a shape in the impactful typeface. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, yeah, I’d go so far as to say it’s beautiful, and I can say that and not sound like a plonker because I didn’t do it. 

I think the cover’s one of those things that hopefully people look at and go, “Fuck. That’s cool. I don’t know anything about this track league, but I want to see what that’s about.” That’s the spot I wanted to hit.

So then finally, we got to the layout with the help of Lauren and everything was so much better. It went together like butter, I’d say.

What I eventually learned was, when it comes to a photobook, it’s not about selecting the single best images and putting them side-by-side, it’s about selecting the images that create the best outcome. The best outcome is hopefully what people will see, this coherent selection of great images. There were a lot of frames where I was like, “That’s awesome. I’m going to include this”, and it just didn’t work. We could both feel it as we flicked through. If something feels odd, just remove it.

After that, it was simply off to the printers and they came a week later. The rest was history.

And then on the first run, I think, the book sold out in 22 hours?

Yes. Very surprisingly. I did not expect that type of reaction at all. I was going to order 50 in the first edition, quite a lot for a little ‘zine I thought, and I was advised to order 60 which felt like a lot but did anyway. I thought I’d be pushing them for months. I thought I’d be using them as toilet roll come the third lockdown. But no, actual hotcakes; remarkable. I was dancing like a little girl. It’s been so nice to feel like people appreciate what you’re doing and also the reaction from people I’ve never met and people who aren’t even in London has been really heartwarming, to be honest. 

And then, tell me about the second run?

The second edition is available at the point you are reading this! I’ve got another batch of 60, perhaps shooting myself in the foot there because I’ve already got 15 orders on that batch, perhaps I should have learnt my lesson and ordered more this time, but in any case, yes, exactly the same as the first. Who knows, there might be a third edition. Watch out Post Office, I’m comin’ for ya! 

Any final words of thanks?

I wanted to add a thanks to all the staff at Herne Hill Velodrome, particularly the bar staff, ahem. I don’t know how they did it, but they put on a race for eight weeks, when no one else could, keeping everyone safe and managing to make the most of a, let’s say it, bad year. It did so much for so many people at a really hard time. It has actually gone down in history, and I’m elated to have been able to attend that.

Also thanks to Lauren the designer. Without her direction and her artistry for the cover, I don’t think the photobook would have captured anywhere near as many imaginations as it has.

Find out more

Buy the photobook here (while stocks last).

Alex’s Instagram.

Lauren’s Instagram.