Capturing Rocinante

A really great friend of mine, Andy Tomacelli regularly drunk-dials me. We spend hours on the phone talking about the trials and rigors we put ourselves through as creative people developing and defining our bodies of work. Andy just published his great American novel of true love and high adventure, Rustrocket. The novel unfolds a coming of age story we are probably all more than a little familiar with. I read the first manuscript five years ago, not long after Andy had called to bemoan the laborious procedures of extracting a novel from his blog and letters.  He recently called to ask if I would photograph the cover artwork for the long anticipated publication of the book. I jumped on the opportunity to help one of my best friends realize this dream.

If you’ve ever ridden a motorcycle, you would understand the relationship the rider develops with the machine – two people will have very different experiences with the same machine – giving the bike a life, allowing it to become a being with which the rider will have a tightly formed bond.  This relationship allows the rider a certain freedom, strength and courage that sets him apart from others. For Andy his bike was his quixotic steed. He would quote me as saying, “It’s the way of our people”, to throw ourselves at passionate pursuits even if it’s the dumbest thing we could possibly dream up.  During a more recent conversation about the book he made a very similar statement, “If at all possible, I’d like to encourage peple to do stupid stuff.” (Truly the way of our people).  The adventure set forth in Rustrocket it is chasing the girl.

The bike in Rustrocket Andy bought from me almost ten years ago; I had only used her for short rides, as a responsible person would consider a bike in her condition. This motorcycle is small, light, nimble and very well broken in. I had gotten her from my brother when it was already more than ten years old. My brother had replaced it with a more reliable bike and was not riding it anymore. I was considering getting a motorcycle, but wasn’t sure if I really wanted to commit to buying one, so I borrowed my brothers to get a feel for riding a proper bike. After a few months of riding, I bought it from him to use as a commuter.  I had previously only ridden vintage Italian scooters, which are akin to sitting in an aluminum lawn chair, the folding kind with a rounded frame, the kind that rolled over if you leaned too far one way or the other. This motorcycle was more like riding a video game arcade console, or skiing badly. Just thinking of a direction would set me off with a bolt and a wobble. A moderate wind woud cause me to shoulder the resistance just to stay upright. I loved it! Riding fast was tremendously exhilarating. The bike did not stay upright even while parked, the kickstand was worn and loose, really more of a pivot point than a secure resting place. The bike fell over a lot. I eventually decided I wanted a heavier, more powerful and more reliable bike and parked my first motorcycle on the street in front of my house.

Back then, Andy lived with me and a few other roommates in a house in Seattle. Andy was working as a dishwasher in a diner to support his lifestyle as a writer. His girlfriend had just left town to attend grad school. Seeing poor Andy agonize over loosing his siren and muse, obviously anxious to go after her, it was suggested he take over my old bike to chase the girl. A few weeks later Andy handed over a paycheck in exchange for my piece of crap bike. He shoved the machine into the garage, disappearing for months.  The bike he rolled out of that garage was the prettiest damn piece of crap bike I had ever seen. He called her Rocinante after Don Quixote’s trusty steed.

After her epic voyage Rocinante was put to rest in a barn in Woodenville, Washington. The journey retold in Rustrocket did her in, she could go no further. It would take a lot of work to get her road worthy again, and by a lot of work I mean a new engine. Often riding a motorcycle is associated with being an economic transportation option. This could not be further from the truth, bikes are expensive to maintain, and like anything, when pushed beyond their limits the repairs can be costly. Being so much smaller than a car they tend to get stashed in corners and forgotten. I made the connections I needed to gain access to her so that I could make her portrait. I packed my photography studio kit into my car, and set out for lands beyond to reconnect with our bike.

When I arrived, Rocinante was wedged between a tractor and a family of four-wheelers, tucked in next to an RV.  She was furry with dust.  I rolled her out into the daylight and stood back, blinking at the transformation she had made through the years at Andy’s hand. The bike I rode had factory paint, chipped and rusted, but this bike was a beautiful work of art. Andy, while a talented writer, is also an exceptionally talented visual artist. His illustrations; painting and lettering skills were demonstrated on Rocinante’s tank. This bike spoke volumes of the person who rode her.  I pulled from my car a tub of polishing wipes and tried to clean off the dust for the photos I was about to take. Time and tough love had taken their toll on her.

I got to work setting up my lights, positioned my reflectors, put together my kit and set about directing the gaze of my lens upon Rocinante as if inspecting a pedigree for auction. As I worked, I considered how to approach photographing a vehicle in a way that would demonstrate an attention to detail as a photographer as well as a rider.

Susan Sontag states in her book On Photography, “Photography is often regarded as an instrument for knowing things… Cameras did not simply make it possible to apprehend more by seeing. They changed seeing itself, by fostering the idea of seeing for seeing sake.” (93). When I began as a photographer I did so for purely utilitarian purposes, mainly so that I could inspect details of an object closely and with sincere consideration. I have very bad eyesight. Having photos, especially digital photos, allows me to savor and learn from what I cannot see naturally. I approach all of my photography with this same basic idea. I am no longer looking at widgets or whatever tiny thing I couldn’t quite see, I usually train my camera on people. As a portrait photographer, when I sit with a person I look to reveal an essence of their personality, something, which might give away their character while still being respectful and dignified. Ms. Sontag also states, “Photography is an inventory of mortality.” (70).  Proof that we existed, that we were once young and handsome, accomplished, revered and loved; photographs are our memorials.

Contemplating how I would go about getting everything I could out of this photography session with the motorcycle. I would have only one chance to have access to it. I took hundreds of pictures, following her lines, looking for the right angle, trying to capture nuances, details, wear, character; proof of her existence as a daring adventuresome go getter. I worked at getting the shot that would capture her “motorcycleness” looking for the shot that would reveal the character of the man who rode her, the man who blindly followed his idea of love, taking this machine far beyond it’s capabilities by thousands of miles. When I looked at her with my camera, I really saw her. I reconnected with my friend who rode away from our house setting out on a stupid but honorable, passionate mission to get the girl and now lives in another state. He never came back (which would have you thinking he got the girl, I’ll leave you to the book for that detail).

When I was finished shooting. I stood looking at her, an impulse to ride her warmed me a little. I then remembered she is really just a pretty machine, not a capable one. I rolled her back into the corner of the barn, repositioning the farm equipment around her as I had found it. I hoped that I gave Rocinante due time in the light. I wondered; would the final images show off her character, would the final image grab readers without giving too much away? As much as Rustrocket is a coming of age story, it is very much a motorcycle story that I hope anybody who rides will love.

When I got back to my studio-office to process the images I had captured, I sought to find images that captured the spirit of stupid adventure. A few stood out from the pack, culling through hundreds of images is at first an easy job, the good ones jump out, with other images the “awesome” must be coaxed out of them, their composition is good but other things could stand a little elbow grease.  I edited a few and uploaded all of them to my client server then called Andy to sort through the rest together. Sharing an entire inventory of a shoot that demonstrates process felt like I had handed over my Artist’s Way journal to be read out loud.  I had read two manuscripts of Rustrocket so fair is fair I suppose.   As we looked at images, we talked a bit about the book.  The story bears a strong resemblance to his life; I asked if the book was a self-portrait.  God I love this guy, he told me, “Writing this book has been my way to stay out of the psychologist’s office. It’s my way of processing. Shifting the protagonist from ‘Andy’ to ‘Aaron’ allowed me to look back at my life objectively.”  I suppose that looking back through manuscripts to discover you’re a drunk lunatic is a bit off-putting. Quick change the names to protect the innocent!

He told me, “Everybody knows what it’s like to sit in a saloon, most everybody knows what it’s like to have a shitty job, but not everybody knows what it’s like to ride a motorcycle for thousands of miles.” This is when he told me he hoped he would encourage people to do stupid things. However, he said he had a better quote than that. “The best adventures of life have generally come from piss poor decisions.” My favorite quote of the book says it better. “And you know, the fucked up part is, in spite of my stupid, self destructive behavior, I’m still not dead yet.”  It is the way of our people.

The final image we settled on wraps the cover, it hints at “motorcycleness” without being obvious. It is a dark machine with beautiful characteristic details, which I think show off the bike itself as Rocinante, as well as the character of the man who rode her.


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